Maria Ressa ’86 is the CEO of Rappler, a news organization in the Philippines that has been lauded by journalists across the world for its incisive and critical reporting on the corruption of the President Rodrigo Duterte administration. Ressa has endured continued persecution in the Philippines, including currently facing seven counts of cyber libel. In 2021, she was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
On Saturday, Feb. 19, she was honored at Princeton Alumni Day with the Woodrow Wilson Award, the highest award an undergraduate alumni can receive. She had previously been nearly prevented from arriving to campus to receive the award by a court order in the Philippines. On Feb. 18, the day prior to the ceremony, Ressa took a trip to her former high school, Toms River High School North, in a visit coordinated by the University Office of Communications. A reporter for The Daily Princetonian accompanied her during the visit and sat down with her for an interview in the car ride back to Princeton.
This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
The Daily Princetonian: What does it mean to you to speak at your former high school and have the auditorium named after you in a few months?
Maria Ressa: It’s surreal — I like going back to Princeton because you walk in the steps of your old self. So this is a much younger, more insecure person whose shoes that I walked into. When I was trying to decide what I was going to do — I was tired of breaking news — I went back for a Ferris [Professor of Journalism position]. So coming back to high school was like stepping in the shoes of my high school self, when I was trying to figure out what to do with my life, and now coming back at 58 is kind of cool.
DP: Coming back to Princeton, and the Woodrow Wilson award... what does it mean to you to be back for Alumni Day?
MR: The Woodrow Wilson Award is better than a Nobel, for Princeton. But I fought really hard to come because of these two experiences. And [University Spokesperson] Ben [Chang] actually was the one who thought about my high school. I just wanted to come back to Princeton. I wanted to come back, and I really had to fight because we had to file for court approval.
I have seven charges, and I knew it was going to go to the last minute. I was supposed to leave on a Wednesday. On the Monday, I’m going, “I don’t know whether I can go or not.” This is where the process is the torture. My friends were asking me, “Are you going?” Princeton was already acting like I was a done deal. And I said, “I don’t have the last approval yet.” And then Wednesday, I get a court order that is a non-denial denial. Immediately, I filed a motion for reconsideration, and then thankfully, they granted it the next day. So it was like you can give up, which is what everyone thought — no one thought I’d be able to come. But we had a Zoom trial. And the Office of the Solicitor General was nasty, but my lawyer argued really well. And then at 5 p.m. — like 10 minutes before five, before the courts close — I get it granted.
The flight leaves at like seven; I had an hour to pack and an hour to get to the airport. And I got on the plane. I really wanted to come. But then the other part is I’m still running a company. And we’re 80 days before elections, and we’re rolling out tech. So I was working when I was on the plane.
DP: Do you ever take a break?
MR: This is a wonderful break. My life is like a roller coaster. Really, really high highs and really low lows. Nobel Prize, getting jailed, getting arrested, and then losing your freedom ... it could be worse. So I shouldn’t complain. But it was incredible. This is worth it.
DP: What inspired you to get started as a journalist all those years ago?
MR: I went home and after college, I applied to jobs — most of my classmates became consultants or bankers, and I went and got a fellowship back to the Philippines. And I did that for a year. I never moved back to the States. So I fell into journalism because I wanted to learn about the Philippines.
And it was an incredible time to be in the Philippines; it was right after the People Power Revolt. And then slowly, you realize you’re not really formed. Even though we have a senior thesis, we’re still growing up and you don’t know who you are. You live your way into the answers. And being a journalist was the best way that I learned because I was constantly learning. And I love that I can ask anyone questions and they answer.
DP: You said in your Nobel speech that hate and fear and misinformation is what’s profitable right now. So how can journalists both work against that and work within that kind of framework and still put out meaningful, quality journalism?
MR: First, before I answer: when you are rewarded for bad behavior, when you are rewarded for splintering people apart, for creating “us against them,” what kind of leadership are you creating? That’s the incentive scheme for leadership today.
And so how do journalists work in this environment? I think the commoditization of news began with the internet, when you began to give rewards for page views. A really good investigative piece doesn’t get read as much as the crappiest sensationalist piece, or the conspiracy theory that you heard and you can bolster it.
So here’s the other part: the person is never objective. One person sees the world from where they sit, so all of our views are different, but what makes the journalism objective is the process of a newsroom that makes sure that it is comprehensive and objective — there should be a new word. It’s not objective, but that process is expensive, and that’s the part that’s getting killed by social media’s model.
So what does that do? Bad journalism is rewarded. That’s what spreads fastest on social media. The mission of journalism, I think, has been eroded because the incentive schemes are wrong, just like the incentive schemes for leadership.
DP: How do you think we can use social media for good? Is there a way to use social media algorithms for good?
MR: Yes, you can, but it has to be completely redesigned. Right now, the design of social media rewards the incentives because they make money from it. So it’s, “how long can they keep you scrolling?” instead of “what if you reward explanations, or connections, or real engagement: redefine what engagement is?” You’ve heard the phrase, “code is opinion.” It’s like a dictator has come and changed the entire world’s incentive scheme — and it is the entire world. It goes all the way to governance. How does your generation think? It’s harder to think; it is harder to find meaning.
DP: What message do you think was sent to both fellow journalists and to governments around the world who are suppressing free press by you receiving the Nobel Peace Prize?
MR: That we’re not alone. For journalists globally, it really was a lift. For the Philippines and for Rappler, it’s vindication because we’ve been lambasted so much. Really, we’ve weathered a lot of attacks. For me, I wouldn’t call it vindication as much as it was a global acknowledgement that there’s something fundamentally wrong with our information ecosystem.
And then, when I looked and saw that the last time a journalist got it was Norman Angell, and he was in a concentration camp, I was like, “Oh, my God, the parallels are too big.” I had friends calling me, journalists, who were crying because it’s been so hard. Fighting for the facts and for the truth is not just the journalist’s job. You can’t leave us alone. If this matters to you, you need to jump in. I hope that’s the message.
DP: How do you stay so hopeful and so driven in the face of such adversity and fear?
MR: Because we’re creating what the world is and what it can become now. What we did in the Philippines was form a pyramid, right — four layers of how we’re going to protect the facts. And keep in mind, facts don’t spread on social media. Layer one is fact checkers. So for the first time, 14 or 15 news organizations are working together, doing fact checks that can be repurposed by every news group, and then sharing each other’s content on social media. The second layer, we call it the “mesh.” That’s civil society, NGOs, church, [and] business groups. We have a tech platform cutting through, so the data goes through all four layers. The third layer was patterned after the election integrity partnership in the U.S. but these are research groups — seven research groups that every week will come out with, “This is how you’re being manipulated this week.” We’re calling it #BreakTheTrend.
The fourth layer is law — that’s long been absent, right? The biggest thing wrong with the internet today is the impunity on the internet, the lack of rule of law. So that’s what the fourth layer is, strategic litigation and tactical litigation. Our fact checkers need help. Some of them are already getting subpoenaed. Volunteer lawyers are helping and the lawyers go from the left to the right — from corporate law, the Philippine Bar Association, the integrated bar in the Philippines, to the free legal assistance group.
So, that’s how we’re going to try to protect the facts. Will it work? Who knows. Should we try? Of course. Our democracy is at stake. It’s an existential moment.
DP: How as your status as a woman impacted both how you grew as a journalist and how you handle all of this adversity and oppression?
MR: I think it’s about how you think of strength. What is strength? It’s the oak versus the bamboo. So the oak looks so sturdy and strong. And then the bamboo looks flimsy and sways with each wind. But when you have a cyclone or a typhoon, [the oak’s] roots aren’t as strong. And so when a good cyclone comes, it’s ripped out. The bamboo has an extensive root system and sways with the wind. And it looks like it’s about to break, but it doesn’t break. And it just goes with the wind and springs right back up. I think about that sometimes as American and Asian. I mean, because the American idea of strength is like standing up in a forceful manner. But in countries like ours, it’s funny, I haven’t been aggressively pushing. I’ve just been claiming our rights and been holding the line. So I’m kind of like bamboo.
I think it’s because I’m a woman. I think it’s because I’m Asian. For me as a leader, it’s more about making everyone in your team feel like they are making the same decisions. Like here’s our North Star, and everyone will find their way to it. So to me, it’s about power. So being a woman is part of it. Like people think it’s a position of weakness, [and] it isn’t. It’s actually a great position of strength because empathy is everything. And I think it goes to these ideas that being a woman is a powerful gender — I think more powerful.
DP: Where have you experienced gendered violence [or] gendered discrimination in your work?
MR: Online. UNESCO came out with a report called “The Chilling” last year where they did a big data study. I really was relentlessly attacked, like 90 hate messages per hour. You either let it get to you, or you analyze it, and I analyze it; that was my way of coping with it. So it is gendered disinformation at scale, in a way that you cannot humanly deal with. And I’m not alone. Carole Cadwalladr is under extreme attack in the U.K. because she broke the Cambridge Analytica story [and] because she challenges power. So it’s a setback [for] women journalists, women politicians.
Madeleine Albright at the [National Democratic Institute] six years ago was pointing out that women politicians in the United States were getting attacked so much that they were opting out. So you’re losing female journalists, you’re losing female politicians, because of social media. Here’s the other part: because of the incentive structures of social media, it brings out the worst of human nature including sexism, racism, misogyny. That is not normal, but it is encouraged. It is like throwing fuel to the fire. So your generation has your work cut out for you.
DP: What advice would you have for student journalists right now?
MR: Your advantage over the old journalists like me is that you’re digital natives. You have to learn. You have to understand that and look at the best of what it can be and then avoid the worst. Your challenge is going to be to stick to the standards of ethics of journalism, to the mission. Journalists need to learn technology; it needs to go hand in hand. This is one of my biggest challenges even inside Rappler. If news organizations were able to do half of the stuff that [tech platforms] could, we would do it better because at least we’d have standards — we wouldn’t allow the lies. Our greed wouldn’t be as large as the tech platforms. The challenge is there.
But you know, crisis is opportunity. Journalists have a great opportunity to rise to this challenge. I hate it when people call us content creators because the key trait of a journalist is courage. The mission is to hold power to account. And power doesn’t just smile when you ask them questions they don’t like. That’s why I think journalists are special.
Katherine Dailey is a Head News Editor who often covers breaking news, politics, and University affairs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @kmdailey7