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‘How to Stand Up to a Dictator’ is an important warning about misinformation

Photo of the cover of Maria Ressa's book, How to Stand Up to a Dictator. Cover is a photo of Ressa color-corrected to blue overlaid in with title in large white text.
Ivy Chen / The Daily Princetonian

“How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future” by Maria Ressa ’86 is one-part indictment of the role played by social media in spreading misinformation, one-part call to action in support of journalism in the face of right-wing populist regimes, and one-part personal memoir. Ressa traces her path from student to reporter to co-founder and CEO of the Filipino news company Rappler. Even when faced with online attacks and legal intimidation, she never wavers in her convictions, delivering a passionate argument for the importance of journalism and truth in fighting the erosion of democracy. 

Ressa, awarded the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for her work defending freedom of expression and exposing abuse of power, was born in the Philippines. At the age of ten, she left for the United States, where she eventually attended Princeton, graduating in 1986. Her senior playwriting thesis drew an allegory between her family history and the state of politics in Philippines, where the People Power demonstrations had ousted the dictator Ferdinand Marcos earlier that year. Ressa describes the writing process as her “own private exorcism,” stating that it gave her “a deeper sense that what’s personal is political” (p. 34).


The play was only the beginning of a long journey of pursuing the truth that would take Ressa back to the Philippines. After stints at the People’s Television 4 station, CNN, and ABS-CBN, she co-founded Rappler, describing her vision as the convergence of “investigative journalism, technology, and community.” At Rappler, a series reporting on the Duterte administration’s weaponization of the internet sparked attacks from the government. 

Each chapter focuses on a distinct challenge of Ressa’s life, from watching artificial online bandwagons tear down her credibility to facing repeated arrest warrants to being convicted for a story she hadn’t written. By laying out informative accounts of corruption and misinformation alongside explanations of how she and Rappler fight back, as well as more personal reflections, Ressa creates a work that both educates and moves.

Ressa expertly imbues “How to Stand Up to a Dictator” with her values. In a passionate narrative voice, she lays out the principles she lives by: honesty, vulnerability, empathy, thinking rationally, standing up for justice, believing in the good. From childhood playground lessons to a hostage situation, these through lines serve as the heart of the story, underlying every decision made.

Particularly revelatory is Ressa’s damning indictment of Facebook for its facilitation of the spread of misinformation and undermining of journalism. In well-researched, methodical detail, Ressa uncovers a history of systematic manipulation, describing how Facebook commodifies human data and allows politicians’ propaganda machines to thrive. 

Even when delving into the technical, Ressa writes with a clear, firm logic, making the topic at hand easily understandable. She discusses how Facebook’s friends-of-friends algorithm inevitably causes radicalization, with clicking on one borderline conspiracy theory bringing the user to another more radical piece. She also explores how us-against-them rhetoric distorts facts and destroys public trust, such as the Duterte administration’s armies of planted comments, which resulted in a wave of venom against journalists and anyone who questioned the government. 

The flip side of Ressa’s detailed explanations is that the book can at times feel a little pedantic and repetitive, with phrases like “seeded metanarratives” and “collective action.” It’s also occasionally clumsy: moments like childhood lessons on bullying can read trite, and meditations on the Golden Rule  feel slightly clichéd. It’s in the less explicitly articulated pieces that Ressa is best able to demonstrate such messages: the book is most effective when Ressa allows her beliefs to come across organically, through depictions of actionable efforts like her #FactsFirstPH news accountability movement. 


Another instance of this idea can be seen in the memoir’s more emotional side. Where Ressa’s overt statements on the importance of vulnerability don’t necessarily resonate deeply, what truly hits home are the scenes that show rather than tell: Ressa’s unguarded expressions of fear and doubt amidst her arrests humanize her strength and make her decision to stay in the Philippines even more powerful. One of the most impactful sequences is about Ressa’s late friend Twink Macaraig; the quietly emotional tribute echoes her message of the need to live meaningfully. 

The book is also valuable because of the context where Ressa situates her message. Social media has shifted the information landscape: now, personalized news feeds present individuals with different realities. But, as Ressa argues, “all these realities have to coexist in the public sphere. You can’t tear us apart to the point that we don’t agree on facts.” This extends to the United States, where social media bubbles exacerbate political polarization. 

Take TikTok, for instance. I deleted the app two years ago after noticing that it felt like I was losing hours scrolling. It can often lean into the worst of online behavior — face-value judgments, mob mentality in the comments. I remember, years earlier, laughing with my friends at conspiracy theories on their parents’ Facebook accounts. It’s less easy to be amused now. Anyone who’s read Twitter arguments knows how potent an echo chamber can be, or how difficult it is to change the mind of someone who’s closed theirs off. 

Ressa puts what I’ve long felt uncomfortable about into words, supported by evidence and data. The consequences of the co-opting of algorithmic weaknesses will be something we contend with in the near future: think the January 6th attack on the Capitol and Stop the Steal, or the QAnon conspiracy theory that went from fringe to mainstream (even in the online response to a recent movie) or harmful anti-vaccine hoaxes traced to just a few sources. The further we drift, the more difficult it becomes to bring everyone back to a common reality. 

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As an admitted student “How to Stand Up to a Dictator” also resonates as a pre-read, due in large part to the chapter Ressa includes on her time at Princeton. The University receives shoutouts in mentions of Blair Arch and Firestone Library, but most impactful is Ressa’s reference to the Honor Code: the idea that “you are responsible not just for yourself but also for the world around you, your area of influence” (p. 28).  

This idea is mirrored much later on, when, upon being asked why she chooses to return to the Philippines, Ressa says, “I run Rappler; I am responsible for a company. If I get scared and leave, who will bear the brunt of all of the attacks?” (p. 209). In a compelling manner, her perspective turns the Honor Code from an academic promise to a tenet one might live by: accountability to those more vulnerable than her.

Ressa is an inspiring figure, one whose determination and belief in the responsibility we have to the world and one another shines through her writing. These values, alongside vital warnings and accounts of Ressa’s own efforts in defending journalism and personal freedoms, all converge to create a relevant and valuable read for incoming first-years looking to navigate the years to come.

Ivy Chen is an incoming first-year and a contributing writer for The Prospect. She can be reached at