Fighting Mr Fake
These days Maria Ressa, executive editor and CEO of Rappler, goes around the streets of Manila with police escorts. You can tell if she’s in her office by the police cars parked outside the tower block in the eastern part of Metro Manila.
At one point extra guards were also posted inside Rappler’s busy third-floor office. After President Rodrigo Duterte came into power in 2016, the online news outfit received threats from his supporters.
The Duterte administration has tried everything in its power to discredit his critics. In Rappler’s case it’s harder due to the credibility the outlet has earned since its launch in 2012. Also, Ressa is something of a legend in the media world. She was Manila bureau chief of CNN for nearly two decades before setting up Rappler, and broke key stories on international terrorist links.
But the Duterte administration is relentless in its attacks. It has revoked Rappler’s incorporation papers, ordered an investigation into alleged cyber libel and tax payments, branded the organization a peddler of ‘fake news’ and banned its designated reporter from entering the presidential palace.
Catapulted to power in July 2016, Duterte has flourished in the shadow of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Trumpeting his love for his country, Duterte is charming, down-to-earth but also thin-skinned and does not hesitate to use everything in his power to silence his foes.
Last year his department of justice put his toughest critic, Senator Leila de Lima, behind bars for alleged involvement in illegal drugs. She is still there.
Her imprisonment sent a chilling message to his critics, but not everyone was cowed. Rappler continued to publish critical stories.
It was among the first to report on Duterte’s bloody ‘war on drugs’ by showing the victims of extra-judicial killings – the men, women and children who claimed innocence, and even the guilty who cried for ‘due process’ because there was none.
Rappler’s multimedia reports caught the attention of the foreign press and human rights organizations, which portrayed Duterte for what he is – a leader with total disregard for human rights.
Early this year, Rappler and the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a Manila broadsheet, published a story about special assistant and long-time friend to the president, Christopher ‘Bong’ Go.
According to the report, Go was improperly involved in a $286 million warship procurement deal. This story, which resulted in a Senate investigation, was a big blow to Duterte who had fought on an anti-corruption platform.
Fake news and presidential lies
Duterte branded the story ‘fake’ and called Rappler’s reporting malicious and baseless.
He also banned Rappler’s palace reporter, Pia Ranada, from entering the premises. Rappler stood by its story and pointed out that Go was unable to challenge the authenticity of the documents cited in its report.
While the president accuses others of peddling fake news, he himself has been caught telling brazen lies, over and over.
Last year, he admitted making up a claim that his staunch critic Senator Antonio Trillanes IV had unexplained wealth in a foreign bank in Singapore. ‘This is nothing, this is just a product of my imagination,’ Duterte said in September 2017.
He also lied about his family background.
In response to an allegation that he had $38 million in unexplained wealth, the president said his family was not poor because his father Vicente Duterte had been a governor of Davao. This is in stark contrast to earlier claims to have been born into a poor family and of growing up ‘in the slums’.
Duterte’s relaxed attitude towards truth-telling is compounded by heavy use of social media. He depended on it for his electoral win. Facebook partnered with Duterte right from the start. In January 2016, six months before the election, Facebook flew in three employees to spend a week holding training sessions with candidates, including Duterte.
‘After his team got that Facebook briefing, his allies went into overdrive, pushing fake news and accounts along with his other wider campaigns,’ according to an MSNBC report.
Ressa and her team found out that the messages being posted consistently linked back to pro-Duterte pages. They put all these accounts into a database, which grew rapidly as they began automating the collection of information, scraping Facebook pages and other public sites. This database is called the Shark Tank and it now contains more than 12 million accounts that have created or distributed pro-Duterte messages. Presidential campaign manager Nic Gabunada claims the posts were done by real people and not by bots, but many industry sources say the accounts were fake.
Duterte’s social media campaign has continued throughout his presidency.
Ressa herself was not spared from his social media attacks.
In October 2016, Ressa published ‘Propaganda War: Weaponizing the Internet,’ an article on how the Duterte administration has used the internet to spread fake news and alter the truth.
She and her team received a deluge of hate messages after this was published, including ‘I want Maria Ressa to be raped repeatedly to death’. She was getting as many as 90 such messages per hour.
Ressa had to send her social media team to counselling. An ‘UnfollowRappler’ campaign led to Rappler losing 52,000 – about one per cent – of its Facebook followers.
On 11 January 2018, on the instigation of President Duterte, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the official regulator, revoked Rappler’s corporate registration.
The SEC said Rappler violated the constitutional foreign ownership rules because of funds from Omidyar Network, a company owned by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. The SEC ordered the revocation of Rappler’s certificate of incorporation and the Omidyar Philippine Depository Receipts (PDRs).
PDRs are instruments which give foreign investors a passive economic interest in a Philippine company. They do not indicate ownership, Rappler maintains.
In an interview with New Internationalist, Rappler managing editor Glenda Gloria said:
‘We are tired of having to deal with these baseless attacks and flimsy cases lodged against us. Life used to be much simpler – telling stories, engaging your readers, making the business grow. Now we have to sit down with lawyers to try to make sense of these complaints that do not make sense. But we are also inspired by the support we have been receiving from our community. We walk on the streets or get stuck in elevators and are greeted by strangers who say they support Rappler,’ she said.
Journalism has never been an easy profession in the Philippines. ‘I always say that the Philippines is a tough country to love,’ said Gloria. ‘As a college student, I saw how Marcos clamped down on the press and jailed journalists. Under Estrada, I was news editor of a newspaper that he forced to close and sell to a crony. As an editor of an investigative magazine, I received death threats and our reporters had to deal with all sorts of harassment.
‘The difference under Duterte is that technology has weaponized harassment and has made it easier for autocrats to promote propaganda and intimidate critical voices. Reputational attack is fatal to a journalist who has built his or her credibility over years of hard work. Social media has made it easy for anyone to bring down a name and rip apart a journalist through propaganda. That is akin to killing the journalist, when you attack their reputation and peddle lies against them. That is the struggle we are caught with now – hate, anger and lies.’
Journalists in the Philippines must hold the line and continue to write better stories, she added. ‘Choose topics that are relevant and do not settle for the sensational or the clickbait stories. Be open to criticism, always strive to be the best. Stay sober and rise above the noise.’
In spite of all the attacks against the organization, Rappler will continue to do what it does best – to tell stories, to tell the truth. In Duterte’s regime, Rappler is the little boy who cried, ‘The Emperor has no clothes!’
Gloria added: ‘With the help of its community, Rappler hopes to outlast presidents.’
Iris Gonzales is a Filipina journalist who writes regularly for New Internationalist.
Homepage and mobile banner image: Maria Ressa. Photo by Paul Papadimitriou (CC 2.0).