“The conviction of Maria Ressa is a travesty. This entire case is a brazen attempt to silence her news organization and should be considered an affront to freedom and democracy itself. It is vital we value and protect the independence of media organizations and journalists around the world. The United States Congress has recently condemned the Philippine government’s harassment of Ressa and we encourage global leaders and the press community to make it clear this absolutely cannot be tolerated.”
The year 2020 will be a tipping point year for media companies. This is the year in which journalists must fight the battle for truth, according to Maria Ressa, CEO of Rappler, a digital news organization based in Manila, the Philippines.
“What we do this year – not just in the Philippines, but all around the world and especially in the United States – will determine whether or not the whole world walks into a cycle of fascism. We’ve been here before. What we do now matters.”
Ressa – who has been the target of persecution in her country – offered these comments as part of a recorded statement presented to attendees of DCN Next: Summit at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Miami, Florida on January 15.
In her statement, Ressa expressed gratitude to DCN CEO Jason Kint, the DCN Board of Directors, and the members of DCN for supporting her cause and helping her to “shine the light” through journalistic endeavors.
“That really is the only weapon that journalists have,” noted Ressa. “What we’ve lived through in the Philippines…our dystopian present is your dystopian future. This is it, the battle for truth.”
The DCN Board of Directors issued a statement (included below) supporting House and Senate Resolutions calling on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to end his political persecution of Ressa and Senator Leila de Lima.
“Healthy democracies thrive with vigorous political discourse and a free, independent press,” noted the statement.
On, the question of whether there exists a line between journalism and activism, Ressa said that “in the battle of truth, journalism becomes activism. This is a hard-fought lesson we have learned in the Philippines.”
Popular populist authoritarian-style leaders are getting elected throughout the world. “Just like they had a dictator’s playbook, they lie,” she said. “A lie told a million times becomes a fact. Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without all three, democracy as we know it is dead.”
Ressa referenced her own experience when in 2018, the Philippine government investigated Rappler in at least 11 cases. “In 2019, I was arrested…not once, but twice,” she said. “I posted bail eight times.”
Ressa – who in 2018 was named by Time magazine as one of several journalists honored as Persons of the Year – spoke of her experiences at the 2019 DCN Summit in Orlando, Florida – just before one of her arrests. She also made the 2019 TIME 100 List as one of the most year’s most influential people.
The relevance of her travails extends to journalists everywhere. Because, as she said, the “the enabler for all of this is technology. And technology is in the hands of American social media companies,” said Ressler.
“Facebook is our internet” she said. “Where Facebook goes, the Philippines goes. The weaponization of social media was followed by the weaponization of the law. This is what’s happened to the gatekeepers, right? And when the gatekeepers move from the journalists to technologists… lies spread faster than facts.”
Official Statement from the
DCN Board of Directors
“We applaud Senators Edward Markey and Marco Rubio along with Senators Marsha Blackburn, Christopher Coons and Richard Durbin who introduced Senate Resolution 142. We also applaud Representative Jackie Speier along with Representatives Henry Johnson, Jamie Raskin, Brad Sherman and Lloyd Doggett who introduced House Resolution 233.
Both resolutions call on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to end his political persecution of Senator Leila de Lima and journalist Maria Ressa, founder and CEO of Rappler, a digital news organization based in Manila. Healthy democracies thrive with vigorous political discourse and a free, independent press.” —DCN Board of Directors
To reinforce our support of a free press everywhere, DCN is pleased to share the video of Ressa’s statement:
“Termites [are] eating at the credibility that you have as news organizations. Those termites are coming from from geopolitical power plays.”– Rappler CEO and Time Person of the Year, Maria Ressa at DCN Next: Summit
On January 29th, at the 2019 DCN Next: Summit, Rappler CEO Maria Ressa outlined the role social media and concerted, well-orchestrated disinformation campaigns played in perpetuating false information and media distrust in the Philippines, as well as attacks aimed at Rappler.
She then went on to have a wide-ranging discussion examining the various pressures on media credibility (and safety) worldwide with interviewer extraordinaire Kara Swisher, Co-founder of Recode.
Less than two weeks later, on Wednesday, February 13 at 5 p.m. local time in Manila, plainclothes officers from the National Bureau of Investigation, an agency within the Department of Justice, arrested Ressa on charges of cyber libel. As Ressa wrote in a statement: “We are not intimidated. No amount of legal cases, black propaganda, and lies can silence Filipino journalists who continue to hold the line. These legal acrobatics show how far the government will go to silence journalists, including the pettiness of forcing me to spend the night in jail.”
The Board of Directors of Digital Content Next (DCN), a trade association representing nearly 80 high-quality media companies, said, “The arrest of Maria Ressa is deeply troubling. Maria traveled to the U.S. to share her developing story with our members only two weeks ago. It is vital we value and protect the independence of media organizations and journalists around the world. Any effort to silence journalists or use intimidation to reduce their reporting is an affront to freedom. We encourage global leaders and the press community to make it clear this cannot be tolerated.”
In light of Ressa’s arrest, and to reinforce our support of a free press everywhere, DCN is pleased to share the video of Ressa and Swisher’s interview (full transcript below):
Learn more about supporting Rappler.
And, for those who would like to show support for Rappler and Ressa’s work, she has provided a link to their crowdfunding page.
Below, we’ve shared a full transcript of Ressa’s conversation with Swisher.
Alexandra Roman: [00:00:00] I am truly honored to introduce this next conversation interviewer extraordinaire Recode’s Kara Swisher. She’ll be speaking with a very special person in our world these days. Named Time magazine’s Person of the year as one of the guardians of journalism, please welcome the CEO of Rappler, Maria Ressa.
Kara Swisher: [00:00:33] So we’re going to start…first Maria is going to make a presentation then we’re gonna have a full fantastic discussion. Maria was on my podcast recently. It was, it was an amazing experience for me and I’m so glad she’s here and safe in the United States right now. We’ll be talking about that more. But first Maria go ahead.
Maria Ressa: [00:00:52] So I like that Jason [Kint, CEO of DCN] talked about trust. And this is stuff I’ll show to you from our perspective in the Philippines because it’s got the data to prove the thesis and then I think you guys are not quite… I think you’re not seeing the termites eating at the the credibility that you have as news organizations and those termites are coming from geopolitical power plays. We go back to information is power and with that that let me show you what’s happened in the Philippines.
January last year, there were two surveys that came up exactly the same time but they’re almost complete opposite results. The top is real world Pew Global Attitudes Survey: How do Filipinos look at traditional media? And they came back they said 86 percent think traditional media is and the right quote is “fair and accurate.” But the Philippine trust index, which is part of the Edelman Trust survey, they came out with a survey that same month a year ago. And they asked people on social media and they came out with 83 percent “distrust traditional media.” Right. So how did that happen? We tried to figure out why is the world upside down? That’s really the question right. Why is the world upside down?
We have a database that we started gathering in July of 2016 when the when the drug war began in the Philippines because the attacks all came on social media. In our case it’s Facebook. But this is a timeline of attacks on traditional media. And in Rappler because we were the main focal point for a period of time, [which] started January 2015 and then moving to April 2017. January 2016 was when the campaigns began and the social media machine of then Mayor Duterte. He Was elected to office May 2016. You see that one? And you can see the fracture line Byaran means corrupt. Bias. So Bayaran is the one in the middle. The first long line and bias is the last one. If you look at that it’s a fracture line of society right.
There were mentions before but it was constantly pounded until it became a straight line after president Duterte was elected the weaponization of social media happened after he was elected because it was repeatedly pounded until it became fact. A lie told a million times its truth.
Right. So, then what happened? Here: This This is the database I was telling you about right? We call it The Shark Tank. The one on your left is the URLs that are spreading fake news in the Philippines. The middle column are the court the Facebook pages that are spreading that page. And I always look at the average reposting time which is the one all the way to your… my right, sorry it’s flipped.
I want to show you when the real attacks began against Rappler and it was after we came out with a three-part series on the weaponization of social media. It was October 2016. I went to Facebook with the data August 2016. So, October 2016 this is what it looked like. In October 2016, if it’s more than 10 times reposting, it turns red, You can see how it turned red. This Facebook page Sally Might Die accomplished its goals by April 2017. It’s been deleted from Facebook but you can see … This was something we created for our social media team so that you can see it’s a cut and paste account. And they post; look at how many times they post in one day! Each one of those squares is just one day. And this is where they post the groups. They posted to go viral in the campaign pages of Duterte it and Marcos, the son of former President Ferdinand Marcos.
oneI’m going to just show you the last thing which is how can we figure out who’s attacking us. Well you can gather the data and it looks like this but if you put it in a network map, It looks like this. This is the network that was attacking Vice President Leonie Robredo about a year ago and it is the same network that constantly attacks me, Rappler, and every traditional media. It is so systematic that the content creators of the network are broken down by demographic. For the Motherland, it is pseudo-intellectual and tries to target the one percent but pseudo-intellectual. The middle class is targeted by thinking Pinoy and the mass base is this Moka Olsen blog who is former singer dancer. They used to use to build her Facebook page by having it like she has a singing group called the Mocha Girls and they do pillow fights every Sunday. That was how they first built her Facebook page. Then she became the head of social media for the presidential palace and it became a whole other thing.
Anyway, you can see this is what attacks what attacks journalists systematically. And it happens so many times. I just want to show you one last thing which is something we did for Rappler. Natural Language Processing to pull out. So, we looked at the entire Lexis Nexis right to try to figure out … What do we need to learn? What Is the data telling us about the articles that were written about us at the time when I was about to come home for bail to file bail? Yeah, I had an arrest warrant then.
Right. So, the Philippines wrote 34 percent of the stories. The United States wrote 27 percent. You guys are a potent a potent force for us. But what was most interesting is that the Filipino stories are part of the reason it’s in a line like this is because they essentially just regurgitated the press release of the Department of Justice. It was the American news organizations that talked about it as a Duterte rights crackdown. That wrote about it in context. That was an amazing thing. I want to leave you with sorry I don’t know what wrong thing, I think. I want to move forward. I want to leave you with this information warfare. Yeah, I guess this is the right one.
So, with information warfare I’m going to bring it to to Russia. Dezinformatsiya. This was really interesting because. For Duterte to end the drug war. Sorry about that my slides were. OK so… I don’t know if you remember Yuri Andropov. He was the former KGB Chairman. This quote stuck with me because it fit the Philippines. Dezinformatsiya works like cocaine. If you sniff once or twice it may not change your life. If you use it everyday though it will make you into an addict. A different man. I think this is the impact on our democracies and we’ve seen it.
The first reports came out in November of 2017 saying that cheap armies on social media are rolling back democracies all around the world. And at that point it was something like 28 countries. By last year, it was 48 countries. It’s doubling. We started looking at Ukraine to try to understand how we can use the data the way Ukraine started fighting back. It is information warfare. It is political. It is about power and the money part of it … or the people who are actually or who are actually catering to the politicians. Russia backed Facebook post, this was November of 2017, this is the first time that I saw Americans really starting to look at it. But even when I saw this ok they reached 126 million Americans. I think what people missed is it happens all the time. It wasn’t just ads, it was it’s all the time …
I talk about termites. This bot is interesting to me because it tweeted about U.S. elections. First, remember the Philippine election of Duterte was one month before Brexit. After Brexit, there were U.S. elections and then the Catalan elections. This little bot Ivan tweeted about all of those. So, we found him from the Catalan elections. And when I’ve looked at his account, it was specifically only tweeting about the Philippines. When we posted this story, within 24 hours Twitter took his network down.
On Facebook, this is the last part I want to show you, the most recent thing that I found fascinating. In December, two groups came out with reports based on data that was given to the US Senate Intelligence Committee. This is the chart that is from new knowledge. And this thing at the bottom, I want to show you the connection between the Philippines and that chart. It’s this: So we tend to map the networks around us. Let me just. Try to get this so that you can see it. There. This is the attack network. Not connecting.
OK. So, this attack network was from November. Sorry it’s frozen. There. Yay. OK. November 8, December 7th. This network. And you know what I used to map the network is this free tool called Flourish. It’s a startup. This is little Rappler. And what’s so interesting and this is where I will make the pitch that I don’t think we have any other choice but to actually collaborate together. Rappler is here. This, all of this, is a disinformation network that’s attacking us and you can kind of literally see it right.
But what’s so interesting is in the Philippines this overshadows the information landscape. The traditional media groups are so set aside they’re desperate. I’ve been trying for the last two years to get our top television networks our newspapers to work together like retweet re share each other so that we can rise up together in the algorithms. We refuse to do it because people think it’s competitive. But you know what? You’re competing against disinformation not against each other now.
I want to show you this because and I’ll end with this one… so this disinformation network is so interesting right. But this is the most fascinating one. When we saw this, I was surprised because this was created a year ago. It’s only one year old the daily sentry dot net. And yet the larger the circle, the larger the eigenvector centrality, the more powerful the account is. This is exponential pushes behind it. What’s interesting about it is that this is the first time we saw a direct connection to the Russian disinformation landscape because daily century dot net uses experts in quotes from this network. Sorry I can’t I can’t do the thing but on that chart there is an American man who who’s often interviewed by our de Sputnik by Iranian television … His name is Adam Gary. He is now an expert who’s popping into the Philippine ecosystem. He came in through the Daily Century and he’s from the Daily Century and he jumped into traditional newspapers from there. There’s a direct link to him because he writes for Global Research dot ca a group in Canada and connected to two other groups: one is Eurasian affairs dot net here. Another site both of whom come from a Russian IP address.
All that data in the chart came from the data that was given to the Senate Intelligence Committee and published last December. This is what’s happening in my country. I think you’re finding out what’s happening in yours. But I think we’re only a small case study of what is happening globally and that scares me.
Kara Swisher: [00:14:13] OK. All right. So, how was prison? [laughter] No really. How was prison?
Maria Ressa: [00:14:20] I, oh, I hope I won’t get there but you know…
Kara Swisher: [00:14:25] You were arrested. Explain what happened to you? We we did a podcast and I said you should not go back to the Philippines because you will be arrested. And what happened.
Maria Ressa: [00:14:32] Of course I went back. Right. But I wasn’t arrested. OK. I thought I would be so our lawyers told me … My flight arrived on Sunday night at 9:30 p.m. The court, which is supposed to be an all night court, well it closes at 9:00 p.m. So, if they had picked me up that night I couldn’t have filed bail until Monday morning when courts opened. In the Philippines, if you have an arrest warrant you’re not told you have an arrest warrant. They just come get you. I came I went home and I was I wasn’t going to change anything and it went OK. I filed bail. I I filed bail once I filed. I posted bail five times actually in that week.
Kara Swisher: [00:15:16] But to be. And you weren’t actually arrested.
Maria Ressa: [00:15:18] No I wasn’t arrested. I wasn’t arrested.
Kara Swisher: [00:15:20] Please explain to everyone here who doesn’t know why they [are going to] arrest you. What are the charges?
Maria Ressa: [00:15:26] Well charges are ludicrous. Tax evasion. It’s really one event, the same event, that I have four other cases of. They’re alleging, the government is alleging, that I am working for, well, that Rappler is owned by Americans one and that I am essentially working for them to take down the government. Very Putin-esque. None of that is true. And then on top of that, the arrest warrant came from taking that same charge: the investment instrument that we used, which was constitutional. They then decided that… we didn’t pay the right taxes. And the reason why they said we didn’t pay the right taxes was because they reclassified Rappler into a stock brokerage agency.
Kara Swisher: [00:16:16] Rather than a journalist.
Maria Ressa: [00:16:17] Rather than a newsgroup.
Kara Swisher: [00:16:18] Right.
Maria Ressa: [00:16:19] And that’s what I have to post bail for.
Kara Swisher: [00:16:21] The reason I’m asking what this is I want people to understand how people can use social media to create trumped up charges and then arrest you for them arrest you for it.
Maria Ressa: [00:16:32] Well it is interesting that you said that because all of these charges. I laughed off because they first appeared on social media. And they were thrown at me. CIA you’re a foreigner. I am a dual citizen. But, all of that. Like termites you know they just came at it and then a year and a half later it comes out of President Duterte’s mouth during the State of the Nation address. He said that you are a journalist; I’m covering the State of the Nation address. And then President Dutertet says look at Rappler: They are American. So, then I just tweeted back. President, no we’re not owned by Americans.
Kara Swisher: [00:17:12] Right, right. So, let’s talk about the state. Well, last we talked you, you made a very passionate plea to Facebook to do something about what’s happening. What you’re showing here is essentially organized disinformation campaigns to pull you down because you’re doing critical coverage of the president in the Philippines. And so they’re employing a very slow moving but powerful network to do so and using in the Philippines as you said most people get their news at not just the Philippines but across the world from Facebook. This is the purveyor of news. And these malevolent forces have created pages and news organizations and fake organizations to try to battle that. Talk a little bit about that. About what where you are right now because at the time. You were sort of subject to the biggest news organization attacking you being used to attack you.
Maria Ressa: [00:18:06] OK. So I think that there’s a whole information ecosystem that has been manufactured and it is manufactured reality. And we went down to a point where we were looking at you know how how powerful is it really. We manually counted the impact of 26 fake accounts. 26 fake accounts can actually reach up to three million other accounts in the Philippines and it wasn’t we were the first targets because we expose them. I was so naive.
You know, I thought wow we can just do a hashtag no place for hate campaign and people will come back because you think these are real people. They Are not. And after we did that, we became the target. And as you saw in the first slide it’s not just us it is traditional media because the main goal is to kill any trust in any institution that can that can push back.
All we have done is challenge impunity. Impunity here in information warfare and impunity in the drug war. You don’t know how many people have been killed in the Philippines during this drug war because they keep changing the numbers. At most recent count the Philippine police will admit to killing 5,000 people. Even that number alone is huge compared to the fact that 3,200 were killed in nine years of Marcos rule. Right. But. There’s this other number they never rule out. It’s the homicide cases under investigation and there are 30,000 people who’ve been killed there. So, If you think about it since July 2016 you can have more than it is tens of thousands. Thirty five thousand. I know the way they parse the number and I’m even cautious in the way I tell you how many people have been killed.
Kara Swisher: [00:19:58] So what they’re doing is trying to use social media to stop you from writing about them.
Maria Ressa: [00:20:03] Not just trying to use it they’ve used it effectively. iI think this is the first the first weapon it’s a new tool against journalists and against truth. And part of the reason we’re having a crisis of trust is because this is global.
Kara Swisher: [00:20:17] Right. So, talk a little bit about your efforts with Facebook to do this initially. You ran into Mark Zuckerberg and told him about this.
Maria Ressa: [00:20:28] F8 April 2017. There was a small group of us who had lunch together. It was founders groups of companies that were working with Facebook and I invited him to come to the Philippines because I said you know you have no idea how powerful Facebook is. Ninety-seven percent of Filipinos who are on the Internet are on Facebook. We’re 100 million people. And he was frowning and I was going so why are you frowning. And he just said, “Maria what are the other three percent doing?”[laughter]. We laughed: huh.
Kara Swisher: [00:21:05] Ah. Ha. Ha. That’s how the board talks. But go ahead.
Maria Ressa: [00:21:09] But that’s when you realize that that they didn’t understand their impact. What they understood was their goal. And so I think now that’s changed.
Kara Swisher: [00:21:21] Right. So they did that and then you brought this information to them. What happened initially?
Maria Ressa: [00:21:27] Nothing. You know by the time Mark Zuckerberg was in Congress for me everything that you guys were finding out here is you know “been there done that.” We’ve talked about this. I feel like Cassandra, you know. I’ve talked to maybe more than 50 different officers and friends inside Facebook.
But we’re the Philippines and maybe people think you know you’re out there. But, when He appeared in Congress and he said it would take five years to fix this with AI. I was like you can’t do five years. Because In the global South in my countries in Myanmar Sri Lanka and the Philippines every day that it isn’t fixed means people die… I think they’re getting it. I think partly your coverage you know the 2018 has spotlighted this but I don’t think enough because it’s still being used.
The good thing is there have been take downs take downs of Russian networks, Iranian networks, they’ve been to take downs in the Philippines. The most recent take down was about three weeks ago of a network we identified and did a story on 13 months earlier. You know so it’s a little too little too late but you know what. I will take everything because at least it cleans it up. But the fundamental problem is that. our gatekeeping power …
So, we used to create [and] distribute the news and when we distributed the news we’re the gatekeepers. Now that power has gone to the social media platforms. Facebook is now the world’s largest distributor of news and yet it has refused to be the gatekeeper. And when it does that when you allow lies to actually get on the same playing field as facts, it taints the entire public sphere. And it’s like introducing toxic sludge in the mix. And this I think that’s the fundamental problem. They have to actually at some point say take down the lies instead of allowing it to spread.
Kara Swisher: [00:23:33] So what do you face when you go there and say you need to take down these lies? Tell me what happens or how are they now working with you.
Maria Ressa: [00:23:41] It’s it’s significantly different now. And that’s part of the reason.
Kara Swisher: [00:23:46] Well they’re very sorry now. But they’re very very sorry and also very very very sorry.
Maria Ressa: [00:23:53] I think they’re starting to understand what they’ve done. And I think they’ve started to hire the right people. In January of 2017, Nathaniel Glaser who was in charge of counterterrorism in the Obama White House. You know he was hired and shortly after that, well took a while, because this is a manual effort right? Tracking these networks down like counterterrorism requires somebody like a law enforcement official to go look for them. And so that’s part of the reason you see the takedown start starting to happen. I think it goes. The main thing that they have to do is to go to the content moderation system that they’ve put in place.
Kara Swisher: [00:24:39] Right.
Maria Ressa: [00:24:40] As journalists we have values and principles. We call it the standards and ethics manual. As tech people they tried to atomized it into a checklist and then this checklist goes to content moderators in — you know the two largest for a long period of time we’re in Warsaw and Manila.
Kara Swisher: [00:25:01] Right.
Maria Ressa: [00:25:02] And in Manila … I don’t know if you saw the movie, it was done by..
Kara Swisher: [00:25:06] The Cleaners?
Maria Ressa: [00:25:08] The Cleaners, right. And in that one you can see that that these content moderators who barely make you know minimum wage here in the States but they they have seconds to decide whether to delete or whether to let content stay. And if they just go by a prescriptive checklist they’ll just go up delete delete and let it stay. And the guy who took down Napalm Girl was a Filipino and he took down Napalm Girl because check list naked.
Kara Swisher: [00:25:35] So there’s no famous photograph of the girl running from napalm in Vietnam. Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph. It was news.
Maria Ressa: [00:25:44] So these Filipinos who were in a call center in the Philippines are taking down terrorist content potential are taking down supposed hate speech without any cultural context without understanding the content.
Kara Swisher: [00:25:59] So what do you what is your solution to them. I’m using Facebook as a broad thing but they really are the game. Twitter is sort you have the same problems with Twitter and other social networks?
Maria Ressa: [00:26:10] Twitter is only 7 percent of penetration in the Philippines.
Kara Swisher: [00:26:13] So it’s an unpopular service. So yeah.
Maria Ressa: [00:26:18] No, but it’s same right the same content moderation policy as YouTube. YouTube is huge. Also in the Philippines. And you know what this disinformation cuts across all of them. So I mean you saw it in our shark tank. We had the you or else I would love to give that to Google and have them down ran some of that. Right. Because.
Kara Swisher: [00:26:39] This is just you doing their work for them. Correct?
Maria Ressa: [00:26:43] You know I… I guess for me when you’re dealing with this stuff. and you’re breathing it, it’s like toxic fumes every day. You just want a solution. And it takes… Imagine if somebody from America comes to the Philippines and tries to figure this out. It would take them a year. I already know it. Here take it. Do something with it. I don’t look at it as their work. I think OK. This is where I’ll be really generous. I know that they didn’t mean to do it. It is an extremely powerful tool and the reason why I continue to work with Facebook is because I think if they had the political will and the economic will to do this.
This is a game changer for the Philippines. Rappler couldn’t exist without Facebook. We zoomed we grew 100 to 300 percent year on year because of Facebook at the beginning in the good times. And I think they made a crucial error in 2015 and that was instant articles when they brought all the news groups in and then all of a sudden were at the same algorithms as the joke that you heard or what you had for dinner. And when we became mob rule when facts became determined by mob rule then it changed the ecosystem of democracy in the world.
Kara Swisher: [00:28:03] And what do you propose now that these… So, YouTube is a problem.
Maria Ressa: [00:28:09] YouTube is huge…
Kara Swisher: [00:28:09] A huge problem. Are you getting the same responses from them: So sorry. They’re really, really sorry. [laughter] No they really are. But they’re not in any way whatsoever.
Maria Ressa: [00:28:22] So yeah. Tell me do you think they will act on it?
Kara Swisher: [00:28:27] You know I have an expression that was from one of my grandparents: You’re so poor all you have is money. I think they like their billions. I think they think they’re doing good for the world. And I think they’re careless. It’s sort of like from The Great Gatsby. They were careless people and they moved, they did damage and moved on.
Maria Ressa: [00:28:47] But they now know they’re not. And they’re killing people. They know that now.
Kara Swisher: [00:28:52] I think they, what I’m getting now from a lot of people, is you’re so mean to us.
Maria Ressa: [00:28:59] Because I do see them see this.
Kara Swisher: [00:29:01] When they say that I’m like fuck you. [laughter, applause.] You know what I mean. So it’s very hard for me to. But they are there’s a lot of victimy.
Maria Ressa: [00:29:11] I mean until now. But you don’t know.
Kara Swisher: [00:29:14] No I think they’re they literally get angry when people say hey hey now you know hack democracy you really need to fix it. And they… I think one of the things that I find interesting is when there is money to be made or whatever, they are it’s their company. Yes.
And when there’s problems to be solved, it’s we all togethe have to solve it as a group. You know I mean and I’m like we didn’t get 64 billion dollars that I looked at. You know I have real old shoes. I don’t know. I mean we didn’t share in the upswing. And so I think again I joke. I’m so sorry but they feel badly but then I think are actually incapable in any way of taking care of it. I think they have they don’t have the mentality. They don’t have the talent. I think they’re incompetent to the task. That’s what I think.
Maria Ressa: [00:30:02] But if that’s the case they will die. I mean it’s going to be a slow painful death. But you know what I mean I guess for me I’m taking almost an opposite that it’s there’s this phrase on enlightened self-interest that is…
Kara Swisher: [00:30:17] One would think. One would think. No because this this will eventually… the product will become terrible to use.
Maria Ressa: [00:30:24] Right.
Kara Swisher: [00:30:25] Or it will become very addictive to use. And then what’s the difference? Like you said with cocaine, I think. So, how do you … what are you wanting. What would you like from them? You’d like them to become gatekeepers in other words.
Maria Ressa: [00:30:37] I don’t think they have a choice. I think they have to be. Otherwise we will leave. Right? Or again they’ll break be broken up by regulation or people will leave. In the Philippines so look at the immediate reaction. Alexa ranking of all the websites where do Filipinos go? From 2012 to 2016: number one Facebook. Undisputed. But then when the toxic sludge began mid-2016, by January 2017 on Alexa ranking Facebook dropped from number one to number eight. And then by January 2018, it went back to number five. In January 2019, right now, if you look at Alexa ranking in the Philippines, it’s number four.
So slowly they’re rising up but there’s no way. So, I mean my thing is if they don’t fix it we will leave. We will leave. So that’s why I think it is in their best interest they have no choice. But They are going to have to suck it up and they’re going to have to have they are going to have to hire real people. Machines can’t do this. But those real people will train the A.I. and it will get better over time and they will have to lose money because they will have to hire real people.
Kara Swisher: [00:31:52] So talk to me a little bit about that business because you’re trying to create a real business.
Maria Ressa: [00:31:57] Yeah. 2019 I’m trying to be a good CEO.
Kara Swisher: [00:32:00] Being arrested attacked and essentially they’re trying to put you out of business.
Maria Ressa: [00:32:07] The government.
Kara Swisher: [00:32:07] Talk about the actual business. Because it’s hard enough to do a digital effort. You know that. I know that.
Maria Ressa: [00:32:14] Yeah. So, in the Philippines and in many other parts of the world good journalism is really bad business and I wear both an executive editor hat and I’m the CEO so it’s my job to make sure our business survives. In 2017, when the attacks started happening we realized that and we had a big board battle. You know “you journalists, you know you gotta tone it down” from the business men. And then, from the journalists, because we had we were the largest group of shareholders in Rappler. We had 3 percent more votes. So we pushed forward and 2018 was mission and a lot of anger management issues. But 2019, I have to be a good CEO and we need to build the business. So what we’ve decided. So when you’re under attack by the government your advertisers get scared almost immediately they don’t want to be associated with the brand. They always say you know Maria we’re behind you but they’re very very far behind. [laughter].
Kara Swisher: [00:33:18] And nice Time cover!
Maria Ressa: [00:33:23] So I found out about it on Twitter. And I had to check whether it was real! But the time cover is the first time I saw the ecosystem come up like real people who were afraid. Fear is very real in the Philippines and I’m sorry. Before I before I talk about the fear and I just want to finish on the part about the business. So businessmen the businesses… they’re not the protectors of democracy. And even if their values say that they want to do that they just don’t because the money isn’t there. So, you can’t attack Facebook in the same way or if you’re run by businesses your values — sorry — they follow afterwards after the money. So, well, what we did is: We came up. We were forced to be agile. And A lot of the things that you saw–the mapping, trying to understand unstructured big data ,all of these things– we came up and pivoted and became a consultant. Like I essentially carved out another team that can do the same things we do for Rappler for other companies.
Kara Swisher: [00:34:37] So your business… so, in that environment what do you do? Because good journalism like you said is bad business.
Maria Ressa: [00:34:44] Rappler continues doing good journalism. And I’ve we’ve taken the business and pushed it away and we actually found a new business. The two things that we did. We’re the first in the Philippines… The crowdfunding part, actually I didn’t think it would work in the Philippines. But when our legal fees became like a quarter of the entire monthly spend, we asked our community and they helped. And that that helped pay for some of the legal fees. And then we, just December, we began a membership program we called it Rappler Plus. I don’t think it would have worked in the Philippines because unlike the United States or Europe unlike the more developed countries, we don’t have a history of that but not even subscriptions. People don’t want to pay for news especially in a country where you struggle to put food on your table three times a day. So the Rappler Plus took off much faster than I had expected and I think it is because of the fear. People are afraid and by standing up … By being the kid telling the emperor he has no clothes. By telling him he cannot do this with impunity.
This Is the most powerful man that we have had in since… I think he’s more powerful than Marcos was. He controls the executive. He owns the legislative and by the time he leaves office he will have appointed 11 of 13 Supreme Court justices. You guys in the states worry about one Supreme Court justice he’ll have appointed 11 of 13. This is our next generation. And It’s extremely worrisome, especially with this information warfare, with the young men in our country who are sucking up these fumes. You know the levels of misogyny according to our data women are attacked at least 10 times more than men.
Kara Swisher: [00:36:40] Alright, we have questions from the audience and then we are going to end. Are there questions from the audience? Yes, you over here. Right here. Put your hand up.
Question: [00:36:51] Hi. Krishan Bhatia from NBCUniversal. Thank you for sharing this story and the insights and everything that you’re doing to uncover this. My question for you is in the US market, as we sit here today as premium publishers most of whom have some sort of news business and we serve large cap marketers in the US: What should we be doing differently with respect to Facebook in particular but platforms in general that we’re not doing.
Maria Ressa: [00:37:20] I think we have [to address the issue]: Who is the gatekeeper right now? But I think that ideas are very simple to me. If information is power. And the gatekeeping determines what information is taken by everyone. And we all focus … the debate in the US focus is on all of these different demographics and the polarization. The polarization happens because we don’t have the same facts. So it goes down to that. Please push. I think Kara asked the solution for me is when you have something like Facebook or YouTube moving beyond prescriptive to where we used to be which is what are the values? What are the principles like standards and ethics for journalism right? It can’t be prescriptive because. Ironically what they keep saying they defend free speech but free speech in this case is being used to stifle free speech. So, you’ve got to take the toxic sludge out of the body politic because that is killing us and everything else is organ failure you know because you’re not getting the oxygen that you need.
So please push you have far more power than little Rappler does in terms of pushing for action in my part of the world I guess you know maybe I’m happy with little because it’s been so long. We have elections in May and these take downs will do a lot. I’ve seen the reactions of the people running those those Facebook pages. But please look also do the investigations here in the United States. The data is coming out now. I think that our credibility are and I mean are for traditional media and the new ones coming up. I think we’re getting eaten up by termites without realizing that that the floorboards are about to crack. That’s why I think there’s a crisis of trust.
Kara Swisher: [00:39:19] Yes, I would agree with that. Finish on this question of fear because I think it’s a really important thing of fear of not speaking up of rocking the boat of all kinds of stuff or just people just are exhausted by it because you’re not doing journalism you’re spending time dealing with lawyers you’re spending time moving businesses around you’re not doing the actual job which of which you were.. used to do.
Maria Ressa: [00:39:43] Yeah that’s also true. I know it just means I’m not sleeping that much. But you know I find that the journalism… So look, Rappler has been mission-driven and all of the friction of a normal organization is gone because everyone who stayed with us and everyone did stay with us on the journalism side we lost sales and tax strangely. But the mission is so clear and the purpose is so clear and I think the challenge for all of our news groups is to be able to maintain that.
In a society, what fear does, what this stuff does is normal people will not… When you get attacked like this I didn’t show you any of the attacks, but when you’re attacked so viscerally when you’re threatened with rape with murder, you just shut up. And that’s exactly it’s meant to pound you into silence. But our community realizes this. So in a strange way. I. We’re not just journalists anymore also that’s weird.
Like when I’m at the airport sometimes a family a family came in and hugged me and I hug them back. I didn’t know who they were but it was because they are also they are afraid to speak. So when you speak for them you fulfill a role that I think that’s the mission of journalism. I think I have a natural tendency to be more positive I should hang out with you a little bit more. [laughter]
But you know when you’re in my place, I put one foot in front of the other. The mission is clear. We’re going to have to deal with this. And I think this is what Facebook has to realize. They have to get through this because it’s not just us. We’re just the canary in the coal mine. It’s here it’s happening here. Your problems are because of stuff like this. I think. I think it’s global.
Kara Swisher: [00:41:37] Are you scared?
Maria Ressa: [00:41:39] No because there’s too much to do. Not right now. You know there are times when I think it was far worse when no one was paying attention because when the attacks were so personal the first two weeks…I got 90 hate messages per hour. Not one nine. Nine zero hate messages per hour. And when I got that, it took me two weeks to just figure out how do how am I going to deal with this and what’s real and what’s not and then do I need security? You know all of that stuff. So no I’m not afraid because now I know what it is. And the data helps me understand it. So that’s the certainty. That’s why I know it’s important to have the facts. You cannot fight back if you don’t have the facts.
Kara Swisher: [00:42:24] All right. On that note Maria Ressa. [applause]
Through a series of focus groups and a 2,000-voter survey, the research found that there is a lack of urgency around the idea that press freedom is at risk here in the U.S. According to the report, 52% of voters do not see press freedom as under threat. The lack of perceived risk that was even higher when viewed through a partisan lens: 66% of Republicans and 56 %of Independents said they perceived little or no threat to the press, while just 38% of Democrats gave the same response.
As other studies have shown, trust in the national news media is low. Only 28% of registered voters report to have a great deal of trust in national broadcast news and only 23% say they have a great deal of trust in national newspapers.
Despite this lack of trust, nearly all voters (95%) agree on the importance of having a free press. Across party affiliation, the research found that an overwhelming majority believe it is important that the press be free in the United States, and most voters (76%) know that freedom of the press is a First Amendment right.
The research makes 6 suggestions that will help regain American’s trust:
1. Embrace the press’s role to inform.
Voters want a news media that informs them of the facts. They see this as the press’s highest value and a reason to defend the press. Underscoring the news media’s responsibility to inform the public is a far more convincing reason to defend press freedom than other frames, such as highlighting the role of the press in a democracy or even making comparisons to press treatment in other countries.
2. Address the perception of bias.
Voters want to hear the news that presents the full story from all sides. Bias is one of people’s top doubts about the news media. They also do not want a news outlet that just gives them news that reflects their own point of view. Significantly, some respondents expressed concern that the need to profit from the news could cause biases while others worry that powerful owners and sponsors may affect the news.
3. Keep President Trump out of the press freedom conversation.
To effectively advocate across the political spectrum for protection of a free press, President Trump must be left out of the discussion. His mention polarizes focus groups participants immediately; both sides see him very differently. For right-leaning participants, he is holding the media to task and they are being unfair.
4. Build connections with conservative audiences.
While an overall plurality of voters believes calling for boos and other actions against journalists is never justified, 52% believe that politicians engaging in this behavior are just reflecting public frustrations. To reach voters who have lost trust, it is important to show that treatment of the press isn’t a Trump issue, but rather a serious deterioration of the ability of the press to inform. The survey data points to three key target Republican groups that may be most fertile to this message and suggests that influencing this segment can shift overall public perception.
The lack of urgency around the threat against the press is a major finding from the research — and indicates an uphill battle in terms of mobilizing the public to support the media. However, there is some hope. Researchers found that introducing facts about the threat journalists currently face shifts voters’ view and impacts the urgency with which voters see the situation.
6. Promote accountability.
The resource found that most important thing the media can do to show they are a credible source is to acknowledge when they make mistakes and issue corrections. There is a sense that people are looking for real humility from the press, both in terms of how they deliver the news and inform, and in how they acknowledge any shortcomings or mistakes.
As Jenn Topper, Communications Director, Reporters Committee For Freedom Of The Press wrote in the report, the larger concern is that a combination of current factors will be chips at the First Amendment and its protections for a free and independent press. If the public is conditioned to accept these gradual limitations on press freedom as normal — and in some cases even echo the attacks themselves, rather than vigorously defend against them — we are in a precarious position. Media organizations need to proactively address issues of trusts and focus on their role to inform the public – including informing them about threats to freedom of the press.
Below is the full text of the talk he delivered:
FREE SPEECH & DEMOCRACY IN THE AGE OF PLATFORM MONOPOLY
I guess that I am the amuse bouche ahead of your hearty lunch and Mark Thompson. We’re not related. The title of this ornery oratory, for some, what will be a difficult-to-digest diatribe is – when Irresistibility becomes Irresponsibility. It’s a theme familiar to Big Tobacco and, perhaps, in our time, to Big Digital. A possible subtitle is The Line of Least Compliance.
The subject of subtitles reminds me inevitably of film, and I do want to call out one film buff whose good taste in cinema is only exceeded by her zeal in trying to right Digital wrongs, and that would be European Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, herself reputedly the inspiration for a Danish political drama. Commissioner Vestager delivered a speech two weeks ago that is worthy of close scrutiny by all here, and certainly so by any company subject to her tender mercies. Most importantly, she referenced the original Blade Runner, and its poignant portrayal of loss and love and meaning and, particularly, the telling line used “like tears in rain”. I was intrigued and so we had an exchange, obviously not about pending cases, but about the inherent irony in Blade Runner, the irony being that it is the automatons, the replicants, who most cherish the essential human values, family, friends, loyalty, shared experiences, shared memories.
If journalism were a film, the last decade is certainly the equivalent of a slasher movie – the Silicon Valley Chainsaw Massacre – and there have been many tears shed in the rain. So when we contemplate a robust commercial future for journalism and for professional media, we must first ponder an eco-system that has punished the creators and profited disproportionately the distributors, who are indeed publishers but cannot quite pronounce the word “pu…pu..publisher.” It gets a little harder for YouTube not to admit to being a broadcaster when it spends many millions advertising its $40-a-month television package and surely even Facebook will concede that it is a broadcaster and publisher now that the company has bought English football rights in Asia and surfing rights globally.
Unfortunately, the current content ecosystem is fertile territory for the fabricators of the fabulous, as you can tell, I like alliteration, and the furnishers of the fake and the faux. I’ve been holding forth on, some would say ranting about, this vexed topic for a decade or more.
I was recently reminded by Nick Thompson of a UK House of Lords testimony in 2007 in which I warned that the internet was ripe for exploitation by bad actors who could take advantage of the large digital platforms to disseminate drivel. Being questioned by those august peers in 2007, I suggested:
“What you have is a lot of young people who are growing up surrounded by much more information but whose provenance is not clear. In the longer term critical judgment will not be as it should be. The rumors will be believed, the fiction will be thought of as fact and the political agendas, among other agendas, will be influenced by interest groups who are coming from some quite strange trajectory to issues based on collective understanding that is founded on falsity.”
Now that was not eerie prescience, so don’t come to me for advice on stock investments or racing tips or an NCAA bracket, or today’s Time Warner ruling, but it was really just the judgment of a journalist – at that time the editor of The Times of London – who had spent every working day since the ridiculously raw age of seventeen trying to assess the veracity and authenticity of information in a newsroom. It was clear back then that the internet had inherent vulnerabilities and that the digital platforms had a responsibility to project professional journalism and cultivate a culture of compliance so that the real could be separated from the unreal and the surreal.
If your business model is to commodify content – which is an egregious mistake because there is a hierarchy of content – and then allow a search engine or social platform to be easily manipulated by bad actors, then you’re failing a basic test of compliance. Basic compliance should have been the modest price of admission for the big digital players. And these are very profitable players – Facebook’s operating margin last year was around 48 percent. And yet almost daily we hear of issues in compliance seems to be an awkward afterthought – that is because we are indeed in a new era, an era in which the pervasiveness of the largest digital platforms makes Standard Oil look like a corner gas station. And so naturally there are comparisons already being made between Big Tobacco and Big Digital – if Big Digital wants to avoid the fate of Big Tobacco, it needs to take the initiative rather than being reactive.
So here we are in 2018, where sense and nonsense rub shoulders on platforms, where the artificial and the asinine thrive, and where the click-bait cultivators and search engine spivs reap bountiful harvests, and where professional journalism still faces an existential crisis in many countries. Now I could fulminate furiously on this subject ad infinitum and occasionally ad hominem. But I would like to highlight one issue, which is very relevant to today’s question about the future of new economic models for journalism – it is what I like to term algorithmic angst…
But, before the tirade, a moment of reflection. Media must also tend to its reputation. Our reporters have to create compelling content and be seen to have the objective of being objective. That is particularly the case in an age of bluster and bombast.
Our journalists have to be renaissance reporters – willing to traverse platforms to ensure that the story is told where people are reading or listening or watching. And journalists should be wary of being too self-referential or self-reverential…journalism is about society, not about self.
Enough about people and their foibles and their follies, let’s focus on something far more important, the machines and the software that is their soul. Algorithms are awesomely powerful, and they are destined to become far more so. The compounding impact of AI will mean that they will know much more about us and we will know much less about them. Their ability to create a growing audience of addicts will be enhanced and the young will be the most targeted and the most vulnerable, as they are already. Social platforms obviously do much good, but they can also be antisocial and idealism cannot be used as an excuse for deleterious behavior. Facebook has long believed that “connecting” people absolved it from other, “secondary” responsibilities. Google has long held that “informing” people is the greater good and that any negative consequences are a small price to pay. I make something of a distinction between Google, which is making an effort to reform, and YouTube, which must do far more to purge piracy and extreme extremism.
The modern metric that drives digital platforms is “engagement” – it is fair to say that Big Tobacco was also focused on “engagement”, but commercial priority can have a social cost. It is clear, for example, that young people are not just distracted by acts of reading or responding to posts or tweets or photos, to likes and dislikes, to friending or unfriending, to status updates that undermine a person’s status. The truth is that they are deeply distracted by and sometimes seriously distressed by the thought of, the anticipation of reading or responding. When the intention of a powerful algorithm is to increase so called “engagement,” what is the potential for a vulnerable person to be disengaged from society?
It is well-documented that radical groups, whether Islamic extremists or fascists, successfully groom and radicalize young people on the web. These are the obvious outcomes of obsession. What about the less obvious damage done to the psyche and to the self-esteem of the young? And that would include damage done to the ability to concentrate and to tolerate.
And yet there has been no serious movement to hold these omnipotent algorithms to account, which is why I think there should be an Algorithm Review Board to get more accountability and transparency from the three overwhelmingly dominant algorithms of our day: Facebook, Google/YouTube and Amazon. If you buy a small bar of chocolate in the US, you’ll be told the precise ingredients on the pack and generally how many calories per serving. There will be stark health warnings on even a low alcohol bottle of beer. Clothing labels are often synthetic screeds, in multiple languages, to ensure compliance. And yet the powerful, mind-altering, behavior-shifting, mood-changing algorithms are allowed to work their invisible alchemy on our personalities, on our societies and on our young people.
So what should an Algorithm Review Board, an ARB look like? Call it an Algorithm Transparency Board, if you like or, if you must, an Algorithm Altruism Board. It’s obviously important that experts in the related fields preside, not politicians, and that which should be confidential is kept confidential, but that which should change is changed.
There are a few basic categories into which an expert industry panel can provide insight and protection for the vulnerable. These priorities would include invasions of privacy, which are already commonplace, IP piracy, which is rife, news censorship, which is clearly already underway, and commercial abuse by dominant players, which is both real and difficult to monitor. There would also be a role during election campaigns to ensure that the sanctity of the system is not violated by bad actors. A further crucial area is the socio-psychological impact, particularly on children – essentially we have the world’s cleverest engineers and the world’s cleverest machines finding ways to make programs irresistible – the net as nicotine and technological tar.
In the midst of the modern morass, Facebook has made a contribution by highlighting the importance of “trusted publishers”, but who is to judge trustworthiness. The very citing of “trusted publishers” reinforces the rightness of Facebook paying premium publishers and premium journalists for the reputational and experiential services they provide.
And Google, which has actually become more responsive under Sundar Pichai, has been tweaking its algorithm in ways that seem to be a mystery to even the company itself. At the end of the prejudicial “first click free” – which we certainly applaud, as it punished professional journalism – there were extremely odd traffic patterns across our sites.
One week in February, we saw a sudden and remarkable surge in Google referrals to WSJ.com, the Wall Street Journal’s website. This erratic movement followed months of relative inactivity, so our CTO asked Google what had happened and was told that it was a “bug” in the algorithm. Now we’re certainly in favor of more referrals, but it is extraordinary that the algorithm was so anarchic. And BuzzFeed reported last month that a change in the Google News algorithm led to a bizarre dominance, in a supposedly eclectic broad feed, by the BBC. Every one of the top 50 results to a search was a BBC news article and 97 of the top 100 came from the UK broadcaster – that’s a little like the North Korean election result. Again, no coherent explanation, just an admission that the results were bizarre and unintended.
And Amazon can punish or reward companies with a tweak or a turn or a twist in its algorithm as they did so brutally a couple of years ago with Hachette – now there is a story for the Washington Post….In the US, Amazon has over 95% of the audio book market, and doubles as a publisher of books itself. In the language of an antitrust expert in Brussels, they dominate a horizontal and are thus able to influence a vertical containing their own products. Such dominance is clearly in need of close scrutiny and that scrutiny can only come from a rigorous assessment of its algorithm.
So, in conclusion, there is obviously a need for an Algorithm Review Board to track the intended and the unintended psychological and social and commercial and political impact of pervasive platforms. If the imperative of an algorithm is to be irresistible, when does irresistibility become irresponsibility?
New York Times CEO Mark Thompson also delivered a keynote presentation at “Breaking the News: Free Speech and Democracy in the Age of Platform Monopoly” event. Click here to read it.
Below is the full text of the talk he delivered:
JOURNALISM, FREE SPEECH AND THE SEARCH AND SOCIAL GIANTS
These are troubling days for journalism. Even the primacy of fact and well-sourced, objective reporting over delusion and propaganda is under assault.
A concert party of Russia and other repressive regimes, populists and extremists, assorted trolls and bots, not to mention the 45th President of the United States, are doing their best to convince the world of what George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four called “blackwhite”: that dispassionate, accurate journalism is “fake news”, and conspiracy-theories, gross exaggeration and outright lies the real thing.
Their aim is to level reality with their own “alternative facts” and, by this process of levelling, to rob serious journalism of its civic impact and value. They don’t have to be believed to succeed; they merely need to sow enough doubt in enough minds that a large slice of the population no longer knows who to trust.
Some of the conventions which protect the ability of real journalists to report real news are also being flouted. Last week we learned that, as part of a leak inquiry, the FBI had seized years’ worth of emails and phone records belonging to New York Times reporter Ali Watkins.
This may be standard operating procedure in controlled societies. In this country, it breaches established precedent, is manifestly against the spirit of the First Amendment, and has been rightly condemned by the Committee to Protect Journalists as a “fundamental threat to press freedom”.
But these threats can be seen off. The fake-newsers may have convinced some people that up is down for now. Sooner or later brute reality and common sense will settle the argument in favour of the facts.
As for the state and press freedom: the safeguard enshrined in the Bill of Rights, and the tradition of self-restraint by the authorities when free speech is at stake, should prevail – at least if citizens speak out, and Congress and the courts do their job.
But the most serious threat facing journalism – the disruption of the traditional business model for journalism, and the failure of all but a handful of titles across the western world to find credible digital alternatives – is much more intractable.
It presents as an economic problem but its consequences, which are already playing out and, unless something changes, are likely to grow far worse over the coming years, are civic and political.
Democracies cannot remain healthy if citizens do not know what is happening in their communities. If public and private institutions are not held to account. If elections come and go without issues being aired and candidates being scrutinized.
Unfortunately, at present the local, regional and national professional journalism, which historically played such an important role in meeting these civic needs, is ailing – in some cities and regions dying – in much of America and the West.
There are exceptions, and The New York Times is one of them. We have national scale and international potential. We realised in time that high quality journalism, a deep relationship with our most engaged readers, and an effective digital subscription model offered a far more promising path to the future than digital advertising alone.
Today we have more digital news subscribers than any other news organization in the world – and, at getting on four million, twice as many total subscriber-relationships as at the peak of print twenty-five years ago. Our revenue and operating profit have been growing, not “failing”, whatever a little bird may have told you.
Most importantly, we have a newsroom and editorial department which – at some 1,450 strong – are bigger and more formidable than they were ten and twenty years ago.
For me, that’s less the result of our digital success than the single most important reason for it: The Times responded to digital disruption, not by disinvesting in high quality news and opinion, but by doubling down on them. And as we’ve found – whatever cultural pessimists may say – a growing number of people here and around the world are willing to pay for it.
But we have advantages that most news providers do not enjoy. And, even with those advantages, we find the environment for growing our digital revenue – and securing the funding of our newsroom – harder than I believe we should.
So to what extent are the major digital platforms – Google, Facebook, Apple and the others – part of the problem? And, if they are, what could they, we, and the world’s policy-makers and regulators do to put things right?
Two caveats first. One: there’s no point blaming individual digital companies, no matter how big, for the fundamental attributes of the internet, or for the decline and fall of the cosy print-advertising based business model that supported journalism for so long. Neither are their fault and, in any event, there’s no way of putting the clock back.
Two: I want to proceed with a presumption of good faith on the part of the major platforms. Like many media executives, I’ve spent time with the leaders of Google, Facebook and Apple and I’ve seen no evidence that they want to destroy journalism, or are unaware of the crisis in the economics of news, or unwilling to explore ways of improving the eco-system.
Google, in particular, has taken a series of tangible steps to help news organizations build digital subscriptions, for instance allowing publishers to deploy their subscription business rules on the Google platform rather than imposing Google’s own rules on them.
Facebook has to date been less responsive, focusing largely on its own ideas rather than developing solutions jointly with publishers. Here too, though, there has at least been a willingness to listen.
However, major unresolved issues remain. We can put them under four broad headings:
Opacity – we do not know, beyond inevitably imperfect and incomplete empirical observation, how the algorithms of the major platforms sort and prioritize our content, nor can we reliably predict or influence changes in those algorithms, nor in any sense hold the companies to account for them;
Impoverishment of the news experience – to appreciate and critique news sources over time, and to decide which to trust, users need to develop sophisticated relationships with news brands and individual reporters and opinion writers, but the platforms encourage atomized consumption of single stories and the jumbling of stories of different depth and quality from different sources, and they strip away essential signals – news or opinion, for instance, lead story or minor footnote – about editorial intentionality;
Inequitable economics – although the platforms undoubtedly help publishers reach new audiences, most publishers believe that the current division of the economic benefit of the presence of news content on the platforms unfairly favours the platforms; and finally
Independence and plurality of editorial decision-making – this is the least-discussed issue; it is that open societies require multiple independent points of editorial control, which can compete and hold each other to account, and between which the public can choose; but that the major platforms may decide, or feel pressured, to replace this plurality with single points of essentially algorithmic editorial control.
These four categories are not mutually exclusive, but mutually reinforcing: the relative poverty of the news experience on the platforms makes it harder for publishers to monetize it; the opacity of the operation of the search and social algorithms increases the risk of a loss of plurality in editorial decision-making; and of course business model failure because of the inferior economics of the platforms will have its own impact on plurality.
Most people assume that publishers only care about the disappointing revenue they derive from their presence on the platforms. My view is that all four headings are important, and not just to publishers but to society at large.
Let me offer you a few responses to these concerns. First, full transparency about both algorithmic and human editorial selection by the major digital platforms is an essential preliminary if we are address any of these issues. It would be best if this were done voluntarily, but even if it requires regulation or legislation, it must be done – and done promptly.
As a second preliminary, the major platforms must engage with the collective industry bodies of the news business to arrive at shared principles both on the presentation and choice of news content, and on its monetization. The stakes – and the need for consistency and comparability in the treatment of news providers – mean that, though the present informal bilateral relationships between, say, The Times and Google, or The Washington Post and Facebook, should no doubt continue, they are not enough.
Third, we need to do more to restore the labels and design cues that help users make sense of news in a physical newspaper, or on a TV screen, or even on a traditional web-page, but which are stripped out in smartphone newsfeeds and search results. Without sufficient signposts, no wonder users confuse news and opinion and other significant editorial nuances.
Fourth, regulators, both here and in Europe and other jurisdictions, should examine how well these markets are functioning. In economic terms, news provision on the major platforms consists of two barters: consumers exchange their attention and personal data for the services provided by the platform; while publishers offer the platforms valuable content in exchange for distribution, audience leads advertising opportunities.
It is sometimes argued that, because the major platforms do not charge consumers money for their services, the public cannot suffer exploitative pricing. But barter implies an exchange of goods or services of real and quantifiable value in which a party can get a better or worse deal. If scale and network effects allow a search or social platform to achieve market dominance, a consumer who feels that they must use the platform may find themselves exchanging their attention and data for less in return by way of services than they would if there were effective competition. The same goes for a publisher who may conclude that they have no choice but to offer their content to a platform despite the poor economics.
In other words, a market based on barter can experience market dominance, market failure and market abuse. I don’t want to jump to the conclusion that such abuse is occurring, but these markets deserve close technical scrutiny and may require competition remedies.
Lastly, the topic of independence and plurality of editorial decision-making. We face an immediate threat here: which is that Facebook’s catalogue of missteps with data and extreme and hateful content will lead it into a naïve attempt to set itself up as the digital world’s editor-in-chief, prioritizing and presumably downgrading and rejecting content on a survey- and data-driven assessment of whether the provider of the content is “broadly trusted” or not.
Now you might expect The New York Times to favour such a scheme. Indeed Mark Zuckerberg, whose idea this seems to be, told us The Times should expect to do well in such a ranking.
In fact, we regard the concept of “broadly trusted” as a sinister one, which misunderstands the role journalism plays in an open society and is likely to lead to damage and distort, not just the news business, but democratic debate. Democracy depends in part on unbounded competition between different journalistic perspectives and the clash of different judgements and opinions. History suggests that mainstream news organizations frequently get it right, but also that, not infrequently, it is the outliers who should be listened to. At any given moment – think of mainstream media today in Russia, or in continental Europe in the 20s and 30s – a majority of the public may judge trustworthiness incorrectly.
To feed transient majority sentiment about trust back into the editorial decision-making process – and to do it essentially behind closed doors – is profoundly dangerous. The process of citizens making up their own mind which news source to believe is messy, and can indeed lead to “fake news”, but to rob them of that ability, and to replace the straightforward accountability of editors and publishers for the news they produce with a centralised trust algorithm will not make democracy healthier but damage it further.
The depth of Facebook’s lack of understanding of the nature and civic purpose of news was recently revealed by their proposal – somewhat modified after representations from the news industry – to categorize and label journalism used for marketing purposes by publishers as political advocacy, given that both contained political content. This is like arguing that an article about pornography in The New York Times is the same as pornography. Facebook admitted to us that their practical problem was that they were under immense public pressure to label political advocacy, but that their algorithm was unable to tell the difference between advocacy and journalism. This would be the same algorithm which will soon be given the new task of telling the world which news to trust.
When it comes to news, Facebook still doesn’t get it. In its efforts to clear up one bad mess, it seems set on joining those who want blur the line between reality-based journalism and propaganda. But the underlying danger – of the agency of editors and public alike being usurped by centralised algorithmic control – is present with every digital platform where we do not fully understand how the processes of editorial selection and prioritization take place. Which right now means all of them. Thus the urgent need for transparency.
The internet could still fulfill its promise as the enabler of more-informed, more-empowered democracies. But it won’t get there on its own. And nor will the major digital platforms. Thank you.
News Corp Chief Executive Robert Thomson also delivered a keynote presentation at “Breaking the News: Free Speech and Democracy in the Age of Platform Monopoly” event. Click here to read it.
In his opening remarks at a press freedom event co-hosted on September 13rd by the Newseum Institute, Reporters Without Borders, and Digital Content Next, Nebraska Congressman Jeff Fortenberry remarked on the average American’s lack of familiarity with many of the foundational principals of our government. It is easy, he suggested, to become complacent and shirk the obligations that come with democracy.
“Rights are inextricably intertwined with responsibility,” Rep. Fortenberry said. He reinforced the need for individuals to take an active role in government, but also pointed to the responsibility of the media to represent the interests of all Americans and varied viewpoints in order to meet their responsibility to inform the public.
The road to destruction
Panelist and former editor-in-chief of the Turkish newspaper Zaman Abdülhamit Bilici described the disintegration of the free press in his country and offered a disturbing roadmap for how government-initiated negativity toward the press can lead to a catastrophic outcome. His paper’s coverage of the Turkish Ministry attracted the ire of President Tayyip Erdogan, who began to publicly malign the publication. When that failed to silence them, he denied their reporters access to press conferences. Then came calls to fire journalists and threats to those who advertised in Zaman. When these efforts failed to change the coverage, Bilici says that “Erdogan had to use the nuclear option.”
The Turkish President enlisted the court system to help the government take control of the paper and initiated a police raid on the headquarters. Tear gas and water cannons were used to quell protests against governmental control of the media. Newseum Institute COO Gene Policinski pointed out that Turkey was once viewed as a beacon of hope for democracy in the Middle East. “Turkey was not a perfect democracy, but it was on the way,” said Bilici. His careful breakdown of the dismantling of press freedom in his country and how it sped up destruction of its budding democracy was certainly a warning to all in the room.
Fight for your rights
Another panelist, Tim Crews, editor/publisher of The Sacramento Valley Mirror, said that his journalists have been threatened on numerous occasions both online and in person. He has also experienced censorship and an uneven application of the law when it comes to prosecuting those who threaten or assault members of his staff.
Ethiopian journalist Simegnish Y. Mengesha, has seen many colleagues imprisoned “for doing their jobs.” She said that we must remain vigilant in protecting our rights because undermining press freedom “is a gradual process, it doesn’t happen overnight.”
Mengesha also sees that the danger goes beyond the threats to journalists themselves. “People are afraid to talk to the media; they are afraid to use their own social media accounts [to discuss news].” This, she says, strips citizens of their basic right to being informed about what is going on in their own country.
Governments in different parts of the world have shown a willingness to block social media platforms and even shut down the internet to stem the spread of information, as Margaux Ewen, Advocacy and Communications Director for Reporters Without Borders pointed out. She also noted the disturbing pattern of harassment, doxing, and outright threats made to journalists via social media channels.
Another alarming trend Ewan has observed is that “The authoritarian strong man model of government seems to be sneaking it into places we didn’t expect to find it.”
Lead by example
Bilici sees an unnerving parallel between what happened in Turkey and trends in America. In both cases, he said, “a popular elected person is putting pressure on the media.” Policinski from The Newseum reminded the audience that here, our President refers to the press as “enemies of the people.” And, as Ewen pointed out, the administration’s anti-press stance has a negative effect on journalists in other countries although she noted “I have to keep reminding myself that this didn’t happen overnight.”
“An important question we should ask ourselves,” said Bilici, “Is why isn’t the media getting the support from the public when we claim to speak in their name?”
Rep. Fortenberry said the media must carefully consider its diminished estimation in the eyes of the public. “There’s cynicism toward the institutions that uphold the idea of press freedom.” He called upon members of the press to support “an authentic dialog and public service for the good of community.”
Indeed, the participants—speakers, panelists, and attendees of Press Freedom: Lessons Learned From Around The World—would all agree that open discussion is essential to shoring up this key aspect of equitable government here and abroad. Yet even as the event was being arranged, Mexican journalist Martin Mendez Pineda, who has received death threats for his work, was denied a visa to participate. According to Ewen, the program was not deemed “important enough” to allow him to enter the United States.
Make no mistake, Trump’s words and blatant disregard for the free media sends chilling signals and has a ripple effect with real consequences for reporters around the globe. He has that power. On the other hand, MSNBC exercised its right to effectively block Trump’s attempt to rewrite Charlottesville history by switching over to its studio for context and commentary about half an hour into his remarks.
It should be noted that you—the audience—have the right to turn off MSNBC if you don’t approve of its broadcast. This is how a free media works. Much the same, you can choose to read Trump’s tweets, ignore them, or block his tweets if you don’t want to see them at all. This is how open technology works. You have that power.
But in Silicon Valley, where technology companies pretend to stay “neutral” to avoid these messy issues, things are only getting more complicated. The platforms continue to assert that they are not media companies, or at least not “traditional” media . And this distinction is important because, as Josh Constine pointed out, pure technology platforms receive greater immunity regarding the content they serve, both legally and in the public eye. Media companies are considered more directly responsible for their content although ironically the platforms often get undue credit for delivering it.
Yet—in part because of moral outrage, and pressure from media watchdogs and international governments—tech platforms do step up willy-nilly to exert their control over content. Well-intentioned or not, the loose rules and vague promises of technology companies threaten to block the important role of the free media and the ability of the public to stay informed.
Closed for Good
While our President was struggling to adjust his messaging to speak out against neo-Nazis and white nationalists marching in Charlottesville, these abhorrent humans had their favorite website, Daily Stormer, effectively shut down.
“Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet.
No one should have that power.”
These are the words of the CEO of network security company CloudFare, who decided early last week to remove its protection and stop defending an indefensible website as a client. This followed after two other companies, GoDaddy and Google, refused to provide DNS services for Daily Stormer. These technology companies have the ability to silence this viewpoint. And they did.
However, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) called these moves “dangerous.” I agree. Take a look at EFF’s Free Speech weak links and you’ve got a jackpot situation of intermediary technology companies, and their CEOs, that possess the ability to shut down a site. No one should have that power.
Make no mistake, I’m as pleased as anyone that the website Daily Stormer was reduced to zero audience. I do not have an ounce of worry for their fate and I do hope the site sinks to the bottom of the garbage heap that is the dead web. But there is an underlying concern that has been exposed here.
“One of the problems with defending free speech,” the celebrated author Salman Rushdie said, “is you often have to defend people that you find to be outrageous and unpleasant and disgusting.”
Right. And thank you to Margaret Sullivan for putting this statement front and center as she weighed in on Charlottesville this week.
As the EFF wrote: “Protecting free speech is not something we do because we agree with all of the speech that gets protected. We do it because we believe that no one—not the government and not private commercial enterprises—should decide who gets to speak and who doesn’t.”
Simply put, no intermediary should be able to single-handedly shut down a website. Unfortunately, our beloved open web appears to be broken. And because of flaws in its own brilliant design, they can.
Neutral or Not
The FCC is in the final step of throwing out the Open Internet Order, which will effectively gut Net Neutrality. Make no mistake, this will allow a broadband provider to block content it doesn’t like. Broadband providers have promised they would never do this, and I trust that most, when left to their own judgment, will not. But we need only to look towards the Middle East and China for the reasons we must not sit idle and blindly trust such promises. No one should have that power.
Much the same, it is impossible to run a successful web media business without being discoverable on Google Search. Any publisher who turns down Google’s business rules for search is effectively off the grid – much the same as the Daily Stormer. No one should have that power.
Ultimately, we need a modern framework for when it’s acceptable for an intermediary to shut down a website or silence a voice. Search and social platforms are inexorably intertwined in our web experiences. So, they must—like the media companies with whom they so greatly rely upon—fully grasp and support freedom of speech and the open web.
Power and Social Responsibility
In fact, we need a new framework for public officials on Twitter. Right now, we have a situation where White House spokespeople, from the controversial advisor Sebastian Gorka to the President himself, block individual Twitter users. This is simply not the same as an individual blocking a troll. This is a case of public officials silencing an emerging channel for the public discourse that is a pillar of our system.
But beyond blocking individuals, politicians are also blocking reporters on Twitter. This shouldn’t be seen differently than a reporter blocked from a White House press briefing. Twitter is part of the modern media ecosystem and in fact has been declared official statements of the White House. And all media has a responsibility to share the statements of political officials with the public. Yet somehow, we find ourselves in a place where the single American who wields the most power is now able to block the public from reading and engaging through our modern media. No one should have that power.
Even if you accept the idea that public officials should have the right to block accounts on Twitter (which I don’t) then there at least needs to be public disclosure of the accounts they’ve blocked. It is significant that any blocked users are permanently unable to read the official statements for these officials. No one should have that power.
The Internet has created a global forum for communication, expression, and the dissemination of information. It has triggered the emergence of exciting—and dispiriting, even dangerous—technologies. It has transformed the very definition of media. Yet none of these developments has diminished the importance of the First Amendment. Technology evolves. The medium for media evolves. But our commitment to our fundamental American values must remain steadfast. This is far from the last time we will be called upon to consider these values in a new context. Let us do so in a way that supports progress along with public discourse and an open Internet. Therein lies the real power.
DCN adds its voice to the many respected organizations and media outlets in condemning the demands made by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain. According to a report in The Washington Post their demands included shutting down all news outlets the country operates. In a statement, Al Jazzera described the demand for its closure by the countries boycotting Qatar as ” nothing but an attempt to silence the freedom of expression in the region and to suppress people’s right to information and the right to be heard. ”
We proudly join a growing list of organizations in support of DCN member, Al Jazzera:
As Ronald Reagan famously noted, America is “a shining city on a hill.” Our experiment with democracy is on full display for the world to see. And one of the more important factors of our success is a free and independent press. Over the course of our history, the world has seen an educated, relentless and free press expose the Teapot Dome Scandal and President Nixon’s Watergate along with countless local cases of corruption and deception. A free press is a bedrock principle of democracy. It provides necessary transparency, helping to educate citizens and fulfilling an important check on power.
On Presidents and a Popular Press
Yet, despite its importance, a recent Gallup poll showed that public approval ratings of major media platforms are at all-time low. It’s worth noting that, in the last 20 years, the media’s approval ratings have never risen above 40% for digital, print or television news. One could argue that if the press isn’t hated, then it’s not doing it right!
Before he became president, Thomas Jefferson was an original proponent of a free press. In a letter from 1787, he wrote “And were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” However, during his successful campaign for President in 1800, candidate Jefferson endured heavy scrutiny by the press. By the time he took office, he hated the press or at least what he thought it had become. In his second term, he even ordered the arrest of newspaper editors for sedition. However, by 1816, seven years after he left the presidency, Jefferson wrote in a letter “where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.”
Similar, strained relationships with the press continued with later administrations. After the failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs, President John F Kennedy stated “…the abrasive quality of the press applied to you daily, to an administration, even though we never like it, and even though we wish they didn’t write it, and even if we disapprove, there isn’t any doubt that we could not do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press.”
Declaration of Independence
And just a few days ago, when asked about the role of the news media, former President George W. Bush responded, “I consider the media to be indispensable to democracy. We need an independent media to hold people like me to account. Power can be very addictive. And it can be corrosive. And it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power, whether it be here or elsewhere.” This from a president who lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College. He assumed office at a time when the nation was highly politicized and divided. He weathered withering criticism from the press about his policies, cabinet picks and early missteps.
This is the point: Elected officials and most citizens will never like a healthy press corps. We don’t need journalists to be loved. We need them to be aggressive, persistent and abrasive. In turn, politicians should respect the press’ role in our democracy, not undermine it for their own political gain. Struggling democracies and entrenched dictators around the world are watching our “shining city on a hill.” What do we want them to see?
Governments that wish to repress the truth will find the blockchain significantly more challenging to stifle than the Internet for several reasons. First, journalists and photographers could use public key infrastructure (PKI) to encrypt information and conceal their identity from would-be censors and attackers. Second, governments could not destroy or alter information recorded on the blockchain; therefore, citizens could use it to hold their leaders accountable for their actions. Third, where governments starve honest journalism of funding, journalists—particularly stringers in the most dangerous parts of the world—could raise funds on the blockchain, casting a wider net for news directors and investors who preferred to remain anonymous.
For example, veteran Chinese journalists could try one of the distributed peer-to-peer crowdfunding platforms such as Koinify, Lighthouse, or Swarm that use PKI to protect the identities of sender and recipient better than Internet-only systems. Another great blockchain tool is the free mobile app GetGems, which both guards and monetizes instant messaging through bitcoin. Users can send all sorts of files securely, with GetGems functioning like private email, not just SMS.[i] These apps are just the beginning of what is possible to thwart censors and pirates.
Another solution is a distributed platform for filing stories in an immutable ledger that makes the ledger unique, such as what Factom aims to accomplish in the developing world. Reporters could purchase entry credits—rights to create entries on Factom’s ledger. As with the bitcoin ledger, everyone would get the same copy, and anyone could add to it but no one could alter entries once they were filed. Factom has a “commit/reveal commitment” scheme that serves as an anticensorship mechanism: servers in China, for example, couldn’t prevent the filing of an otherwise valid entry because of its content. If the reporter had attached an entry credit to the filing, then it would get recorded. A government could identify certain entries as offensive but couldn’t delete or block them as the Chinese government has done on Wikipedia. If an official court were to order a change in the ledger, an officer of the court could make a new entry to reflect the ruling, but the history would remain for all to see.[ii]
A third solution is distributed peer-to-peer microblogging that doesn’t go through centralized servers. Stephen Pair, CEO of BitPay, described how to reinvent Twitter or Facebook so that users controlled their own data. “Instead of having just one company like Facebook, you might have many companies tying into this common database [the blockchain] and participating in building their own unique user experiences. Some of those companies might ask you for or might require certain information to be shared with them so that they could monetize that. But as a user, you would have full control over what information you’re sharing with that company.”[iii] There is Twister, a Twitter clone in terms of feel and functionality that leverages the free software implementations of Bitcoin and BitTorrent protocols and deploys cryptography end to end so that no government can spy on users’ communications.[iv]
Through the lens of blockchain technologies, journalists and authors see the contours of a world that protects, cherishes, and rewards their efforts fairly. All of us should care. We are a species that survives by its ideas, not by its instincts. We all benefit when cultural industries thrive and when the content creators themselves can make a living. Moreover, these are the bellwethers of our economy—they reveal faster than nearly any other industry how both producers and consumers will adopt and then adapt a technology to their lives. Every business executive and government official has much to learn from them about the new era of the digital age.
Don and Alex Tapscott are co-authors of the book Blockchain Revolution: How the technology behind Bitcoin is changing money, business and the world (Penguin, May 2016). Don Tapscott, CEO of The Tapscott Group, is one of the world’s leading authorities on the impact of technology on business and society. He has authored over 15 books including Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything which has been translated into over 25 languages. His son, Alex Tapscott, is the CEO and Founder of Northwest Passage Ventures, a VC firm that invests in companies in the blockchain market. For seven years in the Canadian and U.S. Capital markets, Alex has worked tirelessly to help entrepreneurs realize their goals, raising hundreds of millions of dollars in critical growth capital and providing sound advice and counsel.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to
petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
—First Amendment to the Constitution (1791)
According to Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press report for 2016, press freedom worldwide has declined to its lowest point in 15 years. According to the report, only 13% of the world’s population enjoys a free press. From the heinous attack on Charlie Hebdo to state-sponsored censorship in China to violence committed against journalists covering organized crime in Mexico, it’s clear that journalists are increasingly hindered around the globe. Lest we become complacent, it is important to note that the U.S. only ranks at number 41.
Against that backdrop, it’s especially concerning when Donald Trump says that “70 to 75% of it (media) is absolutely dishonest, absolute scum.” And, he hasn’t stopped there. He mocked a disabled reporter. And, when a reporter asked him a tough question about the alleged funds he raised for veterans’ groups, Trump’s response was to call him “a sleaze.” It would be one thing if this was just bluster. But, Trump has advocated for the re-opening of libel laws so “we can sue (news organizations) and win lots of money.”
To understand what Trump wants to do, you only have to look across the Atlantic at the British libel laws. In order to bring a libel suit in the U.S., a person must prove that the published work was false. However, in the U.K., the onus is on journalists and reporters to prove their claims are true in court, which costs substantial time and money. This creates a chilling effect on reporting and free speech especially with regard to rich and powerful people or organizations.
In 2014, Cambridge University Press said it wouldn’t release a book critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the U.K. because it feared being sued. John Haslam, Executive Publisher at Cambridge University Press noted in a letter to the author that “the disruption and expense would be more than we could afford, given our charitable and academic mission.” More recently, HBO declined to release Going Clear—a documentary about the Church of Scientology—in Britain because of the high costs associated with defending against a libel suit. There are also cases of whistleblowers like Peter Wilmshurst being taken to court by a pharmaceutical company. Wilmshurst, a cardiologist, took issue with the science supporting a specific cardiac drug. When he proposed to publish data from his experiments, he was sued for libel in an attempt to repress his findings. He successfully defended against the suit, but only after years in court and much cost to him.
Trump hasn’t offered any specifics about his plan to amend libel laws here in the U.S., but his stated goal of being able to “sue and win lots of money” suggests that he would go at least as far as Britain’s laws. And, to be fair, Trump isn’t the only one working to undermine press freedoms. The rich and powerful often want less criticism of their actions. For these reasons, the Founding Fathers made the First Amendment clear: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” This fundamental and important boundary for government is essential to the free flow of ideas and leads to an informed public.
In 1804, Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter that “Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him (man) all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.”
Nelson Mandela echoed these sentiments in 1994: “A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour. It must enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens.”
America should strive to serve as an example of freedom and democracy. We should resist efforts to rein in the press by politicians who are either thin-skinned or trying to hide something. We should support the work of media organizations to shine a light on uncomfortable truths. We should applaud journalists who hold people in power accountable—not make it easier for wealthy individuals, government institutions, corporations and elected officials to silence their critics. Without a strong and independent press, we are less likely to hear opposite points of view—already a problem in American politics. We are more susceptible to demagogues, who feed on false information and half-truths. Without a free and vibrant press, the quality of our public debate will diminish, our political leaders will run unchecked and our democracy will suffer.