Resisting Democracy’s Death by a Thousand Cuts

How to Stand Up to a Dictator — reviewed by Brian Covert

How to Stand Up to a Dictator, by Maria Ressa. New York: Harper, 320 pp., $29.99.

There is a moment, Philippine journalist Maria Ressa recounts in her new book, when she goes from being an early supporter of the Facebook social media phenomenon as a force for global good to viewing the Internet-based platform as a threat to her media company, her country and the planet.

That awakening of sorts for Ressa arrives in 2021 with Facebook’s deletion of a post by Rappler, the online news company she founded, warning the public that one of its past news stories was being used deceptively as a propaganda meme by the Philippine’s far-right president, Rodrigo Duterte. By deleting Rappler’s post, Facebook effectively enabled the extreme-right forces to continue such malicious practices while crippling the ability of the free press to fight back with the truth.

“I believe that Facebook represents one of the gravest threats to democracies around the world, and I am amazed that we have allowed our freedoms to be taken away by technology companies’ greed for growth and revenues. Tech sucked up our personal experiences and data, organized it with artificial intelligence, manipulated us with it, and created behavior at a scale that brought out the worst in humanity,” Ressa writes. “We all let it happen.”

Part memoir and part manifesto, How to Stand Up to a Dictator is Ressa’s look back at her early life in the Philippines and the United States, a chronicle of her personal rise through the news industry as one of the most respected broadcast journalists in Asia, and her forward-looking call to action to save democratic societies from dying by what she calls “a thousand cuts” of intimidation and injustice that add up over time. The dictator in question here is as much Big Tech as it is Big Brother.

Readers of this book, Ressa’s third one, will no doubt be impressed by the author’s credentials: U.S.-educated Ivy League graduate, correspondent for the CNN cable TV news network in its formative years and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021, to name a few. Equally impressive has been Ressa’s keen eye as a journalist in assessing two separate social trends over the years for which the Philippines served as a testing ground: the rise of anti-western Islamic fundamentalism and the rise of Internet weaponization. She appears to have been far ahead of the international media pack when it came to taking these two phenomena seriously.

Facebook and other social media in the Philippines played a key role in getting the ultra-rightist Duterte voted into office as president in 2016 (just a half-year ahead of his American counterpart, Donald Trump). Duterte’s key platform was a “war on drugs” in which he promised to have suspects executed in the streets. He kept that promise, and as Ressa’s news outlet, Rappler, critically reported on the bloodletting that followed, the media company found itself squarely in the crosshairs of Duterte’s officially sanctioned efforts to suppress dissent.

The Philippine president used the two-pronged weapons of social media and the law to directly target Rappler, with Ressa eventually being arrested and charged with seven different crimes, including the crime of “cyberlibel” retroactively. Ressa stood firm against the government attacks. “We will not duck, we will not hide. We will hold the line” became her rallying cry.

“That night, when my government took away my freedom, they drew the line of repression directly to me,” she writes. “It was the moment when my rights were violated, when I went from being a journalist to being a citizen. If they could do this to journalists with some power, in the glare of the spotlight, what would they do to vulnerable citizens literally left in the dark? What recourse did a poor person have in a dark alley?”

How to Stand Up to a Dictator is not an instruction manual, to be sure, but Ressa does offer up “three pillars” that have achieved some measure of success in the Philippines and that she hopes may be transplanted elsewhere: demanding accountability from the corporate titans of technology, strengthening investigative journalism, and building communities of social action that are positively engaged in supporting frontline journalists and securing fair elections.

That said, Ressa may have her work cut out for her in the future. She has recently been acquitted of most of the government charges against her, yet still faces an uphill battle in fighting the remaining charges in court. Not to mention a new president in the Philippines — the newly elected Ferdinand Marcos Jr., slacker son of Ferdinand Marcos, the U.S.-supported dictator who was ousted in 1986 in a nonviolent “people power revolution” led by Corazon Aquino. The Marcos family is back in power in the Philippines, due in large part to the influence of Facebook.

Lest anyone in western societies take democracy for granted at this late hour, Ressa shares a prudent closing reminder in her book on the linked fate between the Philippine people and the rest of the world. “Don’t forget: Where we go, you go.”

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Brian Covert

Author's Bio

Brian Covert is a journalist, author and educator based in the Kansai area of Japan. He has been contributing to Kyoto Journal since 1988.