Past Event On January 21, 2023

Maria Ressa

The Integrity of Facts

Maria Ressa

“By manipulating our emotions, tech companies changed the way we looked at the world and the way we interacted with it.”

Maria Ressa



Maria Ressa has spent the past decade of her career standing up to a dictator. The journalist’s remarkable work exposing the human rights abuses of authoritarian President Rodrigo Duterte has earned her a Nobel Peace Prize and no fewer than 10 arrests by the Philippine government.

Having been acquitted of four charges of tax evasion against her and her digital news company, Rappler, just three days before her visit to The Richmond Forum, Ressa took to the Altria Theater stage with an infectious sense of gratitude. “You don’t know what freedom feels like until you almost lose it. You, in Richmond, your air is sweet.”

In her first departure from her home country since the acquittal, Ressa spent much of her day getting to know Virginia’s capital and its citizens before attending the Forum. Walking down Broad Street, she talked to a mixture of college students and long-time Richmond residents. “I got a sense of what was behind the headlines [about Monument Avenue] from 2020. Your story is like ours.”

Around the world, Ressa believes there is a “battle for our minds” being waged by tech companies against the public. “The fight for our attention is a new economy that is chipping away at our free will.” She asserted that the audience would walk away from the evening with answers to three questions: how does the attention economy operate, what impact does it have on society, and how can the people fight back against it.

Ressa explained that social media companies use machine learning to build “clones” of users based on the content they click, like, and share. Those clones are then served microtargeted content that often preys on an individual’s specific fears and spreads disinformation, all while putting profits into the pockets of big tech companies like Facebook. “Algorithms coded into social platforms are insidiously shaping our future by encouraging the worst of human behavior.”

“All of us have become Pavlov’s dogs. We are being experimented on in real time and it is disastrous. It’s happening all around the world.”

– Maria Ressa

Across the globe, illiberal leaders with popular online presences are being elected to office, and, consequently, Ressa said, “the number of democracies has rolled back to 1989 levels.” Information warfare set in motion by these leaders has splintered communities through divisive narratives masquerading as free speech and morally superior ideologies. “But the goal was never to make you believe in anything,” Ressa claimed. “The goal was to foment so much anger and hate that you tore things apart, that you created chaos.”

Nations like the Philippines, Brazil, Italy, and the United States have all seen this pattern unfold. Ressa outlined the specific chain of events that led to the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, from the introduction of the “stop the steal” narrative in a Russia Today op-ed to the normalization of extremist ideas on social media via QAnon. “Whether it’s in the United States or in Myanmar,” this cycle creates real-world violence.

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“But we can find solutions in our collective wisdom,” Ressa added with genuine optimism. “In the long term it’s [through] education, in the medium term it’s [through] legislation, and in the short term it is just us.” She called for redefining civic engagement in the digital age while coming together with our communities to create a better future.

Ressa left the audience with one final question that only they could answer for themselves: “What are you willing to sacrifice for the truth?”

In the question and answer portion of the program moderated by Melody Barnes, executive director of the UVA Karsh Institute of Democracy, Maria Ressa noted:

  • There is hope for divided communities to come back together over a shared sense of reality, but that can only happen if tech companies are held accountable and given “guardrails.”
  • Being first doesn’t mean being right. Wait for a news story to be reported on by multiple sources before accepting it as fact.
  • In response to a question posed by recent Forum speaker-turned-subscriber, H.R. McMaster, Ressa shared that intelligence agencies can empower the public and rebuild trust by sharing information more openly.
  • The danger of online disinformation doesn’t necessarily lie in the content itself, but moreso in the algorithms that distribute it.
  • The danger with artificial intelligence like ChatGPT is that AI bots are fed both facts and lies, and they have no ability to distinguish between the two.
  • Having courage requires a person to always make the choice to learn, embrace their fears, and stand up to bullies.

“She is a fascinating, intelligent, humble, and fierce fighter for human dignity, now and in the future. Very inspirational and motivational – each of us MUST remain aware and vigilant of societal, technological, and political manipulation which surrounds us each day; and we MUST each find our role in standing up for democracy.”

– Subscriber Comment

About Maria Ressa

A fearless defender of freedom of expression, Maria Ressa was awarded the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for her work exposing the human rights abuses of former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. She is a staunch advocate for independent journalism and co-founded Rappler, the top digital-only news site that is leading the fight for press freedom in the Philippines.

As Rappler’s president and CEO, Ressa has endured constant political harassment and arrests by Duterte’s administration. She has posted bail no fewer than 10 times in order to remain free. Ressa’s battle for truth and democracy is the subject of the 2020 award-winning documentary “A Thousand Cuts,” which profiles her fearless reporting on the abuses of Duterte’s authoritarian presidency. The film also illustrates social media’s capacity to manipulate public discourse and entrench political power.

In response to Facebook’s role in disseminating and promoting “fake news,” Ressa co-founded the Oversight Board: an independent group of journalists, academics, and activists who aim to hold the tech company accountable for what content they take down, what they leave up, and why those decisions are made.

Ressa was named a TIME Magazine Person of the Year in 2018 and was among the publication’s “100 Most Influential People of 2019” and “Most Influential Women of the Century.” She was also listed as one of the BBC’s “100 Most Inspiring and Influential Women of 2019” and Prospect Magazine’s “World’s Top 50 Thinkers.” She has received many awards over her 36-year journalism career.

Her memoir “How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future” was released in November 2022 to critical acclaim. Amal Clooney, who is Ressa’s attorney, wrote the book’s forward.

Who Else has spoken at The Forum?

More than 240 distinguished speakers have participated in The Forum since its inception in 1987. Our list of alumni includes past U.S. presidents, sitting heads of state, and leaders from the sciences, arts, business, and more.

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