Our first #HerStory interview is with Maria Ressa, a journalist, author, and CEO of media organization Rappler. In this interview she shares what it’s like working on the front lines of journalism in the Philippines, the importance of speaking up in the face of corruption, and how social media can better challenge misinformation.
As a female CEO, what is it like to run a media organization in the Philippines?
Maria Ressa: I think it’s an incredible time to be a journalist in the Philippines, because the mission of journalism has never been as important as it is today. At the same time, um, I’ve posted bail eight times in about three months, I've been arrested twice in five weeks, and the Philippine government has filed 11 cases in 14 months against us, but we will keep going.
You were born in the Philippines, grew up in the US, and now you’ve returned to live and work in the Philippines — what’s that journey been like?
Maria Ressa: I was born in the Philippines but when martial law was declared in 1972 my family moved to Toms River, New Jersey. I grew up here, went to college at Princeton. After graduation, I wanted to try to figure out who I was and where I belonged, so I got a fellowship to go back to the Philippines for a year. That was in 1986, the year of the People Power revolt, which sparked global movements for democracy.
When I turned 40 [in 2003], I gave myself a deadline to choose where home is. At that point, as a journalist in the Philippines, we were building everything. It was endemic corruption [and] awfully weak institutions. Journalists had some of the highest credibility ratings. People turned to newsrooms and journalists because institutions didn't work. So when I turned 40, I chose the Philippines.
So tell us about the genesis of your career — why did you choose a path toward journalism?
Maria Ressa: I fell into it. I originally studied medicine before switching to English. Then I had the Fulbright scholarship to go back to the Philippines and that changed my life. I never left. I ran the bureau for CNN for a decade in Manila and then moved and opened up a bureau in Jakarta for another decade. It was the most amazing time.
My longest relationship, aside from my parents, is with journalism. The standards and ethics, the values and principles, the mission; it's important in the world today and even more important since the creation of journalism and the distribution of journalism have been splintered and social media platforms now own the distribution. Facts are getting watered down and are constantly under attack. Lies are masquerading as truth. If you can't tell the difference between fact and fiction, democracy all around the world just gets weaker.
How do you use Twitter to report the news?
Maria Ressa: I think like any journalist, Twitter is our social media of choice — it’s my defacto email. Rappler couldn't have been built without social media. One of the reasons I continue to work closely with social media platforms is in countries like the Philippines, in the global south where institutions are weak, the promise of empowerment is true. Governments and corporations are so powerful in our part of the world — you need social media to give people a voice.
Who would you say are your favorite female journalists to follow on Twitter?
Maria Ressa: There are so many in so many different countries. One of the things I like is how [on Twitter] you automatically have a global platform. This is fundamental. It’s changed the way we look at the world. The fact that I can just Direct Message Kara Swisher in LA or Carol Cadwalladr in the UK at the same time also means that lies in one country can spread instantaneously to another country. So I think it's positive and negative, like everything. And I think that this global reach [means] the global social media platforms have immense potential to do good.
If you could have a wishlist of features that we could build on Twitter, what would they be?
Maria Ressa: What I’d love to see from Twitter is strong action. This is an age where the people who know the internet — the people who know the technology — should come together. Social media allows us to come together in ways that have never been possible before, but we need to get rid of the toxic sludge, the lies, the attacks
The testosterone levels, the hate, the politics of hate that grows out of these information operations — this is not a world women would build. So maybe more women should be at the forefront.