Filipino journalist Maria Ressa’s arrest on 13 February 2019, has sparked condemnation around the world. Al Jazeera Witness film gains up-close access to Maria and follows her fight on the frontlines of what she calls the ‘war on truth’. She says her mission is to prevent democracies from failing due to the spread of disinformation - not only in the Philippines, but around the world.
In this documentary:
- Maria takes us into Rappler, the digital-only news platform she co-founded in 2012 that flourishes by sharing much of its content via Facebook.
- Maria breaks down Rapplers ‘Shark Tank’ - a database of social networks that spread disinformation, containing more than 350 million comments, more than 15 million accounts, it is probably the largest data set outside of Facebook.
- Maria travels to Paris, France, where she speaks at the inaugural congregation of the Information and Democracy Commission, spearheaded by Reporters Without Borders and attended by French President Emmanuel Macron.
When Maria co-founded Rappler, things were looking up for news organisations around the world. Facebook seemed to have democratized access to information. Maria’s new platform and its reach, grew rapidly through social media and gained huge popularity in the Philippines.
But in 2016 Maria started to notice a rise in accounts extolling the virtues of the government or particular policies around the time of its announcement. She also saw dissenters being trolled. This prompted her and her team to create possibly the largest data set outside of Facebook, called the ‘Shark Tank’, to monitor these accounts.
What ‘Shark Tank’ monitor found alarmed Maria. She presented the evidence of widespread trolling to Facebook ahead of 2016 Presidential elections in the United States.
Facebook ignored her - until after the election of President Trump. Later Facebook contacted Maria requesting the data again and which was used to identify 30,000 fake accounts in France and shutdown ahead of the French elections in 2017.
Maria is convinced in the absence of such affirmative action by Facebook, the outcome of the French election may have been different and believes the US elections may have turned out differently, if Facebook acted sooner.
Part of the problem with old power right now is they don’t understand new technology. Part of the problem with the people that build new technology is they don’t understand old power. That’s what needs to merge – MARIA RESSA
Maria says autocratic rulers can view social media with suspicion because it allows dissenters to mobilise quickly, but now they realise they can use it to manipulate debate and undermine democracy.
A recent report by NGO Freedom House found that online disinformation tactics played a significant role in elections in at least 18 countries over the past year alone.
The end goal is to silence dissent. When people don’t know what is real and what is fake, when facts don’t matter, then the voice with the loudest megaphone gains more power – MARIA RESSA
Over several weeks, and traveling from the Philippines to France, award-winning filmmaker Yaara Bou Melham follows Maria in her campaign to make the world’s biggest internet organisation Facebook more accountable and to prevent democracies from failing.
The documentary is available on Witness Yutube page and Al Jazeera English websites.
For more information, you can follow Witness @AJWitness on: Twitter and Instagram and Facebook.