Social media platforms are biased against facts and creating “a virus of lies” that threatens all democracies, the Nobel peace prize-winning journalist Maria Ressa has said.
Ressa, one of the Philippines’ most prominent journalists, said social media platforms were “manipulating our minds insidiously, creating alternate realities, making it impossible for us to think slow”.
Focusing simply on moderating social media content was a distraction, she said, and it was the design of platforms, and the algorithms they used to promote content, that were in need of an overhaul.
Speaking at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Sydney Dialogue, Ressa accused social media companies of misusing arguments around freedom of speech. “It’s a freedom of reach issue, not a freedom of speech issue,” she said.
“There’s something fundamentally wrong with our information ecosystem. Because the platforms that deliver the facts are actually biased against the facts,” she added, pointing to Facebook as the world’s largest delivery platform for news.
Ressa was awarded the Nobel prize along with the Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov last month for their “courageous fight for freedom of expression, a precondition for democracy and lasting peace”.
She co-founded the news website Rappler in 2012 and it hasbecome one of the Philippines’ most popular news outlets, known for scrutinising Rodrigo Duterte’s administration.
Rappler has not only covered Duterte’s war on drugs and exposed government corruption but also explored the ways in which social media can be manipulated by populist leaders.
Ressa said no democracies were immune from such threats. “I think what the tech platforms have shown is exactly how easy it is to use technology to manipulate human biology,” she said, adding that this transcended different countries and cultures.
While regulation had been put in place by many governments to protect against other potentially dangerous technologies, they had failed to do the same for information technology, which would continue to develop in sophistication. “[Technology] is thinking word for word faster than any human being ever can. And you’re not going to be able to get AI to fix the problems that human beings have created.”
Ressa said the world needed to take radical steps to protect democracies, as it had previously done at other key turning points in history. “Post world war II, we didn’t want world war III with atom bombs. That has already happened in our information ecosystem. It is manipulating our minds,” she said.
Google’s senior vice-president of global affairs, Kent Walker, who also spoke at the session, said transparency around algorithms was complicated owing to the frequency with which they were changed to prevent people from exploiting the system.
“I think we made 2,500, 3,000 changes last year … I think there’s a role for transparency, but we need to think through – is it with trusted government reviewers or [are there] other ways of keeping the bad actors from actually being able to reduce the quality of the search results you get, for example. This is a complicated area,” he said, adding there was a danger that many governments would also seek to manipulate search results.
Ressa said the decision to award her a Nobel prize showed the scale of the crisis facing journalism and information. “Because the last time journalists got this prize was in 1936, and he didn’t get to go to get the prize, he languished in a Nazi concentration camp,” she said. (Carl von Ossietzky, a German journalist, won the 1935 Nobel peace prize.)
Ressa has faced relentless harassment online and in the courts in response to her reporting. She has previously described receiving “90 hate messages an hour, 90 rape threats per minute”. She has faced a series of legal cases ranging from alleged tax evasion to defamation, and is out on bail appealing against a six-year prison sentence for a libel conviction.