Maria Ressa’s “How to Stand Up to a Dictator” is a weapon of sorts against misinformation
Nobel Prize-winner Maria Ressa provides a useful guidebook in this age of misinformation. Drawing lessons from her experiences in the news-gathering field, she searches for ways to fight authoritarian governments vowed on utilizing the internet’s glaring weakness.
Geek Rate: Sky god Worthy (5 out of 5 stars). It is not a coincidence that there’s difficulty getting a copy of this book in the Philippines. “How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future” gives some guidelines on how to fight misinformation, especially those carried out by dictatorial governments. This book is more than just a biography. It is a fascinating tale of one journalist’s journey.
My country, the Philippines, is currently in the grasp of an authoritarian regime, almost completely wiping out the opposition party by weaponizing the legal system and deceiving the mostly Class D-E public using social media. Following the handbook of dictators, the regime targeted the media, including the author Maria Ressa. She was the founder of Rappler, one of the few media organizations in the country which refused to bow to government censorship.
Ressa is still fending off the regime’s incessant efforts to put her in jail. Her book “How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future” records valuable lessons throughout her career as a journalist and her decades-long battle against oppressive governments.
Contrary to what the US media often parroted, Ressa is born in Manila to both Filipino parents. Her book functions like your typical biography. She talks about her childhood, clarifying details about it. As an Asian kid growing up in the US when her mother remarried, she speaks about her conflicting feelings and the difficult adjustments just to fit in.
But “How to Stand Up to a Dictator” is more than just a biography. It is a fascinating tale of one journalist’s journey. In the process, her experiences prepared her for the ordeal ahead. The chaos of a young Indonesian government. The impact of technological development on newsgathering. The rise of social media and the transfer of gatekeeping roles from journalists to businessmen. The government’s weaponization of Facebook and its attack against traditional media.
The book’s timeline is somewhat confusing but readers will get used to it after a few chapters. Ressa shares her insights as a young CNN correspondent in Asia, interviewing government leaders of fledgling nations. This and other experiences in the field discussed in succeeding chapters formed an impressive Lego-like structure. It consists of ideas and lessons that we can use to counter the growing rise of authoritarianism and the uncontrollable spread of disinformation.
In 2008, I met Ressa when I started working as a young metadata specialist at ABSCBN. Our contact is almost limited to none. But nonetheless, I was a witness to her remarkable zeal as head of the company’s news department to provide news-worthy content to Filipinos.
As someone who is working in the media, it’s a mixture of feelings to read the events detailed in the middle chapters of the book. It is exciting and painful, but also there’s pride and renewed determination.
Ressa founded the online news site Rappler, at first utilizing Facebook to disseminate information. Despite countless pleas and warning about the rise of disinformation, she will soon find out that pleasing advertisers is more important to the social media company. From there, it gets worse for her and Rappler when the government started targeting them. It subsequently culminated in her arrest.
Reading these accounts brings conflicting feelings, anger, and fear among them. For we are living on these events, and it is sort of personal seeing that several years after, the Duterte regime managed to close ABSCBN, the largest TV network in the country (without a franchise, but we’re still operating mostly online). It also brings back memories of when soldiers barged inside the newspaper office where I was a young intern during the Arroyo regime.
But as painful as it is to read, the book gives some guidelines on how to fight these regimes. It also provides steps on how news organizations can counter the growing threat of misinformation perpetuated by big social media companies. More importantly, “How to Stand Up to a Dictator” is an inspiration for us to fight misinformation in our small ways.
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