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Anti-social media

How 'toxic misinformation' threatens democracy
By: Connor Garel
February 08, 2019
Maria Ressa

Maria Ressa, a Filipina journalist named a Time Person of the Year in 2018, delivers her keynote address at the annual DemocracyXChange conference at the Ted Rogers School of Management. Photo courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

“A lie told a million times is a truth. The voice with the loudest megaphone wins.” Filipina journalist Maria Ressa used these powerful words in her keynote DemocracyXChange address on January 27 at the Ted Rogers School of Management.

Ressa, who was named a Time Magazine Person of the Year in 2018, titled her talk “The Existential Moment for Global Power Structures.” She began by outlining how our information ecosystem has been inundated, often intentionally, with “toxic” misinformation, threatening democracy around the globe.

Citing examples of Russia’s “information warfare” and President Donald Trump’s protracted campaign against “fake news,” Ressa mapped out the alarming ways in which many governments, particularly leaders in her native Philippines, have threatened traditional democratic values by weaponizing social media against dissenters.

She referred to this trend as “patriotic trolling,” or “state-sponsored online hate and harassment campaigns” designed to silence, intimidate, and sometimes imprison, journalists who openly criticize their respective governments. The objective of these efforts, Ressa argued, is to flood the Internet with lies in order to cast doubt on media credibility.

She noted that the Philippines is a world leader both in social media usage and fake accounts that make up a larger “propaganda machine.” Just 26 fake accounts on Facebook, she explained, have the capacity to influence up to three million others. “Every democracy is based on information. Information is power. Our first line of defence are journalists and when journalists are under attack, democracy is under attack.”

Ressa used her own legal battles to illustrate the siege she described. Since Rappler, the Philippine news website she founded in 2012, began critically covering President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs” — which has, according to Human Rights Watch, external link, claimed the lives of over 12,000 Filipinos to date — she has faced a barrage of online hate from pro-Duterte social media accounts, which promoted the hashtag #ArrestMariaRessa. She said she now faces trumped up charges of tax evasion, which carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years.

Ressa explained that this patriotic trolling disproportionately targets women and is characterized by allegations of corruption, followed by threats of sexual violence and calls for arrest. She offered Philippine senator Leila de Lima as an example. De Lima’s criticism of her country’s drug war resulted in a two-year prison sentence for alleged links to the drug trade.

One of the major threats to democracy and press freedom, Ressa argued, has been the severe lack of content moderation on social media. She explained that after a post goes up on Facebook, content moderators have just seconds to decide whether or not to take it down, often with little political context available to determine the post’s legitimacy. (These moderators, she added, are typically paid minimum wage.)

Ressa closed her address by challenging the audience “not to be complacent” in their own democracies. She reminded those in attendance that no democracy is immune to these threats — even Canada’s, especially in an election year. “In your communities in the real world, if someone was cursing someone out in front of you, you would step in. How did behaviour in the virtual world get so toxic? How can we allow this, when we wouldn’t tolerate it in the real world?”

The DemocracyXChange summit is an annual conference co-founded by Open Democracy Project and Ryerson Leadership Lab that brings together speakers, decision-makers and activists to discuss ideas and techniques to drive change from the ground up.

“We wanted to use this conference to celebrate and learn from the people who are building and driving change from the ground up and who are reaching across difference, which we think are two of the very key skill sets that are needed to succeed as a cohesive society,” said Karim Bardeesy, co-founder of the Ryerson Leadership Lab.

“The great thing about Maria is that she’s very much a beacon of a certain set of principles that are fundamental to a well-functioning democracy, and she has shown tremendous bravery. It’s important to have that fearless bravery and courage to protect the democracy that we have.”

The Ryerson Faculty of Arts was a co-presenting partner of the conference, which featured a session on how new communities are getting their voices heard in a non-partisan way, moderated by John Beebe of the Faculty's Democratic Engagement Exchange. Sanjay Ruparelia, new Jarislowsky Chair in Democracy in the Faculty of Arts, moderated a provocative session, "Is Democracy Failing?" Other sessions were moderated by Ryerson Distinguished Visiting Professors Olivia Chow and Martin Regg Cohn.

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