Maria Ressa urged U.S. voters to think about the kind of information ecosystem they want to live in when they vote in the Nov. 3 presidential election, in a TIME100 Talks discussion with Prince Harry and Renée DiResta.
Ressa, founder of Filipino news site Rappler, which is critical of President Roderigo Duterte, is currently facing six years in jail in the Philippines after a court found her guilty of “cyberlibel” in June. In 2018, she was one of four journalists and one news organization named as TIME’s Person of the Year.
“Every American going into elections, you can’t just think voting is enough,” Ressa told Harry, who was co-hosting the event for TIME. “You’re going to have to sit and ask yourself the same question I ask myself, which is: what will you sacrifice for the truth?”
In the 25-minute conversation, Harry, Ressa and DiResta, the research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, discussed how social media platforms have allowed for the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories while increasing the pressure on professional journalists to cater to an attention economy that often sacrifices nuance for sensationalism.
Ressa and DiResta agreed that the rise of algorithms geared toward increasing “engagement” on social media sites have led to the collapse of shared realities within democracies. “What we see are the things that are curated for us,” DiResta said. “The feed … is algorithmically ranking hierarchically what we are most likely to be receptive to, or want to pay attention to.” The result, Ressa said, is an erosion of democracy. “When you have a democracy, and an algorithm that is meant to exploit your weaknesses to keep you on the platform, when that is what determines the context of the messages that give meaning to your world, you’re really reduced to meaninglessness,” Ressa said. “The designs of the platforms themselves actually encourage ‘us’ against ‘them.’”
Prince Harry, who has been critical of the tabloid press for what he has called “relentless propaganda” targeting his wife, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, agreed, shifting the conversation toward how social media platforms have put new pressures on the news media. “On social media, I don’t know how many characters you’re allowed on most of these things, but of course it’s going to anger people, of course it’s going to cause divisiveness because what should be a story of context … gets shrunk down into about one sentence,” he said. “And it enrages people because they’re making opinions or decisions based on that instant hit.’”
“As a journalist, that must be incredibly hard because there’s competition that is now being created where you have to get something online first,” Harry said, addressing Ressa. “And if you don’t then you lose out by however many millions of clicks, and then commercially you lose out as well. And then surely the pressure that’s coming from above to get that story online as quickly as possible, all of a sudden the importance of facts is sort of pushed to the side, so invariably there’s this struggle to get the story first, and even if there isn’t a story, 24 hour news cycle, you gotta fill the space. You’ve gotta create the news.”
“Media is a huge responsibility and a huge power, and it’s a privilege,” Harry said. “But the moment that it gets taken out of responsible hands, then you have uncharted territory — chaos, one might describe it as.”
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