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Maria Ressa’s Commencement Speech at Columbia 2023

Maria Ressa addresses SIPA's Class of 2023
Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa addresses SIPA's Class of 2023. (Photo: Barbara Alper)

Maria Ressa, the Nobel laureate and Filipina journalist known for her work to protect media freedom, spoke to the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs Class Day ceremony on May 14, 2023.

Thank you, thank you so much. My gosh. Dean Karen Yarhi-Milo, the members of the board, the faculty, staff, family and my God—hello, class of 2023.

It’s so wonderful to see you filing in and to see your faces today, and to see your family and friends. It is impossible to be here, as Karen said, and you know, whatever she said—ditto.

But thank you so much for inviting me to speak with you at this existential moment, right, and I use that word very deliberately.

I was with Al Gore a few weeks ago and we were talking climate—right, yes, climate—but he and I agreed that it is impossible to solve the climate problem until we deal with, he called this the “democracy crisis,” which begins with the corruption of our information ecosystem.

And what is the primary problem, right, because you’ve heard too many…our public debates simmers around a lot of different things but it’s actually only one choice that was made by the tech companies that connects all of us, right.

What’s that one choice? When lies that are laced with anger and hate spread at least six times faster than those really boring facts. It literally…this is what delivers us—you guys watch Stranger Things?—it delivers us to the down under. We’re literally in the down under. Everything seems kind of familiar but it’s covered with muck and goo, right, and we’re all trying to find our way to get to the right side up.

Well, all of this is pumping what I called toxic sludge in the Nobel lecture through all of us, right. This is what is pumping between us, tearing apart our shared reality, destroying facts, truth, and trust.

This insidious manipulation of our emotions for profit is partly why all around the world we are electing illiberal leaders democratically. And after they each crush the institutions of democracy in each of our countries. This happened in the Philippines in 2016 in about six months—six months. It’s short.

After they do that in each of our countries, they then reach out and they ally together. Anne Applebaum called it Autocracy Inc. I call it Kleptocracy Inc., right—power and money.

Of course today, you know, we have elections in Thailand and in Turkey. Here’s the problem, right. If you don’t have integrity of facts, how can you have integrity of elections? And yet like in Brazil, civil society—the voters—everything comes down on us and we claw our way back to try to have elections that matter.

In the Nobel lecture, I compared the tech company’s business model to the atom bomb that exploded in our information ecosystem. What happened after that happened, right, when the atom bomb exploded? The United Nations was created, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the School of International and Public Affairs, right. This was created to try to prevent humanity from destroying ourselves

When policy frameworks, negotiations, and shared values crafted a path forward in Southeast Asia, we call it enlightened self-interest. But something changed.

Technology companies which triggered the Doomsday Clock for democracy tells us we are now in the last two minutes of democracy—last two minutes, right. Ninety elections from January this year until the end of 2024. 2024 as a tipping point where you have Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim population; India, the world’s largest democracy; and the United States. If nothing significant is done, we will step off the cliff.

Oh man, I’m sorry to be a downer as you join us.

Most of this was because of our first encounter with artificial intelligence, with AI. That’s the rudimentary machine learning that is literally curating our lives, right. Each of us having our own individualized news feed. I mean, you know…when this came out in 2014 that we were each going to get our own news feed, while everybody was like rejoicing, I kept thinking, what happens to the public sphere, right. You know what they call a place where everyone has their own realities? An insane asylum.

In my book, “How to Stand Up to a Dictator,” two groups abdicated responsibility for protecting our public sphere. You’ve heard me say this—the American tech companies primarily, right, but now you’ve got to add TikTok, and then the democratic governments that are that should have protected us.

The Cambridge Analytica whistleblower reminded me that a toaster to get inside your home will go through more regulatory and safety checks than the software that is living with you in your pocket, right, that is taking everything you post—your connections, your emotions, your dreams, your hopes, your fears

This is addictive software, and it is rewiring our brains, insidiously manipulating our biology. It is what we all have in common, regardless of nation, culture, or language. And it is changing the way we think and the way we act.

This isn’t a free speech issue. It’s a distribution issue. It is engineering oversight, right, assuring every one of us that Butler Library behind us is not going to fall down when we’re inside. It won’t collapse. And if it did, then we would know who we can hold to account. There are policies and laws in place to stop the impunity.

Well, we have yet to address the cascading failures of this first generation, our first encounter with AI, when power and money struck again, this time releasing generative AI in November last year.

How many have tried it? Raise your hand. Don’t be…yes. Yes, it’s pretty cool, right? It’s interesting. It is…it’s been compared to like man—women—finding fire.

But if you think about the first generation AI as curation, this new one, this generative AI, is creation, right. It is creation. And there are still no guard rails. And again, the responsibility of protecting us is left in the hands of the people rushing ahead for profit.

What you may not know is that a few months before that release of the generative AI last year, a survey in Silicon Valley among the people who work with AI showed that 50 percent of them believed that if they released what they were working on as it is to the public, that there is a 10 percent or greater chance that it will lead to an extinction event—of us. They can’t control its evolution, right.

So, okay, that’s bleak.

But we can’t give up. And the reason I’m telling you all of these—don’t worry, I won’t leave you depressed, I promise—is because you have to be prepared. This is the battle you are walking into today. And boy, do we need you. We need your energy, your optimism, your commitment to justice, as Karen said, your global views.

Don’t complain about your government or corporate bureaucracy or the UN moving slowly. They do. You gotta jump in and change it. At the time of exponential, exponential change you have a unique view that we need in this battle. Because it begins with you, your search for meaning. Because when Tech has atomized meaning, you have to work even harder to define what is important to you, what gives your life meaning.

The lesson I learned—10 arrest warrants in a little over a year and a half, right—the lesson I learned is that you don’t know who you are until you’re forced to fight for it, until you fight for what you believe in. This defines who you are, and I will say we are in for a battle.

That you are here means you’ve found some answers, you’ve made some decisions but—there are more. It will change exponential, exponential.

So three ways that you can live your way into evolving answers. I can’t begin to tell you how much things have changed for me between 2016 and 2023.

One, draw the line for your values.

Two, embrace your fear.

Three, build a community, but beware the mob.

So draw the line. Every choice you make defines who you are. And they could be really simple choices like turning right or turning left but, you know, it takes you down a different path. Or accepting a bribe, because in your mind you’ve rationalized—it’s a gift. Or if you’re a tech mogul saying that the genocide in Myanmar has nothing to do with social media, despite what the UN and the Meta reports say, that Facebook enabled it.

Character is created in the sum of all these little choices we make.

Now, while you’re sitting here, be clear—choose the values that define you. Do it now. Because when you’re tested—and it will come if it hasn’t already—you have to know the lines you’ve set. Draw the line where on this side you’re good and on this side you’re evil. That will prevent situational ethics. That makes sure you can’t rationalize greed or bad behavior. Think back to this moment in time.

Two—embrace your fear. I’ve been asked a lot, aren’t you afraid? Well, yeah of course! You know, there are these moments, but I’ve learned that fear spreads and it’s debilitating.

Fear is a luxury. If you’re in the middle of chaos, you need to stamp down your fear so you can have clarity of thought. That’s essential so you can make the right decision.

People will try to coerce, manipulate, intimidate, or threaten you to get what they want. Often they have a lot at stake. Often it comes down to power and money.

You have to be clear what you’re afraid of, because those are the buttons they will push. So whatever you are most afraid of, imagine it. Touch it. Hold it. Embrace it. Then rob it of its power, because once you do that nothing can stop you.

It took me a little more than a month to deal with the fear of jail, the fear of violence. I hated that the baton, you know, as a news head, was passed to me at this moment in time.

But I also knew that I wasn’t going to drop it. That’s where courage comes from, from a small decision, a simple choice. I’m not going to drop the baton, and that’s my commitment.

Third, beware the mob. This is the worst of who we are, of human nature, and social media is doing its best to fan that flame inside you, right. It is inciting fear, anger, hate, tribalism, us against them. These is what this [mimics scrolling on her phone] rewards to keep you scrolling, right. So the more it sees that—that’s what we’re swimming in.

Remember—lies laced with anger and hate spread faster. They form lynch mobs. That is by design. So switch out of thinking fast to thinking slow. Fight for your best self. Know that no matter how much of a superstar you are, you can’t accomplish anything meaningful alone. So build and strengthen your community.

Let me leave you with a lesson from Rappler, and this is data from our civic engagement experiments that show us that, yes, fear, anger, hate spreads faster.

But guess what emotion spreads as fast—inspiration. Inspiration spreads as fast as anger, as fast as hate. So don’t dive into this [holds up her phone]. Believe in the good. Believe we can be good, right.

I’m going to leave you with one of the toughest moral choices I’ve had to make, and this was decades ago. I was still CNN’s Jakarta bureau chief. In the final days of the Indonesian military scorched Earth policy where they were killing pro-independent supporters—this is in Timor-Leste today, right, in Timor—my team and I were about to leave the capital, Dili, it was before dawn so it was still dark, to drive to Suai, which was about four hours away by car.

I was told there had been a massacre, that the hundreds of people who had taken shelter in the church were being massacred then and the priest, Father Hilario, was a friend of mine. He was a Filipino priest.

We were about halfway there when we stopped for gas and a man, a friend, a source, came running to our car. He asked me for a ride back to the capital, to Dili, because he said he was being hunted. I’d never seen him this agitated. He said he feared for his life. I couldn’t turn the car around because we needed to go to Suai, right. We needed to get the story. I couldn’t bring him with us because it would take him directly to the military, to the police, and it would make all of us vulnerable.

So I thought about what’s our first responsibility—to get the story. We had a global audience. We needed to get you the story. So I told him—this happens in seconds, right—I told him we would come back. We would pick him up that evening on our way back to Dili.

We got to the church. There was a massacre. It was a long, grueling day. When we drove back, we got to our designated meeting point an hour late, so I stayed an hour longer. He wasn’t there, and only later I would find that he had been killed.

Thirty-seven years as a journalist—there are many choices like that and I always ask myself, did I do the right thing? In situations of anarchy and war, it is hard to distinguish right from wrong. There is only your mission, the purpose you are there.

So, draw the line, embrace your fear, and beware the mob.

We are living in science fiction times and our faith is in your hands.

I think I shouldn’t say congratulations. I should say, welcome to the battlefield. Sleep well tonight, because your dreams—you have to dream of a better future. It must get better, right, despite the bleak battle you are entering—oh man, we can’t give up! And you are coming into the fray. So dream of a better future, then when you wake up tomorrow, go and make it happen. You go, class of 2023.

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