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Security: How Many of Maria Ressa’s Warnings Will We Ignore?

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Hi, folks. Even after a summer as lousy as this one, it’s hard to say goodbye when you are entering an autumn that holds all the promise of Thelma and Louise taking a mountain drive. They had more enthusiasm, though.

The Plain View

Earlier this week, I spoke to Maria Ressa. She is the CEO of Rappler, a publication in the Philippines that steadfastly reports the truth. This enterprise is made more difficult because the Filipino president, Rodrigo Duterte, actively opposes a free press, and Ressa in particular. (“Fake news!” he cries.) Aided by social media supporters, mainly on Facebook, the Duterte regime has harassed her, spread lies about her, and charged her with criminal behavior, including a spectacularly dubious charge of cyber libel. (Rappler’s seemingly accurate reporting was published before the cyber-libel law even existed, and the arrest came after the paper corrected a typo.) On June 15, a Filipino court convicted her. There are also impending charges of tax evasion and possibly anti-terrorism. The total possible sentence could exceed 100 years. All for telling the truth.

When we Skyped, it was evening in Manila, morning on the East Coast of the United States. As the World Clock has it, the Philippines is just a little ahead of us. Normally effervescent, Ressa was less buoyant than usual. Not long before we spoke, the Filipino government banned her from traveling to the US to support a documentary about her, entitled A Thousand Cuts. (Now, a thousand and one.) Yet, as always, she greeted me with a smile, even while laying out the grim scenarios she faces.

“I expected that I would be found guilty June 15—but I didn’t really believe it until it [happened],” she says. “I have about a year before I have to seriously think about the possibility of jail.” Keeping up spirits is critical but difficult. “Half of the battle is just making sure that I don’t lose faith or hope,” she says. But she did admit that she was angrier than the last time we saw each other, early in the year. Not just at Duterte, but at Facebook.

In 2016, Ressa reported on how government supporters used fake accounts to organize campaigns of lies. She warned Facebook that it might see similar behavior in the US, a caution the company did not take to heart. After that, Ressa found that she was a prime target for harassment; it was a double whammy of criminal charges and a slander campaign on Facebook.

Eventually, Facebook acted to take down the accounts, but not quickly enough for her. “If Facebook had taken action in 2016, I wouldn’t be in this position,” Ressa told The Washington Post in 2019. Since then, the company has vowed to act more forcefully against organized misinformation. Yet the behavior continues on its platform. For the government, tearing Ressa down on social media is presumably a way to make prosecuting her more palatable, and it sets an example for others who might want to take on the powers that be. In 2018, in a meeting with Facebook officials, she begged them to be more proactive, telling them if the posts against her didn’t stop, she would end up in jail. And then she was convicted for the first time.

She now tells me that despite Facebook’s recent efforts, the platform is still what she calls a “behavioral modification system.” She explains: “It’s the way they have not paid attention to the influence operations. They take all of our data, and they take our most vulnerable moments for a message, whether that is from an advertiser or a country, and they serve that to us, right? And then they look at how we react, and the algorithms adjust to that.”

After her conviction, “the propaganda machine of the government went into high gear,” she says. “They went even further in terms of dehumanizing me, and that makes it more dangerous for me.” One meme superimposed her face on a scrotum. “It’s sexualized, it’s gendered,” she says. While Facebook did respond to her pleas to remove those, the question was why they ever appeared in the first place. “Sometimes it gets taken down, but it still gets up,” she says. Many of the posts, she says, simply misreport the facts about her. And consistent repetition of a falsehood can obliterate truth. “You repeat a million times that I’m a liar or a criminal, which one is real?” she says.

Ressa’s plight has drawn attention. She, along with Jamal Khashoggi and a few other courageous journalists, was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2018. Her speaking appearances have brought crowds to their feet. She is an international symbol for free speech and resistance to authoritarianism.

Yet Facebook, which sometimes likes to celebrate heroes who stand up to oppressive bullies (their faces are often on posters hanging on headquarters), had no official statement about Maria Ressa’s shameful prosecution. Speaking on his own, Facebook’s security head Nathan Gleitcher posted a tweet on the day of her conviction: “This is a dark day for press freedom. Maria Ressa is a fearless reporter and an inspiration.” But his remark stood alone: not a peep from Zuckerberg, Sandberg, or other top executives, many of whom have met with her previously and looked her in the eye.

Facebook gave me a statement saying, “We believe strongly in press freedom and the rights of journalists to work without fear for their personal safety or other repercussions. We continue to support journalists and news organizations by removing any content that violates our policies, disrupting coordinated networks, and limiting the spread of misinformation.” (It also notes that Rappler is one of its fact-checking partners.)

So why not speak up for a journalist who works in fear and has suffered repercussions? Facebook’s explanation is that it doesn’t normally single out free-speech heroes and that it did meet privately with Ressa after her conviction. The company has said repeatedly that it has taken measures to address the toxic organized misinformation campaigns boosted by its platform. But Ressa—and many critics—believe that those efforts fall short because they don’t address fundamental aspects of its platform that rewards provocative and even toxic content. “What does fixing it mean?” she says, “In the end, their business model is flawed. How will they still make money without killing democracy?”

I think a lot about Ressa, living in a country that arrests journalists and blesses their demonization on social media. As with the World Clock, the Philippines is just a little ahead of us.

Time Travel

I first talked to Ressa for my book, Facebook: The Inside Story. Here’s a piece of it:

Ressa understood that the Duterte forces were drawing a road map for future political abusers around the globe to use Facebook. She pushed for a meeting to warn the company. In August 2016, she met with three senior Facebook officials in Singapore. She had identified twenty-six fake accounts that were able to amplify their hateful and false information to 3 million people. “I began showing them lies, the attacks against anyone who attacked the extrajudicial killings,” she says. One example was a post from the Duterte campaign spokesperson, showing a photo of a girl he claimed was raped in the Philippines. “We did a check and it showed that the photo was a girl from Brazil,” says Ressa, speaking to me in 2019. “And yet that post was allowed to stay up. It’s still up there today.” (Facebook says that when it got the necessary information, it acted on the accounts.)

It seemed to Ressa that the Facebook officials were in total denial of what she was pointing out with clear evidence. “I felt like I wasn’t talking to people who use Facebook as well as I do,” she says … Later she would recall a moment in the meeting when, frustrated, she reached for the biggest hyperbole she could think of to portray what might happen if such practices continued. “If you do don’t something about this,” she said in August 2016, “Trump could win!”

The Facebook people laughed, and Ressa joined them. It was just a joke. Nobody thought that could happen.

Ask Me One Thing

Christine asks,“WIRED talks about the political and social aspects of TikTok, but what about the technical details? What is the app doing that is raising concern? I’ve often seen analysis of how other apps are accessing private data and other smartphone capabilities. What about TikTok?”

Well, Christine, TikTok is asking the same thing—where’s the smoking gun? It claims that it has taken steps, including being more transparent on its technical operation, to prove that the private data it stores is not accessible to China. (This claim comes in its lawsuit attempting to overturn the executive order demanding a sale or shutdown.) The security argument, as best as I can tell, is that China could always order a native company to do whatever it has to do to hand over that data. Security aside, there is an argument about banning TikTok that has little to do with the content of the app itself. US companies are not permitted to operate in China without taking on a partner that owns the majority of the business there. So, goes the reasoning, the US is a sucker for not imposing the same restriction. If an American uses the ban to negotiate a way for American companies to operate in China, that would seem to be a good thing. However, the TikTok executive order doesn’t seem to be rooted by a clearly delineated reason, only an impulse to punish China. And the idea, floated by the president, that the purchaser in the forced sale should kick back a portion to the government reeks of corruption.

You can submit questions to mail@wired.com. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.

End Times Chronicle

So much to choose from—California burning, a 17-year-old vigilante with an assault rifle, and the Guilfoyle challenge. All of it on top of the pandemic. But Hurricane Laura, one of the once-in-century disasters that seem to happen every couple of weeks or so, gets the prize. Word of the week: unsurvivable.

Last but Not Least

We now have an AI that can apparently demolish the Red Baron in an aerial dogfight.

The story of how the son of the billionaire prime minister of Georgia (the overseas Georgia) became an Instagram star is mind-blowing and disturbing.

The FDA’s decision on convalescent plasma is as suspicious as you think it is.

And to end on an upbeat note: The future looks bright for bathrooms.

Don’t miss future subscriber-only editions of this column. Subscribe to WIRED (50% off for Plaintext readers) today.


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