'Draw the line; embrace your fear; and build your community, but beware the mob'
03 Jul 2023 | Maria A Ressa PhD
Read the full text of the commencement address of Maria A Ressa, 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, during the 2023 Loyola Schools General Commencement Exercises on Friday, 30 June 2023. Ressa was also conferred the degree of Doctor of Sociology, honoris causa, during the ceremony.
This honorary degree means so much to me because I feel like I’ve spent my entire life studying sociology, from journalism to governance to how we behave in groups to emergent human behavior.
Let me bring it to you: your lifelong search for meaning - and the global battle you are about to join.
What gets your attention is what gives your life meaning. WHERE you spend your time determines what you accomplish, what you become good at. That’s important to keep in mind as the battle for your mind is waged and won by manipulating your emotions - not your heart, not the incredible feeling you feel today … but your fear, anger, hate.
What I called TOXIC SLUDGE is what pumps through our information ecosystem, keeping you scrolling on your cellphones, making it harder for you to deal with the challenge that faced generations before you: how to build meaning into your life.
Meaning is not something you stumble across nor what someone gives you. You build it through every choice you make, through the commitments you nurture, the people you love, and the values you live by.
BUT. You’re graduating at an existential moment in history.
Now more than ever, we know that information is power. Without the right information, it’s impossible to fight back - whether it’s to find a cure for a disease, for the climate, or to hold power to account.
We need to fight the insidious manipulation social media platforms have allowed for tremendous profit: where lies laced with anger and hate spread six times faster than facts. That’s an MIT study from 2018.
These lies are like a virus that has infected our information ecosystem, playing to the worst of human nature, turning us against each other. They replicate and cripple our body politique - encouraging us to become our worst selves.
A lie told a million times becomes a fact. These next three sentences took me years to come to, backed by data, evidence we at Rappler found by living through some dark experiences. I have repeated them over and over, making me feel like Sisyphus and Cassandra combined. I said them at the Nobel lecture, and I’ll say them again now.
Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without these, we have no shared reality, no rule of law, no democracy. And if we have no shared reality, how can we solve the world’s existential problems - like climate change?
AI - artificial intelligence - has beaten humanity every single time - I just described the first time with machine learning in social media, creating cascading failures that has turned our politics into a gladiator’s battle to the death, along with a slew of social harms we have yet to fix. Including how globally, we are electing illiberal leaders democratically. If we don’t have integrity of facts, we cannot have integrity of elections.
But we didn’t learn. Last November, generative AI, far more complex and sophisticated, was released into the wild, the public sphere - a real time experiment that will further test our humanity. If the first generation of AI was curation - think of this new one as creation, man acting like God. And still no guardrails. With the responsibility of protecting us left in the hands of the people rushing ahead for profit. How many of you have used ChatGPT? In 2 months, it hit over 100 million users. It’s great, right?
What you may not know was that a few months before that happened, a survey in Silicon Valley of the folks who work with this AI said 50% believed that if what they were working on was released publicly, that there was a 10% or greater chance that it would lead to an extinction event. Of us.
Well, that’s bleak, but of course, we can’t give up.
You have to be prepared. This is the battle you are walking into today. We need your energy, your optimism, your commitment to justice.
It reminds me of the time when my friends told me, “Maria, you’re crazy to fight Duterte.” Except I wasn’t fighting Duterte. I was just doing my job as a journalist - and it was crazy what I had to sacrifice to do that. Like the first time I got arrested.
“Ma’am, trabaho lang po!” That’s what the arresting officer said. Then he lowered his voice to almost a whisper as he read me my Miranda rights. He was clearly uncomfortable, and I almost felt sorry for him. Except he was arresting me - the last act in a chain of events meant to intimidate and harass me because I am a journalist.
This officer was a tool of power - and an example of how a good man can turn evil … and how great atrocities happen. Hannah Arendt wrote about THE BANALITY OF EVIL when describing men who carried out the orders of Hitler in Nazi Germany, how career-oriented bureaucrats can act without conscience because they say they’re only following orders.
This is how a nation loses its soul.
In 2019, I was arrested twice in about a month, I posted bail 8 times in about 3 months - 2 more came soon after for a total of 10 arrest warrants - and I committed no crime except to be a journalist and to hold power to account.
Many ask me how do you find courage? Just like small acts can turn you evil, courage grows from small acts. So let me share 3 lessons with you as you battle for your identity and meaning:
- Draw the line now for your values. .
- Embrace your fear.
- Build your community, but beware the mob.
Draw the line
Every choice you make defines who you are, and they could be really simple like choosing to turn right instead of left - they lead to different paths. Or accepting a bribe because in your mind you’ve rationalized it’s a gift.
Character is created in the sum of all these little choices we make.
Now while you’re sitting there, 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: on this side you’re good; on this side you’re evil.
This is what prevents situational ethics. This makes sure you can’t rationalize greed or bad behavior. Think back to this moment in time.
You don’t really know who you are until you’re forced to defend it. Then every battle you win - or lose … every compromise you choose to make … or to walk away from … all these struggles define the values you live by - and ultimately, who you are.
Then when you’re in battle, avoid the hate: the US against them, tribalism - what sociologists call in group, and out-group. These labels divide us and have led to Nazi Germany, our brutal drug war, Leila de Lima in prison.
Populism is easy. Real leadership is not.
Find what we all have in common. That’s our humanity.
Alone we accomplish very little - no matter how bright or talented you are. It’s about what we can do together, to find what binds us together.
We build a stronger democracy by strengthening our common humanity.
Embrace your fear
I’ve been asked a lot: are you afraid? Of course, I’ve had those moments! But I was trained as a conflict reporter, a warzone correspondent. I plan the way in and chart the way out of any field of battle.
I’ve learned that fear spreads and is debilitating. Fear is a luxury.
If you’re in the middle of chaos, you need to stamp down your fear to have clarity of thought - that’s essential to make the right decision.
So whatever you’re most afraid of, touch it. Hold it. Embrace it. Because once you do that, nothing can stop you.
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 to power and money. And you have to be clear about what you’re afraid of because those are buttons they will push.
It took me more than a month to confront my fears - of jail, of violence. I hated that the baton, the leadership of a news group, was passed to me at that moment in time, but I also knew I wasn’t going to drop it.
That’s where courage comes from. That simple choice and commitment.
Beware the mob
Finally, beware the mob. This is the worst of human nature, and social media mobs have become the norm. Remember that lies laced with anger and hate spread fastest on social media, forming lynch mobs. That’s by design. For profit.
Switch out of thinking fast to thinking slow.
Slow down and think.
Fight for your best self.
It’s worth mentioning something else that this technology we live with encourages - that it’s always about you. It’s not. You have to be confident, but don’t cross into arrogance. Aim for the empty mirror. That when you look into the mirror, you see the world reflected - without your image blocking it out. The empty mirror - a reflection of the world, not just of your beautiful self.
Know that no matter how much of a superstar you are, you cannot accomplish anything meaningful alone. So build and strengthen your community.
Here’s some hopeful data from our civic experiment #FactsFirstPH - when nearly 150 different organizations collaborated to protect the facts. Every day, we told our Mesh layer to share these boring fact checks with emotion, and they couldn’t use anger - and we found that inspiration spreads as fast as anger, as fast as hate. Believe in the good.
I’ll leave you with one of the toughest moral choices I’ve had to make. This was decades ago, I was Jakarta bureau chief – in the final days of the Indonesian military’s scorched earth policy, when they were killing pro-independence supporters. My team and I were leaving the capital, Dili, to drive to Suai, about four hours away. I was told there had been a massacre, hundreds who had taken shelter in a church. There was a Catholic Filipino priest, Father Hilario.
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 Dili because he said he was being hunted and feared for his life.
I couldn’t turn the car around because we needed to go to Suai after reports of more violence. I couldn’t bring him with us because it would take him directly to the military and make all of us vulnerable. Our first responsibility was to get the story for our global audience. So I told him we could 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. He wasn’t there … and only later would I find out he had been killed.
37 years of being a journalist. And I always ask myself – did I do the right thing.
In situations of anarchy and war, it’s hard to distinguish right from wrong. There is only your mission, the purpose you are there.
So - what gives your life meaning? At a time of fragmentation, of a flattening of meaning, when the very words that once held us together - like democracy - are co-opted by the enemies of democracy, the baton is being handed to you.
It is going to get worse before it gets better. Which is why you have to prepare yourselves. This time matters.
This is in your hands. But you’re not alone. Look to your left. And then your right.
Decades after my own graduation, from half a world away, the people I sat next to rallied to our cause. Rallied around the values we defined when we were sitting in your place. When the kindness of strangers became real because in the midst of fear, our community in the Philippines supported us. When Ateneo stood up for its values and its students. When the Nobel Prize reminded us that doing the right thing is the right thing.
I wouldn’t be standing in front of you today if we at Rappler didn’t have that support. Sure, I’ve lost some freedom. I have to ask for permission to travel, and yes, it took years before I could begin to clear my name. Early this year, 4 criminal tax evasion charges - a possible 34 years in jail - disappeared just like that after Rappler and I were acquitted by 3 courageous justices in our Court of Tax Appeals.
So … don’t be distracted in your search for meaning. What you do today matters.
You will define what our society will look like and how our democracy will evolve. Milan Kundera said, “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
Technology is making that struggle harder. So get ready for battle: Draw the line; Embrace your fear; and build your community, but beware the mob.
We’re living in science fiction times, and our fate is in your hands.
Congratulations, Class of 2023!
Sleep well tonight. Dream of a better future. Then go. And make it happen.
(Images by Aaron Vicencio / UMCO / Ateneo de Manila University)
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