By Kitty Hu (UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies)
Versions of the truth
"Cheap armies on social media are changing the way we think and act," stated Maria Ressa, a prominent Filipino-American journalist and co-founder of Rappler. Ressa is currently facing up to six years of prison for cyber libel charges in the Philippines. "We live in an environment of violence and fear. To speak up in this environment has personal costs. The cases prove that we’re effective at what we do which is hold power to account. We will continue to fight."
In Ramona Diaz’s documentary A Thousand Cuts, journalist Maria Ressa provides an intimate look into the escalating war in the Philippines between President Rodrigo Duterte’s government and the press. Diaz follows key players with opposing alliances as Rappler, a popular online news site, directly confronts the government's drug war and exposes the underlying criminalization of poverty. In response, Duterte and select media sites organize a powerful disinformation campaign that threatens truth itself in and beyond the Philippines.
Following an online screening, Ressa spoke on a panel on October 1, 2020 with Jinee Lokaneeta (Drew University), Gina Dent (UC Santa Cruz), and moderator Neferti Tadiar (Barnard College) about the role of the media in covering and influencing policing and acts of authoritarian brutality.
The event was co-organized by Christine Bacareza Balance (Cornell University), Lucy MSP Burns (UCLA), Robert Diaz (University of Toronto), Allan Punzalan Isaac (Rutgers University), and Neferti Tadiar (Barnard College) and cohosted in partnership with Visual Communications.
This conversation forces us to reexamine our relationship to the truth. How does social media impact authoritarian regimes? What happens when the law is weaponized against people who are fighting to tell the truth? What does this mean for democracies and how can democracy itself be redefined?
Democracy and violence
With a global perspective, panelists spoke about the many parallels between what is happening with President Duterte in the Philippines and socio-political movements in Brazil, India, and the United States.
"This is a framework for how rule-of-law based, constitutional democracies can easily transition into authoritarian practices," began Jinee Lokaneeta, professor and chair of political science and international relations at Drew University. "It is popularly elected leaders who are able to create a resonance on the basis of some ‘societal grievance’ often based on an argument of ‘cleaning up society’ by creating an Other."
In India, Lokaneeta describes this framework within the context of the Modi’s government Citizenship Amendment Bill, which critics often label as anti-Muslim. The Muslim women who led protest movements against the bill are systematically targeted, according to Lokaneeta.
"More and more of what we are seeing is a blatant use of torture against protestors," Lokaneeta explained. "We have to focus on how violence is enabled by a state through the legal safeguards that mask state violence."
In the United States with ongoing protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality, state-enabled violence is increasingly part of the national discourse. Moderator Neferti Tadiar, a critical theorist and professor of women's, gender, and sexuality studies at Barnard College, asked panelists to reflect on where institutions and platforms for democracy are today, recognizing the impact of colonialism and capitalism.
"The foundations of policing in the U.S. are in colonial violence and in slave patrols," stated Gina Dent, associate professor in the feminist studies department at UC Santa Cruz. "We cannot settle for the definition of democracy and rights as we have received them. We cannot rely on or maintain our love of the law. We must think again about how we are relating to each other."
There are also contradictions in mobilizing with terms such as democracy and rights, argued Dent. Instead of advocating for a rights-based system, which has been distorted by racial capitalism, what would it mean to fight for responsibility-based cultures? What do we imagine as protections? How spacious are our imaginations?
Acting local, thinking global
"It is important to be connected living under Duterte, Modi, Trump and Bolsanaro," Dent advised. "We are segmented from each other intentionally. We are made small and local. It is important for us to be connected and global."
Information is power and social media has made it easier to connect internationally, Ressa agreed. Facebook has almost three billion accounts on its single platform, according to the company’s annual report. People flocked to social media because of the democratization of information through those platforms, but we increasingly witness how that is changing, Tadiar added.
"Social media platforms are now the distributors of news. At the beginning, people without power could use it to form communities of action," said Ressa. With machine learning and mass data collection, these platforms can now be used by corporations and governments to form what Ressa calls influence operations to create a behavior modification system. The simplest version of that is explicit propaganda. "The goal of influence operations is to destroy trust in what you think you believe and to sow chaos as you have already seen in the United States. When that happens, power gains more power."
However, despite the negative consequences of social media and top-down manipulation of those platforms, there is reason for hope.
"Local is global, and global is local. That’s what different about these times," reminded Ressa. "The bad things spread globally, but the good things can also spread globally."
To watch the full panel: