Philippines’ ‘lie machine’ at work: Maria Ressa found guilty of cyber libel


High-profile journalist Maria Ressa has been found guilty of libel in the Philippines’ in a case seen as a test of the country’s media freedom, the BBC reports. The former CNN journalist is the head of a news site that’s critical of strongman President Rodrigo Duterte. A writer for the site, Rappler, was also convicted. Both have been released on bail pending appeal – but could face six years in prison. In a country where journalists are under threat, Ressa’s case became symbolic and closely-followed – both domestically and internationally.

“Rappler and I were not the only ones on trial,” Ressa told the BBC after the verdict. “I think what you’re seeing is death by a thousand cuts – not just of press freedom but of democracy.”

The Consortium on Democracy and Disinformation, in partnership with Rappler, today held a forum (below) to discuss the implications of the cyber libel case and the verdict against Rappler, Maria Ressa, and former researcher Rey Santos.

We strongly condemn today’s conviction of @mariaressa, a champion of press freedom and our 2018 @ICFJKnight Award winner, the International Center for Journalists @ICFJ tweeted. This is a devastating blow for independent journalism not just in the Philippines but everywhere.  #DefendPressFreedom #CourageON

While disinformation is not new to politics, today’s technologies enable political actors to manipulate the information ecosystem at scale and with great speed, adds the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies.

Through massive networks of fake accounts, junk news sites, and the strategic use of conspiracy theories, half-truths, and falsehoods, authoritarian regimes and others are suffocating and dividing the public square. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, authoritarian governments and illiberal actors are drawing on similar approaches to discredit democracy while shaping international understandings of their response to the disease.

These “lie machines” are aided by expanding troves of data on individuals and an information ecosystem that facilitates polarization, outrage, and social distrust. The net result of their efforts is deadly to democracy. A recent NED forum (above) discussed a new book by Philip Howard, director of the Oxford Internet Institute, describes how these machines operate—and how they can be taken apart. 

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