3 min read

The Canadian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics hosted the hearing of the International Grand Committee on Big Data, Privacy and Democracy from Monday May 27 to Wednesday May 29.  Witnesses from at least 11 countries appeared before representatives to testify on how governments can protect democracy and citizen rights in the age of big data.

This section of the hearing, which took place on May 28, includes Maria Ressa, CEO and Executive Editor, Rappler, who talks about how information is powerful and if molded into make-believe lies can turn these lies into facts.

In her previous presentation, Maria gave a glimpse of this presentation where she said,

“Information is power and if you can make people believe lies, then you can control them. Information can be used for commercial benefits as well as a means to gain geopolitical power.”

She resumes by saying, the Philippines, we, here are a cautionary tale for you. An example of how quickly democracy crumbles, is eroded from within and how these information operations can take over the entire ecosystem and transform lies in the facts. If you can make people believe lies are facts then you can control them. “Without facts, you don’t have the truth, without truth you don’t have trust”, she says. Journalists have long been the gatekeepers for facts. When we come under attack, democracy is under attack and when this situation happens the voice with the loudest megaphone wins.


She says that the Philippines is a petri dish for social media. She stated, as of January 2019, HootSuite has said that Filipinos spent the most time online and the most time on social media, globally. Facebook is our internet; however, it’s about introducing a virus into our information ecosystem. Over time, that virus lies masquerading as fact, that virus takes over the body politic and you need to develop a vaccine. That’s what we’re in search of and she says she does see a solution.

“If social networks are your family and friends in the physical world, social media is your family and friends on steroids; no boundaries of time and space.”

She showed that astroturfing is typically a three-prong attack. She has also demonstrated certain examples of how she was subject to an astroturf attack. In the long term, it’s education and you’ve heard from the other three witnesses before me exactly some of the things that can be done in the medium term i.e. media literacy. However, in the short term, it’s only the social media platforms that can do something immediately and we’re on the front lines, we need immediate help and immediate solution. She said, her company Rappler, is one of three fact-checking partners of Facebook in the Philippines and they do take that response really seriously. She further says, “We don’t look at the content alone. Once we check to make sure that it is a lie, we look at the network that spreads the lies”.

She says, the first step is to stop new viruses from entering the ecosystem. It is whack-a-mole if one only looks at the content. But when you begin to look at the networks that spread it and you have something that you can pull out. “It’s very difficult to go through 90 hate messages per hour sustained over days and months,” she said. That is what we’re going through the kind of Astroturfing thing that turns lies into truth for us this is a matter of survival.

To know more and listen to other questions asked by some other representatives, you can listen to the full hearing video titled, “Meeting No. 152 ETHI – Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics” on ParlVU.

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