Algorithms undermine the right to facts

“Our current communication systems manipulate us insidiously,” Ressa warned attendees at the conference dedicated to disinformation and hate speech online

MANILA, Philippines – Maria Ressa, CEO of Rappler, was among the keynote speakers at the UNESCO global conference “Internet for Trust” in Paris, France on Wednesday, February 22, where she called for better safeguards against online disinformation and hate speech used.

You can watch her full keynote session on YouTube below:

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The Nobel Peace Prize laureate told attendees at the two-day event, which included government officials, technology officials, academics and members of civil society, how the incentive structure of social media has seemingly turned the world upside down and rewarded the spread of lies over facts.

“For some reason, facts are really boring,” she said. “The lies, especially when laced with fear, anger, hate, tribalism – us against them – spread.”

“Our current communication systems manipulate us insidiously,” warned Ressa.

She argues that content moderation is not enough to address the issues we see today. Instead, we need to look at how these systems work and make sure they don’t undermine our right to the facts and endanger our basic human rights.

To better explain her reasoning, Ressa provided this metaphor: “If we just focus on content moderation, it’s like there’s a polluted river. We take a glass. We scoop out the water. We purify the water and put it back into the river.”

However, what we need to do is “go all the way to the factory that’s polluting the river, shut it down, and then revitalize the river,” Ressa said.

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She said she was also being attacked online because of her work as a journalist, receiving up to 90 hate messages an hour – some of which attempted to destroy her credibility, while others were personal attacks on her gender and the appearance of her skin. Such attacks, she added, not only on herself but also on journalists and researchers, could break the spirit and make one stop working.

Of course, that shouldn’t be the result, because dealing with disinformation and hate speech online is, in her opinion, an “individual struggle for facts, integrity and values”.

“It’s up to you – each of us on social media. Stand up. Draw the line where you are on this side, and on this side you are evil. It is that clear. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is very clear.”

Currently, Ressa believes we are vulnerable to the dangers of social media. There are not enough laws, if any, to protect us and our human rights. Therefore, by then, a data pipeline must be in place that can combat disinformation and hatred.

The FactsFirstPH pipeline consists of four layers, a multi-pronged initiative to solve the disinformation problem involving several groups, including Rappler, as Ressa explains. It starts with the fact-checkers — the newsrooms and fact-checkers who go through and verify claims on the internet.

Then it moves to the Net – the support system made up of civil society groups, business organizations, religious groups and coalitions – whose job it is to share fact-checked information. Then it goes to researchers to create analyzes of the information. Finally, it goes to the lawyers and the legal groups responsible for defending the rule of law with facts.

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“Without facts there is no truth. Without truth there is no trust. Without these three we have no common reality. We can’t solve any problem. We don’t have democracy.” –