Fake news, real consequences: The woman fighting disinformation – CBSN Originals exclusive documentary – CBS News

Watch the new CBSN Originals documentary, “Fake News, Real Consequences: The Woman Fighting Disinformation,” in the video player above. The full hour special premieres on CBSN Sunday, June 30, at 8 p.m., 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. ET.


In the early days of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, social media seemed to hold boundless promise. Tech CEOs assured us their platforms offered a better way to connect the world, to share photos, to keep up with friends and family.

As the 2016 U.S. election illustrated, however, social media can also be harnessed for less innocent purposes by those who recognize its power in controlling the narrative, to spread lies masquerading as the truth.

The Philippines is considered by many to be a canary in the coal mine for the impact of disinformation online. While President Rodrigo Duterte’s violent war on drugs drew international attention and condemnation, less well known is the way Duterte and his supporters have leveraged social media as a tool to both silence their critics and blur the line between fact and fiction. And some say, if nothing changes, a similar fate may await the U.S.

“This technology can enable groups of people to come together and to actually create things bottom up. That was the dream,” said Maria Ressa, an award-winning journalist and the founder and CEO of Rappler, a media company launched in Manila in 2012 that uses social media as a central platform for distributing its work. “And we succeeded for the first, I would say, five years or so. The sixth year was when social media was weaponized.”

After Duterte was elected, uniformed police and so-called death squads began targeting suspected drug dealers and users, and the death toll rapidly grew — by some estimates, into the tens of thousands.

As reporters, like those at Rappler, cited these numbers and exposed the human toll of the drug war, Duterte and his supporters began wielding the power of social media to combat the criticism. Both Rappler and Maria herself came under attack online — often by social media accounts linked to Duterte supporters. Rumors and false information about Maria in particular began to spread, and often the accusations were repeated by either Duterte himself or a government-friendly newspaper such as the Manila Times.

“Constant attack, and then the Manila Times brings it to traditional media, and then the president says it. That’s the way they work,” Ressa said. It became a familiar and disturbing pattern — one that’s also seen in other countries with authoritarian leaders, like Putin’s Russia, Maduro’s Venezuela, and Erdoğan’s Turkey.

“I call it the dictator’s playbook. It’s marched around the world,” Ressa said.

Rappler CEO Maria Ressa on battling disinformation on social media

Rappler found the best way to combat these attacks was to track how the disinformation campaigns worked, to try and show the public precisely how they were being misinformed. Ironically, Rappler’s work attracted the attention of Facebook itself and, in April, Rappler agreed to become one of Facebook’s media partners in rooting out disinformation on the platform.

Despite Rappler’s efforts, Duterte appears to be prevailing. In May, the Philippine midterm elections were a sweep for Duterte supporters, with all 12 of the open Senate seats won by his picks. Duterte holds a 66% approval rating, and most national news outlets have largely stopped reporting on the drug war.

As Rappler sounds the alarm, the government is doing all it can to silence it. Maria Ressa alone has 11 criminal charges filed against her, and may be on the verge of going to jail.

“I don’t know what’s next,” she told CBS News. “The best-case scenario is that the government becomes magnanimous in victory, and begins to heal the society, stops the information operations happening online, holds people accountable who are inciting hate. The worst-case scenario is that this kind of overwhelming use of information operations to continue to grow power, continues. And if that happens, our democracy — I mean, we’re going to fundamentally change. And I can see the same thing happening in the United States.”

“A cautionary tale for the United States”

Though focused on the challenges facing the Philippines, Ressa is also looking beyond its borders. 

“The Philippines is a cautionary tale for the United States. The very same things that are happening in the Philippines are happening in the U.S., and the only difference is that institutions in the United States are stronger than in the Philippines,” she said.

In the U.S., three years after the Russian government used Facebook and Twitter to interfere in the 2016 presidential campaign, experts are trying to anticipate what’s next. 

“People were caught flatfooted by this in 2016 in the U.S. — the platforms were sort of slow to respond to this,” said Joshua Tucker, a professor of politics at NYU. “The government was, you know, not out in front of this. That’s not the case right now. Like, everybody’s thinking about this.”

But Tucker, who studies disinformation patterns, says disinformation strategies are evolving. The false information spread in 2016 was largely based on text— mostly fake articles. The fake news of tomorrow, he says, is video.

“We’re getting to the point where I can make a video where you say something that you’ve actually never seen. They’re called deepfakes.”

The challenge of detecting “deepfakes” ahead of 2020 election

Deepfakes are created with technology that enables someone to take an authentic video, such as a clip of a politician giving a talk, and then manipulate it so that the speaker says whatever the manipulator wants them to. The end result looks and sounds realistic enough that it is difficult for the viewer to notice. 

This, he says, will only add to the distrust of a public that increasingly doubts what it sees online.

Though Tucker believes American democracy is resilient, he is concerned that our focus on foreign meddling may blind us to a future where it is actually domestic players that collectively cause more damage. 

“What I worry about is that the legacy of what happened with Russia’s interference in 2016 isn’t so much as a blueprint for foreign interference in elections as it is a toolkit that all sorts of domestic actors that have interests in affecting election outcomes can begin to use,” he said. “So I’m a little bit nervous that this emphasis on preventing foreign interference is going to miss the larger picture.” 

Back in Manila, Maria Ressa is also looking at the big picture and how much is truly at stake.

“This is not just about journalism,” she said. “This is an existential moment. If nothing changes we will lose democracies.”

Philippine journalist Maria Ressa fights for freedom after another arrest

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.