When Ramona Diaz sought to create A Thousand Cuts with Maria Ressa, a film about the drug war currently happening in the Philippines, she didn’t expect to make a film about how social media’s impact on democracy has led the Southeast Asian country into disarray. The Philippines’ war on drugs has quickly become one of the most widely-talked about human rights issues in modern history, as tens of thousands of people have been killed at the hands of the state over petty drug crimes.
Rodrigo Duterte, the controversial President of the Philippines, has been caught up in headlines for the last several years in a nasty legal battle against Maria Ressa, the CEO and Editor in Chief of Rappler, an online news platform popular throughout Asia. When Rappler began exposing Duterte for his alleged crimes against humanity several years ago, Maria Ressa also began connecting the dots between several disinformation campaigns on social media websites like Facebook, and Duterte’s overwhelming control over the media narrative. In an investigative, tell-all documentary that details Ressa’s legal battle for journalism and freedom of the press in the Philippines, Ramona Diaz demonstrates how administrations like Duterte’s have been able to weaponize social media to cover their tracks.
“I knew I wanted to make a film about the Philippines under Duterte because to me it seemed very [much like] Deja Vu,” says Diaz. “I grew up under martial law so I knew what it was like under [former President Ferdinand] Marcos, and this seemed like we were going back into a past that I thought we had shaken off,” she says of how she began the process of documenting what would later become A Thousand Cuts, the story of how Maria Ressa is fighting for freedom of the press and democracy in the Philippines.
“Maria was calling out not only the numbers on the drug war [victims] but she was calling out the President, saying that the numbers [of dead] are much higher than the administration was reporting,” Diaz says.
“Not only was she doing that, but she was also connecting it to disinformation and impunity. Maria started talking about democracy and disinformation and [its connection to] Facebook and [social media] algorithms and connecting all of that [together] back in 2016 when very few people were talking about it,” she says. “That was the angle that no one was talking about. More and more, she gave us access and of course as her story became [bigger] she got into the crosshairs of the President. She got arrested twice and we were with her, so obviously she was now the center of the film,” says Diaz.
Maria Ressa, who was honored alongside Jamal Khashoggi as the TIME Magazine Person of the Year in 2018, was recently found guilty of a crime called cyberlibel in the Philippines after publishing stories on Rappler about Duterte. The law that Ressa allegedly broke was passed after the article in question was originally published, but when Rappler edited a typo in the article later on, it re-set the publishing date. A Thousand Cuts follows her fight for democracy.
Maria Ressa and her fight for free speech in the film chronicles the time she spent moving in between the Philippines and the United States as she and her legal team navigate several legal battles sparked by Duterte’s anger over her reporting. In the Philippines, if media outlets were not publishing favorable stories about the administration, they were often barred from attending and covering its press conferences and rallies in an attempt to control the narrative as much as possible.
“The President knew I was making the the film,” says Diaz of the filming process behind A Thousand Cuts. “I think because we were filming so close to his radar—you would see us at rallies—I think that made us more safe. I think if we were under the radar I would feel less safe,” Diaz says of filming the documentary about Ressa. In one scene of the documentary, Ressa puts on a bullet proof vest as she enters a vehicle after realizing that Duterte would likely stop at nothing to silence her. “But then of course [filming] with Maria—obviously if she’s donning a bulletproof vest and we don’t have [them] then I start to [worry], but then if we did [have bullet proof vests] then we couldn’t really do our work. It’s a story to tell. Why are we documentary filmmakers if we are afraid to make this film?” says Diaz.
“It was the local crew I was very afraid for,” Diaz says.
“I brought in two cinematographers and a sound crew,” Diaz says. “We would leave [the country] but the local crew would not. I actually [told them] that ‘Maria is really becoming a target of the administration. It might be really dangerous [for you] because we’re leaving and you’re staying,’ and I said it’s ‘ok if you want to leave the project, I will never take it against you.’ None of them left. They all stayed with the project because they all felt that it was the right story to tell. It was very moving,” she says.
But Maria Ressa, though she was likely the first journalist to report that social media has a negative impact on democracy, wants to make it clear that this problem is not unique to the Philippines. As social media becomes consistently caught in the crosshairs of politics, it’s becoming clearer by the day that the two are more deeply intertwined than we would like to admit. The revelation of Cambridge Analytica brought with it the widespread understanding that data could, and often is, weaponized against people—particularly around elections and often by the candidates themselves. But how the problem should be addressed is only becoming more complicated. As technology becomes more advanced, so does the problem, signaling that the only way to stifle disinformation without crossing the line of stifling freedom of speech might mean education—or possible reform—rather than legislation.
“It’s really not content that we should be going after [as much as it is] the engineering of the platforms because we’re being micro-targeted,” she says “We’re living more and more in silos. What you see on your social media feed is the only thing you see—it’s what you’re supposed to see because it’s what the platforms have decided for you that you are going to see. You never get out of that. So as long as that system is there it’s going to be a problem,” Diaz says.
Today, even as posts are consistently flagged and removed for spreading false or potentially harmful information, it’s often too late. “Even if content is taken down, it’s never taken down,” Diaz says. The issue with disinformation is that once it’s been published, people that believe it become skeptical of the social network for taking it down. “If it’s disinformation, it reaches people who believe it. So even if that piece of information is taken away or removed from the platform, you’ll never reach the people who saw it in the first place,” she says.
In cases like with the QAnon conspiracy theory or even some of the false news that President Donald Trump has shared about Hydroxychloriquine and its controversial use as a treatment for the coronavirus, people become skeptical that social networks are not being honest in their intentions when they have it removed. “Once these stories have gone viral, it’s impossible to fully remove the disinformation ever again,” Diaz says. “Those people that were affected by it will always be affected by it. They will never be convinced to disbelieve it,” she says.
“Until the platforms change and people realize that this is a dangerous game, I think it will be a problem—especially for elections and democracies,” says Diaz.
Where news once spread through journalists like Maria Ressa, it now spreads through memes and viral content on social media. For now, social media companies don’t want to be called publishers in the way that media companies are considered publishers for journalists because it would mean that they could be held accountable for every piece of content posted to their sites. There are legal stipulations that come with publishing that social media sites are not subject to, and the greater responsibility would mean that social media companies would have to abandon their entire business models to implement reform from the ground up.
“They don’t call it publishing because they don’t see themselves as publishers,” Diaz says. “They see themselves as a conduit for all of the articles [that are published]. But in a way, they are [publishers]. [Content] should really be [fact] checked before it goes out there, because once it’s out there then it’s out there. You can never really take things back on social media. It will always live somewhere and someone will always believe it,” she says.
Approaching social media from a journalistic perspective—rather than a forum-based one as it is now—would hold social media to a higher standard because all of the content, assuming it’s approached ethically as most journalists and publishers do, would have to be fact checked before being published instead of after. “I think because journalists used to be—for better or worse—the gatekeepers [of information], they were really held accountable for the things that were not true,” Diaz says. “There was fact checking and they had to be accountable for stories. There were so many sources that had to be fact checked that everything had to be vetted, but I think now the [social media] platforms have really taken on that role—but they’re not gatekeeping—so everything is allowed in. Even if they are now publishers—although they don’t want to be called publishers, but they are technically—they’re letting everything in. There is no fact checking. There is no vetting,” says Diaz.
But asking social media companies to abandon their entire business models and begin treating themselves like publishers is easier said than done. “For starters they should start taking down things that are not true—especially from politicians,” Diaz says. Combating disinformation is only one of the many problems with social media’s close relationship to democracy in the digital age. “I think they have to change the whole engineering of the platform. Will they do it? Probably not, because it’s really hard, and I don’t think they have the desire to [change] because it’s very connected with their business model,” she says of how social networks like Facebook make billions of dollars from targeted advertising.
“[Social media] is catching you at a vulnerable moment in order to sell you something on the internet, and that’s how they make their money,” Diaz says.
When a business wants to create an ad on social media, they’re able to access a platform that gives them the option to choose from millions of data points to send the ad to a highly specific demographic. This targeting platform generates tens of billions of dollars per year because everyone from small candle companies to candidates for the United States President are able to access it for as little as pennies per person reached. The more you interact with Facebook, the more data it has about you. “It’s really going against their own interest to change now, but they should because it’s becoming dangerous,” says Diaz. “It’s affecting the public space. We should also think of it in terms of data rights. We should own our own data and be able to take it back. That should be the conversation,” she says.
When Twitter flagged and removed thousands of accounts last summer that it suspected were secretly being run by the Chinese Communist Party, it demonstrated that trolls are also a major disinformation problem in global politics and international relations.
The accounts, which appeared to be citizens of Hong Kong, began interacting with right-wing Americans that were praising the Hong Kong protesters. Twitter later determined that these “trolls” were likely fake accounts attempting to change the American media narrative about the protests, which portrayed the CCP in a negative light. In the Philippines, similar tactics are used on Facebook and Instagram, where thousands of fake accounts appear to comment on posts in favor of Duterte. These trolls boost the algorithm response to Influencer marketing campaigns—like Mocha Uson, a former social media influencer turned political propaganda tool—which are often paid for by the administration itself.
“Social media has been weaponized by the administration [in the philliphines],” Diaz says. “Mocha Uson is still there, and [there are] lot of the influencers that amplify the administration’s point of view—that’s a very kind way of saying propaganda,” she says, adding that the fake accounts are still visible to this day. Though it might seem harmless, thousands of comments from fake accounts pledging support to an administration like Duterte on Influencer propaganda only helps to boost the content on social media algorithms. When users interact with a post, it tells the social media site’s algorithm to boost the post to more people.
Even after the Cambridge Analytica scandal brought to light a lot of the problems that Facebook and other social networks have with combating disinformation, the changes that were implemented only targeted data mining and political ad transparency. Sweeping change was implemented around the globe on how websites could collect your data—like whether they have to disclose that they’re data mining at all—but little change was implemented on what they’re able to do with it “Our film’s Facebook page is actually becoming a victim of the trolls ever since the trailer hit,” says Diaz, who revealed that thousands of likely fake accounts are commenting on the film’s official social media pages to claim that the information is false. “I told Maria and she said ‘that’s okay, that means you’re effective. If they’re coming after you it means something is hitting.’ But the very presence of the trolls on our page proves the film. Suddenly we’re in our film, which is so meta. They come at you quickly and in large numbers at scale,” she says.
To combat the presence of trolls and fake news, social networks like Facebook rely on their own users to report content they suspect is disinformation to a team of independent fact checkers. “Every time you see [news] you should stop and think,” Diaz says. “Every time you see trolls you shouldn’t engage, because trolls are paid per engagement. So if you don’t engage with trolls then they die. You just block [them] and report. If it sounds like something just doesn’t sound right, you just have to stop and read it,” she says.
“Power tends to be all encompassing because once you’re in power you forget there are limits,” Diaz says.
“Know history. Understand why the fourth estate is called the fourth estate,” Diaz says. With a near-constant merry-go-round on whether governments should regulate social media sites like Facebook more heavily, it’s becoming more apparent that social media users need to educate themselves in order to be able to better recognize disinformation when it makes its way onto their news feeds.
The role of journalism has shifted, and often means that journalists like Maria Ressa are holding not only politicians, but social media, accountable. “I think if you’ll go back to history you’ll understand why [journalism and journalists] are important—they call out power, that’s their job,” Diaz says. “How do you know if [the press] is being demonized, like in how the President of this country calls [the press] fake news? If you look at authoritarians throughout history, the first people they go after are journalists and academics because they’re the ones that are speaking truth and—I know it sounds cliche—but [are] shining the light. That’s their job, to hold power accountable,” she says.
A Thousand Cuts is now available to stream from your home through virtual cinema partnerships from around the country. For a complete list of websites to stream the documentary from, click here.