New digital legislation and fight against disinformation encouraged by 2021 Nobel Peace laureate

Rappler CEO Maria Ressa tells MEPs that if “virus of lies” goes unchecked, humanity will lose ability to share reality
Photographer: Alexis HAULOT | Copyright: © European Union 2022 | Source : EP

By Andreas Rogal

Andreas Rogal is a senior journalist at the Parliament Magazine

01 Feb 2022

Even though it adopted its report last week, the Special Committee on Foreign Interference in all Democratic Processes in the European Union, including Disinformation (INGEhas not finished its work quite yet, with at least one more hearing to come before the final vote on the report in March.

On Tuesday morning, INGE chair Raphaël Glucksmann (FR, S&D) opened a day-long session of hearings and debates, including on foreign interference in the Baltic States with the participation of national deputies from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. This was followed by presentations from experts of NATO’s Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence on Russia’s cyber strategy, China’s narrative challenges for the alliance and general aspects of future digital threats.

But the meeting started by remotely hosting a global champion of the fight against disinformation, 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and CEO of Philippine media company Rappler, Maria A. Ressa.

Few people in the world, chair Glucksmann stated, were better placed to understand “our challenge”, namely to “fight against disinformation while at the same time ensuring freedom of expression”, to “defend democracy without actually closing it down.”

This first part of the meeting was held in conjunction with the Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO), and IMCO chair Anna Cavazzini (DE, Greens/EFA) admitted to be “a big admirer” of Ressa’s work and stressed how important it was that “we as lawmakers have the opportunity to meet and exchange views with someone who is in the field, fighting the battle and combatting disinformation every day”.

Our challenge is to fight against disinformation while at the same time ensuring freedom of expression, to defend democracy without actually closing it down.”

Raphaël Glucksmann, INGE chair


But the importance of hearing from the co-founder of the ground-breaking news website did not seem to be evident to all INGE and IMCO members. No MEP of the Renew, the ECR or the ID groups applied to take the floor.

The importance of Ressa’s presence seemed to resonate more with leading members of the INGE committee, with Cavazzini as well as Christel Schaldemose (DK, S&D), Parliament’s lead rapporteur on the Digital Services Act (DSA), present and engaging.

Ressa herself acknowledged the European effort to legislate for a democratically controlled and transparent internet as a “hope for the world”:

 “The DSA is a unique opportunity, and thank you, because you actually moved away from where the debate has happened, which is content,” Ressa added.“But the minute you are looking at content, you are looking at the wrong thing. We should be looking at algorithms and models because that is what has transformed our information eco system.”

Alexandra Geese, the Green/EFA Groups shadow on the DSA, recapped some of the flashpoints of the debate around the DSA now starting interinstitutional negotiations. She highlighted  access to data, where Parliament wants NGOs involved, whereas Council and Commission have not foreseen this in their position and proposal. Ressa replied that, in her view:

“It isn’t just researchers, NGOs and journalists who should have access to data. The DSA has to open up the black box.” She explained that “we should get to a world where people understand exactly how their data is used. How can you have informed consent if you don’t know what it is, what it’s being used for? You should open up the data to as many as possible.”

The minute you are looking at content, you are looking at the wrong thing. We should be looking at algorithms and models because that is what has transformed our information eco system.”

Maria A. Ressa, CEO of Rappler

Ressa responded to ongoing debate topics. For example, exemptions for the professional media, which Geese explained, are particularly in demand in her home country Germany. There is the argument of good oversight by the national authorities already in place on the one hand, and a risk to media freedom if no exemptions are granted and tech platforms possibly deciding to take down their content on the other. Ressa gave this reply as food for legislators’ thoughts:

“I would advise against [exemptions] because – and my colleagues might not like that – you will then be in a position in which you must define what ‘the media’ is. That would have been much easier a decade ago when it was clearer. Today, it isn’t. What’s an influencer, for example? Is that media or not?”

And on trade secrets as tech platforms’ argument for non-disclosure of algorithm use, she was unequivocal:

“If they’re not going to take responsibility for destroying democracy, I don’t think you should allow trade secrets. I sound really bitter, but well, I could still go to jail for the rest of my life because of this.”

The Nobel laureate is fighting a legal battle in the Philippines, appealing against a June 2020 conviction of having committed “cyberlibel”, a legal provision unique to her country, for publishing an article critical of a government minister.

The guilty verdict was widely condemned, with the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights, Michele Bachelet, describing the case as part of a "pattern of intimidation" against the Philippine press.

Urging the EU to complete its new legislation for the digital domain in a timely fashion, Ressa concluded:

“Inaction brings more harm because real people who were targeted by information operations have changed their world views, and that will continue if you don’t take action fast enough.”

Disinformation “is truly like a virus”, she insisted. “The virus of lies becomes reality, and it is tearing down humanity’s ability to actually have a shared reality.”