How to Stand Up to a Dictator (2022)

by Maria Ressa

Critical Evaluation

“What flows through this, Ressa’s memoir, is a strong ethical sense that journalism has to be grounded in honesty and truth-telling, in evidence and incontrovertible facts. An experienced and acclaimed journalist, Ressa made her career at CNN, setting up and running the Southeast Asia Bureau during the 1990s. Born in the Philippines then raised and educated in the US, she had returned after graduation and found her way into the media at an exciting time – colonialism had ended and democracy seemed possible.

“Populist governments either cultivate pro-government media or consolidate ownership in the hands of cronies. Critical journalism is snuffed out with threats of trumped-up prosecutions. Brave exposers of corruption and abuse end up in prison or even dead. The breakdown of the rule of law is inevitable. Authoritarians have no time for an independent judiciary or legal profession: these are “enemies of the people”. This trajectory of dismantling essential institutions is well rehearsed. She is clear that there can be no balance when a world leader commits war crimes or tells outright lies.

“Ressa charted these developments in her country, as well as the rise of Islamist terrorism in neighbouring nations a decade before 9/11. She also became excited by the potential of social media platforms, believing they could create well-informed communities of citizens who would campaign for good governance and stronger democracies.

“Her chapter on the mission of journalism, in which she explodes the myth of “objective” reporting, should be read by everyone in the trade. She is clear that there can be no balance when a world leader commits war crimes, tells outright lies or denies the climate emergency in the face of scientific consensus. Words like impartiality and balance can be hollowed-out concepts, frequently hijacked by vested interests to silence criticism. Good journalism is about professionaldiscipline and judgment, exercised by the entire newsroom operating under a strong code of standards and ethics. It means having the courage to report the evidence even if it gets you into trouble with the powers that be.”

Kennedy, Helena. “How to Stand Up to a Dictator by Maria Ressa review – facing down despots.” The Guardian. November 19, 2022.


First Excerpt

“Let me tell you why the rest of the world needs to pay attention to what happens in the Philippines: 2021 was the sixth year in a row that Filipinos – out of all global citizens – spent the most time on the internet and on social media. Despite slow internet speeds, Filipinos uploaded and downloaded the largest number of videos on YouTube in 2013. Four years later, 97 percent of our country’s citizens were on Facebook. When I told that statistic to Mark Zuckerberg in 2017, he was quiet for a beat. ‘Wait, Maria,’ he finally responded, looking directly at me, ‘where are the other three percent?’

“At the time, I laughed at his glib quip. I’m not laughing anymore.

“As these numbers show and as Facebook admits, the Philippines is ground zero for the terrible effects that social media can have on a nation’s institutions, its culture, and the minds of its populace. Every development that happens in my country eventually happens in the rest of the world – if not tomorrow, then a year or two later. As early as 2015, there were reports of account farms creating social media phone-verified accounts, or PVAs, from the Philippines. That same year, a report showed that most of Donald Trump’s Facebook likes came from outside the United States and that one in every twenty-seven Trump followers was from the Philippines.

“Some days, I feel like Sisyphus and Cassandra combined, trying to repeatedly warn the world about how social media has destroyed our shared reality, the place where democracy happens.”

Second Excerpt

“I began calling it ‘democracy’s death by a thousand cuts.’ The very platforms that deliver the news we need are biased against facts. As early as 2018, studies show that lies laced with anger and hate spread faster and farther than facts. Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without all three, we have no shared reality, and democracy as we know it –and all meaningful human endeavors – are dead.

“We must act quickly, before that happens. That’s what I lay out in this book: an exploration into the values and principles not just of journalism and technology but of the collective action we need to take to win this battle for facts. This journey of discovery is intensely personal. That’s why every chapter has a micro and a macro: a personal lesson and the larger picture. You will see the simple ideas I hold on to in order to make what have – over time – become instinctive but thoughtful decisions, layering experiences upon new experiences of the present moment of the past.”