Maria Ressa

Graduates Day Remarks at Vanderbilt University - May 11, 2023

Maria Ressa
May 11, 2023— Nashville, Tennessee
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Ressa received Vanderbilt University’s prestigious Nichols-Chancellor’s Medal in 2023, and spoke at the university's Graduates Day event.

Thank you Chancellor Diermeier, Provost Raver, members of the board, faculty…oh my gosh…Ed and Janice Nichols…and hello, class of 2023. [applause]

Congratulations! I mean, you know, you have to like fill these moments, you know. Just stop a second.… Well first of all, while I was sitting back there I was thinking, oh my god, like when the rain started, I was like—this is a perfect metaphor for our world today, but let me add a few things. You know, the rain can start at any moment, you're armed with your umbrella, but then, you know, when I heard the planes coming through and then I heard the siren we can also add maybe bombs falling and maybe the Earth's, possibility of an earthquake opening up.

And then you have a kind of interesting metaphor of the time we live in today and what you will face as the graduating class of 2023. I promise I won't depress you all the way [laughing].

So please, while you're with your family right now, while you're with your friends, like, take a minute, breathe in, feel the moment when there's no rain, where the weather is just right and exhale. Live in this moment.

Because what gets your attention is actually what gives your life, our lives, meaning. Where you spend your time determines what you accomplish, what you become good at. That's really important to keep in mind as the battle for your mind—and this is happening right now—is one actually not with ideas.

You know, that's where you need to realize it's not your thinking slow part that's going to be targeted, it's your emotions. It is not the way you feel this moment. It isn't that triumphant feeling. It isn't the feeling of love. It is fear, anger, hate.

What I call toxic sludge in the Nobel lecture is what is pumping through our information ecosystem. It keeps you scrolling on your phones, right. That's the business model. Because when you're angry, when you're feeling hate, you wind up scrolling more and those algorithms continue to give you more. That's the business model—algorithms, opinion, encode, right. And that business model is surveillance for profit.

But all of this just makes it significantly harder for you to deal with the challenge that faced all the generations ahead of you—150 years, holy cow.

Okay, and what is that challenge? It is how to build meaning into your life. Because meaning isn't something you stumble across nor is it something you read in one book nor is it something someone gives you. Your parents can't give you meaning, right. They'll give you bits and pieces of it, but you build it—you build this sense of meaning through every choice you make, through the commitments that you nurture, the friendships you make, the people you love, and the values you live by.

I heard so many fantastic values while I was sitting on the stage—but that's the first step. You are graduating at this existential moment, you know—the earth waiting to open up, the rain waiting to fall, the planes coming at you.

Now more than ever we know that information is power. In Ukraine, those air raid sirens let them know when they need to run to a shelter, but at the same time it happens so frequently that sometimes they tune it out, right.

So you need information like that. Without the right information, it's impossible to fight back, whether it's to find a cure for a disease, for the climate, or my job—to hold power to account.

We need to fight this insidious manipulation that social media platforms have allowed, and they do it for tremendous profit. A 2018 MIT study told you why—lies spread at least six times faster than those really boring facts. And if you lace it with anger and hate, it spreads even faster.

So these lies are like a virus. It's infected our information ecosystem and it plays to the worst of our human nature, right. It's turning us against each other. They replicate and cripple our body politic, encouraging us to become our worst selves. A lie told a million times becomes a fact.

Now these next three sentences I've said over and over and over since 2016. It took me years to get there. We examined data. It was from the Philippines but it fits you here in the United States, it fits everywhere in the United States. And we got this data living through these dark experiences. At the Nobel lecture I said them and please let me say them to you again.

Without facts you can't have truth. Without truth you can't have trust. Without these three, we have no shared reality. We cannot solve any problems. We cannot have democracy.

So for example, if I was to do information operations and pound on social media that this Vanderbilt exercise right now that you're listening to me [is] in the Philippines—if I pound it a million times and you're only saying, Vanderbilt, you only tweet once—guess where this is being held. People will believe it's in the Philippines, right. This is where free speech is used to stifle free speech. This is the co-opting of meaning.

AI—artificial intelligence—has beaten humanity every single time. There's been two main times. I just described the first time—this is in social media—where it's just machine learning. This is a curation part of it, right. It determines what you get on your feed. It determines who become your friends. And those choices that were built by design by the platforms…have actually a friends-of-friends algorithm polarized us and we’re radicalized by just keeping you scrolling.

Okay, so these have created cascading failures that has turned our politics all around the world into gladiators battle to the death, along with a slew of social harms that we have yet to deal with, including how globally we are electing illiberal leaders democratically and they are crushing institutions of democracy in their own countries but they're not staying there—they're allying. So that's part of….

You know, I say that in the Doomsday Clock of democracy we’re in the last two minutes. I know I'm pounding you with all the bad news.

But, we didn’t learn from the first time we released the curation AI, right. What did we just do, and Vanderbilt knows this, Last December, generative AI—far more complex and sophisticated—was released into the wild, into the public sphere. it's a real-time experiment that will further test our societies and your humanity.

If the first generation, the curation, this one is creation, right. And it still has no guard rails to protect all of us. Will the responsibility of protecting us be left in the hands of the people who were rushing ahead for profit? Look at what they've done, right.

A show of hands—how many of you have tried chatGPT or any AI? Yes. It is fantastic in many ways, right. You can get rid of….

A friend was just telling me her daughter uses it to get rid of, like, those boring letters, form letters and then they can concentrate on other stuff. But don't forget one thing—that those kinds of boring letters are like going to the gym before you run a marathon, right, that this boring stuff is like the technical exercises on the piano before you actually play an amazing masterpiece. The creativity comes from technical exercises.

ChatGPT in two months hit over a hundred million users. So yeah, it's great right.

What you may not know is that a few months before that happened, before it was released to all of us, a survey in Silicon Valley actually said that—this is the, these are the folks, about 800 people, folks who work on this AI—said that 50% of them believed that if they released this as is to us, that there was a 10% or greater chance that it would lead to an extinction event. That's of us, right, of humanity.

Okay, now you understand why I say the Earth could open up, the bomb could fall, the rain could keep coming, and let's add a tornado in there, right. It's bleak. But of course we can't give up.

This reminds me of the time in 1986 or ‘87 where our own lawyers…. You know Rappler is a small news organization. We're only about a hundred people. Our median age is young; it's 23 years old. And our lawyers told me, “You know, Maria, you're crazy to fight Duterte,” our president in the Philippines.

But I kept saying, “I'm not fighting Duterte. I'm just doing my job.” And it was crazy what I had to be prepared to sacrifice just to do my job. This is kind of the world we live in.

Like the first time I got arrested. And this is also interesting for you, because the arresting officers—there were about a dozen of them—who came into the Rappler newsroom, that I mentioned 23 years old is our median age, right. The officer said, “This is…I’m only doing my job, ma'am.” That's what the arresting officer kept repeating over and over. Then he lowered his voice to almost a whisper as he read me my Miranda rights. He was clearly uncomfortable and I almost felt sorry for him, except he was arresting me, right.

This is the last act in a chain of events that were meant to intimidate and harass me because I'm a journalist. This officer was a tool of power and an example of how a good man can turn evil and how great atrocities happen.

Hannah Arendt wrote this in “The Banality of Evil,” right, when describing men who carried out the orders of Hitler in Nazi Germany, how these career-oriented bureaucrats can act without conscience because they say they're only following orders.

This is how a nation loses its soul.

I know this firsthand. In 2019 I was arrested twice in about a month. I posted bail eight times in about three months. Two more came soon after that. I have 10 arrest warrants, right. I committed no crime except to be a journalist and to hold power to account.

But I do have some good news. Of those 10 criminal cases—I mean it took a while, but it is now—seven of those cases are gone. You just have to stay the course. So I have three left. In order to be here to speak to you today, I had to ask for approval from the Supreme Court of the Philippines and I can't say anything more than that because those are the conditions of my travel.

So let me pull out broader…. I have really seen how government bureaucracy, our legal system, were weaponized against perceived critics, right. If people don't like you, be careful. My rights as a citizen and as a journalist were violated and I demand justice.

So why am I telling you all this? Because the question people always ask me is, you know, so how do you find courage? Cause you're gonna need it to deal with the earth maybe opening, the sky is pouring, a tornado coming, and bombs dropping.

Well, just like small acts can turn you evil, courage draws from small acts.

So let me share three lessons that [were] hard won, and I hope that they help you as you battle for your identity and meaning.

The first—draw the line. If you've heard me speak, I say this all the time. Draw the line for your values.

Two—embrace your fear.

Three—build your community. I heard this community. But—beware the mob.

So the first—draw the line. Life is all about making choices. That's what we do every minute of the day. Are you going to open the umbrella? Are you going to shut it? Are you going to go inside so you're near the building or not, right. These little choices define who you are. And if you're not clear about your values, you could wake up when you're older and realize that, oh, you don't like the person you've become.

Every choice defines who you are. And they could be really simple like choosing to turn left instead of right, but they lead to different paths. Or you could justify accepting a bribe because we can rationalize anything. You've rationalized it's a gift. Or if you're a tech mogul you can say the genocide in Myanmar has nothing to do with the profit motive of social media.

Character is created in the sum of all these little choices we make. So please now, while you're sitting there, be clear. Choose the values that define you. Do it now. Because when you're tested—and it will come if it hasn't already—you have to know the lines you've set. You have to draw the line where on this side you're good and this side you're evil. This clarity is what prevents situational ethics. This makes sure you can't rationalize greed or bad behavior.

One of the things I've learned is that you don't really know who you are until you're forced to fight for it, until you have to defend it. Then every battle you win or lose, every compromise you choose to make or to walk away from—all of these struggles define the values you live by and ultimately who you are, right.

When you're in the battle, avoid the hate, the us-against-them tribalism, what social sociologists call in-group versus out-group, right. It's the best way to rile you up and we see our politicians all around the world using this. It is easy to, you know, it's easy to be a populist. It's much harder to be a real leader.

Find what we all have in common.

That's actually what the tech companies proved to us, right, because regardless of nation-state boundaries, of culture, of religion, they use the same companies, the same principles, to attack our biology. They actually proved that we have far more in common than we have differences. It was just used to manipulate us.

We have to find what we all have in common because that is our humanity. Alone we accomplish very little, no matter how bright or talented you are. It's about what we can do together, to find what binds us together. We build a stronger democracy by strengthening our common humanity.

Sorry—I can talk about this forever, but let me move to the second one, right. What's the second one? Embrace your fear.

I've been asked a lot, “Aren't you afraid? Why are you not afraid?” People seem to want to see me cry and sometimes I do, but of course I'm afraid. I get frightened. I've had these moments.

But I was trained, and this is part of those 10,000 hours, right. I was a conflict reporter. I was a war zone correspondent. I plan the way in and I chart the way out of any field of battle. I've learned in a conflict zone that if you clump together and someone is afraid, it spreads. Fear spreads and it is debilitating and when you are in the battle, fear is a luxury.

So if you're in the middle of chaos, of uncertainty—and we will be—you need to stamp down your fear to have this clarity of thought that's essential to make the right decision.

And the way to do that is to think ahead, to define, right. I always talk about the seven P’s—proper preparation prevents poor performance.

Whatever you're most afraid of—touch it, hold it, embrace it—because once you do that, nothing can stop you.

As you move forward in life, the more power you gain, the more people will try to coerce, manipulate, intimidate, or threaten you to get what they want. Often they have a lot at stake, you know. It could just be money or it could be power or it could be their lives. And you have to be clear about what you're afraid of, because those are the buttons they'll push.

You know, on social media when I was getting attacks of 90 hate messages per hour, they tried everything, but I'm not corrupt, so they went to how I look, how I sounded. I have eczema, very dry skin, and so at one point they took a decapitated…they took my head and put it on top of human genitals and it spread. They called me scrotum face. Uh, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger—nature was right.

So dealing with fear started there for me, these exponential attacks on social media. Two years later, TIME magazine actually…they pulled journalists. It was a first time journalists were recognized for what we were, what we were trying to do. So when I was Person of the Year, they called us the guardians of truth, but when I looked at the people who were there I realized I was the only one who was both free and alive. Shouldn't be that difficult.

Then the cases started really coming and I realized that jail was real. More than a hundred years that time, my lawyer—Amal Clooney, who spoke to a graduating class a few years ago—told me….

Or it could be violence. Manila traffic is really hard. You know, targeted assassinations happen when a motorcycle with two riders comes and then one of the guys just pumps bullet into the car. You can't move, right.

So I had to imagine the worst things. It took me more than a month to confront, to imagine. I made a list—what were my worst fears? And, I embraced them. Because then I could move ahead.

I hated that the baton was passed to me at this time, right. The leadership of a news group, being a journalist, that it required being prepared to do this.

But it's almost like us being here and preparing for the earth to swallow us up, the rain to come, a typhoon or hurricane to come. I keep going to that to say that we're not that different, that the world is becoming incredibly more dangerous than it has ever been.

So imagine the worst case scenarios. For me I did it, I embraced it, I'm okay with it, and I can move on. I robbed it of its power. So prepare for the worst. But you gotta hope for the best, right.

The third, finally—beware the mob.

This is the worst of human nature and social media mobs are the norm now. Remember again that MIT study that lies laced with anger and hate spread fastest on social media, forming lynch mobs. That is by design.

If you know this, hopefully you can be better prepared. Switch out of thinking fast to thinking slow. Slow down and think. Use that Vanderbilt education. Fight for your best self.

You know, in the Nobel lecture I pulled out a t-shirt that we had in Rappler that said, you know, in order to be the good you have to believe in the good. You have to believe that people are basically good and they are.

It's worth mentioning something else that this technology we live with encourages in, and that is: be careful it isn't always about you.

You know, being on every social media platform, carefully curating your life, sometimes you get the notion that it is about you. You have to be confident but don't cross into arrogance. Aim for the empty mirror.

You heard about the Bhagavad Gita at some point, right. The empty mirror is like the Buddhist version of Plato's myth of the cave. It was a book I read coming out of college and I still remember it. What is it? That when you look into the mirror. You see the world reflected and that you have enough confidence that your image doesn't obstruct the world you see, right. The empty mirror—a reflection of the world, not just of your beautiful self.

Know that no matter how much of a superstar you are, you cannot accomplish anything meaningful alone. Build and strengthen your community.

I'll leave you with one of the toughest moral choices I've had to make. This one was in East Timor and it was a long time ago. I was in my mid-30s—yes, that was decades ago. I still remember it today, though.

It was in the final days of the Indonesian military scorched-earth policy. East Timor is Asia's largest, its newest nation and a Roman Catholic Nation, right. So at this point the Timorese were fighting for their independence and the Indonesian military had a scorched-earth policy and they were killing the pro-independent supporters.

My team and I were leaving the capital, Dili, to head to Suai, which was about four hours away by car. I was told that there had been a massacre, hundreds who had taken shelter in the church. And the reason that I knew was—I had a special interest at that point—was also because the person who called me reminded me that the head of the church, Father Hilario, was Filipino, right.

We were about halfway there—so you know, at least 45 minutes to an hour out, no less than halfway—when we stopped for gas and a man—this is in the town of Liquiçá—a friend of mine, a source, came out very agitated and he asked me for a ride back to Dili because he said he was being hunted and he feared for his life.

I couldn't turn the car around because we needed to get to Suai. The reports of the violence were getting stronger. I was now getting more calls. I couldn't bring him with us to Suai because that would be bringing him to the military that he was afraid of and it would make my entire team vulnerable, right. Our first responsibility was to get the story to our global audience. So I told him we could pick him up that evening on our way back to Dili.

We got to the church. There was a massacre. It was an extremely long and grueling day. When we drove back, we got to our designated meeting point. We were an hour late so I waited an hour longer. He didn't show up, and it was weeks later when I found out that he had been killed.

I have many memories like this through…it's actually 37 years of being a journalist. And whatever profession you choose, you will have these moments, right, where it's not so clear what's right and wrong. And you always have to ask yourself, did I do the right thing?

In situations of anarchy and war, it is hard to distinguish right from wrong, and, you know, make no mistake—for the first time in a very long time we have conventional war, Russia at the Ukraine, again. But more than that, I would say it is an individual. The battle is in your pocket. The battle is each of us dealing with our own demons, right.

So you have to be very clear in order to distinguish right from wrong. There is only your mission. There is only the purpose, why you are there.

So what gives your life meaning?

At a time of fragmentation, of a flattening of meaning…you know, we talked about these, how words now have been co-opted, how a very word like democracy is now being used by China and it is changing the meaning, it is flattening the meaning, so we have to be clear.

This is the time when the baton is being handed to you. It is going to get worse before it gets better, which is why you have to prepare yourselves. Because this time matters. Know that this is in your hands and you are prepared. This is what Vanderbilt has done for you.

Unfortunately, you will have to fix what my generation has broken. But you're not alone. Look to your left. Look for your friends. Look for your family. Look to your right.

Decades after my own graduation, from half a world away, the people I sat next to when I was in your seat rallied to our cause. They rallied around the values we defined when we were where you were, when we were sitting in your place. I don't think I'd be standing in front of you today if we at Rappler didn't have that support.

I've lost some freedom, but we're winning the fight. It took years before I began to clear my name, but January this year—four criminal tax evasion charges, possible 34 years in jail. When I walked into the courtroom that morning I was prepared—you know, embrace your fear—and wasn't sure I would be given bail if it went against me so I could have just gone directly to jail. But the three justices of the Court of Tax Appeals acquitted me and Rappler and made it go away like that [snapped fingers]—34 years—and I had 34 years back.

So, don't be distracted in your search for meaning. What you do today matters. You, class of 2023, will define what our democracy will look like, what it will evolve to, and please make no mistake—these are American tech companies that began.… [rain starts falling again] Oh my gosh, starting…the earth won't open up; it's only a joke….

So you will determine how our democracy will survive and evolve. And frankly for the 2024 elections that you will have, it will be one of the tipping points for whether, globally, democracy can survive..

So this is a time of creative destruction. Even as we step on the rubble of the world that was, remember that you are creating the future, now. Please make sure it's the future you want.

So, get ready for battle. Draw the line, know your values, embrace your fear, and build your community but beware the mob. We're literally living in science fiction times and our faith is in your hands.

Your umbrellas are out. I gotta take a picture of this [uses cell phone to take a picture of the audience; audience laughs]. I'm so sorry I'm not holding an umbrella, that I'm not with you in here, but look, guys—congratulations, congratulations, hug each other, enjoy the moment, be with the people you love.

Congratulations, class of 2023. [applause]

One more time, right. I want you to sleep well tonight, because you will have to dream of a much better future than what we have now, then you go and make it happen.

You go, class of 2023. [applause]

Vanderbilt University. “Class of 2023 | Graduates Day.” YouTube video, 1:15:30. May 11, 2023.