Disinformation, Dictators & Democracy: A discussion with Maria Ressa and Ron Deibert

In the age of fake news, social media has become weaponized by authoritarian leaders — and a threat to democracies around the world. Nobel Laureate Maria Ressa and Citizen Lab director Ron Deibert discuss the dangers of online impunity and why we all have a role to play in the fight against disinformation.

Impunity online has 'weakened our rule of law... the foundation of our democracies,' says Nobel Laureate

Maria Ressa and Ron Deibert
For Nobel Laureate Maria Ressa and Citizen Lab director Ron Deibert, the fight against fake news is a fight for democracy itself. As part of the Toronto International Festival of Authors, they discussed the dangers of online impunity — and the future of civic life in an age of exponential lies. (Rappler/Riley Stewart )

"What do you do when lies spread faster than facts?"

It's a challenging question. But Nobel Laureate Maria Ressa believes our answer could determine the future of democracy.

Ressa, who co-founded the Filipino news site Rappler, has repeatedly put herself on the line to protect democracy in the Philippines. Since 2018, the state has brought 23 cases against her.

In January 2023, she was acquitted of four tax evasion charges that would have left her imprisoned. But with three cases still pending, the threat of jail time continues to loom.

Through it all, Ressa has continued to fight back against the deluge of online disinformation. She sees her struggle as part of a dangerous global shift toward authoritarian rule — one that is increasingly playing out on the internet.

"Part of what globally we're going through is that there is impunity online. If you have impunity online, you have impunity offline. And that has weakened our rule of law, which is the foundation of our democracies," Ressa said.

Without facts, you can't have truth. Without truth, you can't have trust. If you don't have these three, you don't have a shared reality.- Maria Ressa

Ron Deibert, who studies digital threats to civil society as the founder of The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, shares Ressa's concerns — and her commitment to protecting truth.

"There's a well-documented descent into authoritarianism happening – not just in places like the Philippines but all over the world.… We shouldn't underestimate the challenge, [the] very serious threat right now for liberal democracy, because the pillars that hold it together are being systematically eroded — intentionally — by the people who stand to profit by it."

In September 2022, Ressa and Deibert joined IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed at the Toronto International Festival of Authors for an onstage conversation about online disinformation — and how to protect democracy in an age of exponential lies.

*This episode was produced by Greg Kelly and Annie Bender.

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