The Heady Early Days of Rappler

October 26, 2022 The Asia Foundation
The Heady Early Days of Rappler
Show Notes Transcript

Last week, The Asia Foundation presented our Chang Lin Tien Distinguished Leadership Award to the pioneering Philippine news site Rappler and its founding team, Maria Ressa, Glenda Gloria, Chay Hofileña, and Beth Frondoso, for their courageous online journalism. Once a scrappy startup, Rappler at 10 years old has become a political lightning rod with an average of 40 million page views a month and a history of discomfiting the powerful.

Founded in 2012 by a team of veteran journalists, Rappler’s impact reverberated far beyond the Philippines as it modeled a style of fast-paced, online journalism that upended established newsrooms. It was also a canary in the coalmine of social media, as a tool that once seemed like a new voice for democracy took a darker turn towards online attacks and disinformation.

John and Tracie sat down in San Francisco with two of Rappler’s founders, Executive Editor Glenda Gloria and CEO and President Maria Ressa, to talk about their careers, what it’s like to win a Nobel Peace Prize while threatened with years in prison, and which of the four founders is the mean one.

Glenda Gloria (00:03):

Our slogan then was, "Social media for social change."

Maria Ressa (00:06):

Yes. We were truest-

Glenda Gloria (00:07):

We honestly believed-

Maria Ressa (00:07):

Yes. Truest and true believers.

Glenda Gloria (00:09):

... that social media could actually change the world for the better.

Maria Ressa (00:13):

Of course. A few years later, we became the Target.

John Rieger (00:18):

Rappler, one decade and one Nobel Peace Prize later, today on InAsia from the Asia Foundation. I'm John Rieger.

Tracie Yang (00:24):

And I'm Tracie Yang. Last week, the Asia Foundation presented our Chang-Lin Tien distinguished leadership award to the investigative news site Rappler, and its founding team Maria Ressa, Glenda Gloria, Chay Hofilena, and Beth Frondoso for their courageous independent journalism in the Philippines.

John Rieger (00:42):

Once a scrappy startup, Rappler at 10 has become a political lightning rod with an average of 40 million page views a month, and a history of discomforting the powerful. We're joined today by two of Rappler's founders, executive editor, Glenda Gloria, and CEO and President, Maria Ressa, who last year received the Nobel Peace Prize for Rappler's work to safeguard freedom of expression. Glenda and Maria, welcome to InAsia.

Maria Ressa (01:06):

Thanks for having us.

Glenda Gloria (01:06):

Thanks for having us.

John Rieger (01:07):

You both had distinguished careers as reporters and broadcasters when you started Rappler. Glenda, you had held prestigious positions as the head of news break, and managing editor of the ABS CBN News Channel, which is a major Philippine news operation. What made you launch a startup that was all online and sent young reporters into the field with nothing but their smartphones?

Glenda Gloria (01:29):

Well, for one, you have to be foolish. But also, when Maria and I were working with the ABS CBN News Network, which was the largest broadcasting network in the Philippines, we saw the tide changing. Social media was beginning to shape society, shape communities, and shape journalism. And we thought we should be there.

Tracie Yang (01:51):

Was there a moment when you two just looked at each other and like, "Yes, this is possible." Or, "Yes, we have to do this now?"

Glenda Gloria (01:56):

It was her idea.

Maria Ressa (02:00):

Wasn't it your idea?

Glenda Gloria (02:01):

No, it was your idea.

Maria Ressa (02:02):

I mean, later.

Glenda Gloria (02:03):


Maria Ressa (02:04):

So I mean, we work really well together in ABS CBN, which is the largest broadcaster in the Philippines. It was where we experimented with different ideas, different scopes. Glenda took that forward. And then when we moved to Rappler, I mean, imagine we were managing a thousand journalists, and then all of a sudden we went to a startup with 12 people including us, right? And you had to unlearn a lot of things.


For one, there were no... Well, we would call it as a joke, minions. If you had a big, giant network, then you have a lot of staff. But you had to unlearn that because technology also afforded us a lot of leeway in terms of free distribution, in terms of the tools. And I remember Natasha, our young reporter who was an Asia Foundation fellow, was a young college graduate who was given just one tool in her news gathering, which is the smartphone. And everyone else who would see her in coverage would laugh at her because she was up against the big networks with their big cameras, et cetera. And she would insert her away through coverage just holding this cell phone.


But of course this cell phone reported what was happening straight to our side, which really got all the layers of broadcasting and really just turned Philippine media upside down and said, "What is Rappler doing?"

John Rieger (03:31):

That must have been incredibly exciting to see yourself getting that kind of traction.

Maria Ressa (03:35):

We knew we were on the right track. But that advantage, we lost in about a year, a year and a half because everyone adopted, right? So instead of carrying the big cameras, they realized because every time they did that they had to shoot, take their video home, edit it. Meantime we've already gone live, right? This is 2012, so you're talking about the time before Facebook and YouTube made it easy for groups to go live. At that point we were going live with our cell phones with an IP satellite van.

John Rieger (04:05):


Maria Ressa (04:06):

It was great fun.

Tracie Yang (04:08):


Maria Ressa (04:08):

And social media was kind.

Glenda Gloria (04:11):

I mean, our slogan then was, "Social media for social change."

Maria Ressa (04:16):

Yes. We were the truest.

Glenda Gloria (04:17):

We honestly believed-

Maria Ressa (04:17):

Yes. Truest and true believers.

Glenda Gloria (04:19):

... that social media could actually change the world for the better. But Maria-

Maria Ressa (04:24):

Well, of course a few years later we became the target, right? That's when information operations began, and that's when the drive for money, for profit of the social media platforms turned that business model against its users, against democracy.

John Rieger (04:42):

Yes. It turns out that social media and the surveillance advertising model, together are perfect tools for incitement.

Maria Ressa (04:51):

And dictators, or dictators to be, right? This now has accelerated the path. Digital populists became authoritarians democratically elected. When you have an incentive structure like what social media has created, you don't have facts, right? Because lies spread faster than these really boring facts. At least six times faster by an MIT report that was released in 2018.

John Rieger (05:20):

You've got a number? Six times faster.

Tracie Yang (05:22):


Maria Ressa (05:22):

At least, right? And if it's laced with anger and hate, then the user stays on longer.

John Rieger (05:29):

You studied terrorist networks when you were at CNN. Has that kind of network thinking helped you understand better the kind of online network problems that you're talking about now?

Maria Ressa (05:39):

Well again, social media for social good, right? We used these ideas of network analysis, and we thought that this is what would help build institutions bottom up. That was the goal. And for many years it did work, up until 2016. So Rappler was born in 2012, until 2016 you could use social networks for good, right? You can bypass corruption that's coming top down, and actually have participatory democracy.


And people felt empowered. These were the glory days, and they didn't last very long, right? After 2011, the Arab spring, by 2015 it was becoming the Arab winter. So when once autocratic governments realized this could be used against them, they then mobilized their own resources, vast resources of the state. That's when it began to swing. That's when you began to see authoritarian rulers using this to control population person to person.

John Rieger (06:43):

The New York Times reported on October 4th that popular Philippine news radio host Percival Mabasa, a government critic had been fatally shot in his car by masked assailants. He was assassinated. He was the second journalist murdered since the new presidential administration in June. What's it like for journalists in the Philippines today? Is it hard to do your job?

Glenda Gloria (07:04):

Well actually, Maria and I were at the wake of Percy. And Maria, can you...

Maria Ressa (07:10):

It is extremely difficult to continue doing what we're doing. And look, I've never thought that I could go to jail for being a journalist, but certainly that's looking like it's a possibility. I could go to jail for the rest of my life just because we refuse to stop being journalists.

Glenda Gloria (07:27):

But a lot of the support that we got really came from not just fellow journalists, but a lot of civil society groups that have come around and really recognized the value of independent media. Without them, I guess the killings would have probably been worse. And especially in the provinces where local reporters are more vulnerable to security threats and security attacks. But then the other hand, is that something that will stop us? I guess it's fair to say that some journalists were really discouraged by the killings. And of course, you have to look at your priorities in terms of family.


But there's also a core of journalists in the Philippines that have continued because the history of Philippine journalism is the history really of activism. And if there's really a debate in the western world that, "Oh, is this journalism? Should journalism be activism?" The only kind of journalism that mattered in the global south is journalism that speaks truth to power, that exposes wrongdoing, and therefore is an activist sort of journalism. When you say you play neutral, we are for human rights. And therefore, we are not neutral as far as human rights violations are concerned. We are for the protection of the environment, and therefore we are not neutral as far as violators of the environment are concerned.

Maria Ressa (09:04):

Or rule of law. When rule of law deteriorates, when the rule of law has bent to the point that it's broken, we point it out. And that's not easy for governments to take, right? But the other part also, and again to bring it back to the social media platforms, when facts become debatable, journalism is activism. You don't have facts, you don't have truth, you don't have trust. Journalists are attacked precisely to tear down trust. We're first on the line.

Tracie Yang (09:36):

When you're talking, Maria, about the prospect of your future. I was trying to put myself in your shoes. And in 2016, Rappler was charged by the Philippine government for violating the country's foreign media ownership law. So for Rappler and for both of you, what comes next? What are you going to do?

Maria Ressa (09:58):

I mean, this is political harassment, it's intimidation that hasn't stopped us. You either bow down to it or you don't, right? This is the same for almost every news group around the world working in a democracy. The exponential attacks came bottom up on social media. And then about a year later, it came top down. It's journalist equals criminal, right? To tear down trust. President himself in his state of the nation address said that we were foreign owned, which we're not. So almost immediately, I tweeted. We were doing live coverage, and we looked at each other, and then I just tweeted, "Mr. President, you're wrong." So a week after that, we got our first subpoena. In 2017 to 2018, we had 14 investigations.

John Rieger (10:48):

You've had prosecution after prosecution. Some observers say that you personally, Maria, could be facing a century in prison.

Maria Ressa (10:57):

And I know it and I have to laugh, right?

John Rieger (10:59):

And yet Rappler goes on, and you've won the Nobel Peace Prize for your "efforts to safeguard freedom of expression."

Maria Ressa (11:08):

No, you have to understand, I don't think I won the Nobel Peace Prize. I think Rappler did, right? I think this is the strength of Rappler. It isn't one founder, there are four of us, and we splinter in four different directions. We have the same values, we have the same goals. And you hear about me because they're quieter. I talk a lot more. You see, Philippines is a country that is used to tyrants. I mean, we're no strangers to dictators, et cetera. But I think one lesson we learned from the six years of the deities, you yield an inch to a tyrant, and he will want more.


Yeah. When you give into a bully, what does a bully do? It's very simple. And also, it goes to the standards and ethics of what journalism is. And I think this is part of the fun of Rappler. I know that sounds crazy, but the four of us believe in the same things. And that's where we also get courage.

Glenda Gloria (12:00):

But very different people.

Maria Ressa (12:01):

Very different.

John Rieger (12:03):

When you talk about the four of you, the four founders, is one of you the mean one?

Tracie Yang (12:06):

Good question.

Glenda Gloria (12:07):

I think I am the mean one.

Maria Ressa (12:08):

She's the bad cop, I am the good cop.

Glenda Gloria (12:11):

She's the good cop.

John Rieger (12:11):

She just stepped right up and owned it.

Maria Ressa (12:12):


Glenda Gloria (12:16):


Maria Ressa (12:16):

Definitely. You need a bad cop, right? We do well together.

Glenda Gloria (12:18):

You need one.

Maria Ressa (12:22):

You did step right up.

Tracie Yang (12:25):

So Chang-Lin Tien, the former chancellor of the University of California Berkeley once said, "It's not a matter of whether we can survive, it's a matter of being excellent or mediocre." So how do you maintain your excellence and leadership in difficult times? And where do you find that energy when you're tired or discouraged or angry?

Glenda Gloria (12:47):

Oh my gosh. Precisely because the spotlight is in Rappler and the pressures are there, in some weird way the more pressure there is, the more resolve we have to be better.

Maria Ressa (13:01):

The diamond emerges.

Glenda Gloria (13:05):

And to do it well.

Maria Ressa (13:05):

Right? I mean more.

Glenda Gloria (13:06):

Now, how do we deal with... There were nights when we would lose sleep. But I think you just really have to face it and know that at the end of it, too many will be defeated.

Maria Ressa (13:19):

The good side is when you come under attack, you see things others don't. And that starts with the online attacks and the data that you get because no one but the person attacked sees it. If you analyze it, you're ahead of the curve. It's also an extremely exciting time because technology has shifted everything, largely for the bad these American tech companies who are also our partners. Yes, I know that. We don't have a choice because that is distribution.


But at the same time, it's a time of creation. I mean, before people knew Rappler as a press freedom fighter, we were an innovative news organization that actually came up with ideas that got investors, right? I mean, this is a startup that did very well. And then when we came under attack, here's the other thing that in 2018 when the government first tried to shut us down, we lost in four months 49% of our advertising revenue. If we hadn't pivoted immediately and come up with another sustainable business model driven by the very investigative journalism that we were doing against disinformation and the networks that spread it, we wouldn't have survived 2018.


But the best part is that very same business model grew 2000% in about a year. And that allowed us... When the pandemic lockdown came down, we were hiring people while other news groups were laying off people. So that's the best part there, is what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

John Rieger (14:53):

Well, I heard that coming-

Glenda Gloria (14:54):

[inaudible 00:14:55] was right.

John Rieger (14:56):

You're referring here, I guess to your network analysis service for people or companies under online attack. What is that business model?

Maria Ressa (15:05):

So think about the internet and social media as a landscape that has no maps, right? If you are a person or a company, and you want to understand the landscape, you want to understand how information flows in this ecosystem, you need a map. So what we do is we look at network analysis, we use natural language processing to look at both messaging and the networks that spread these messages. It's kind of like, I'd love to be the McKinsey of digital.

John Rieger (15:36):

Except with a white hat.

Maria Ressa (15:38):

That's what I think differentiates us. We refuse to do the things that are unethical because we have a standards and ethics manual. I mean, this is where people who are building the tech need to be held accountable. Sorry, I go back to that because that is the core of the problem.

Tracie Yang (15:55):

You now have a group of our youngest demographics who are coming of age just in terms of going to the workforce and voting and who've all grown up just completely embedded online and in social media. Is that a positive? How do you view that in your future?

Glenda Gloria (16:13):

Well, it is both. I mean, obviously this generation is in a way highly skilled multimedia wise. We have reporters who are fresh graduates from college, and they really are very familiar with technology and all that. But at the same time, we have to be there to be the guiding hand.

Maria Ressa (16:35):

For me, I worry about this generation that has come of age on social media because the incentive structure of social media, what it rewards, it's a performative, curated world where the end goal is to keep them scrolling where their attention is the prize. Well, what happens? What do they get for staying online that long? What do they learn? And if you're in a performative world where popularity can so quickly turn into mob rule, what happens to your core values and your core self? In the old world, your child would try their identities, try different parts, layers, and they would be doing this with their family who loves them and their friends who may be cruel at times, but not a mob.


Now they do this online, on social media, with people who do not care about them. And that is the impact. You have three layers of impact, the personal, because it's micro targeted. Sociological, how groups behave. And then finally this one, which we're already seeing the impact, emergent human behavior. When anger and hate is what gets rewarded, what happens to trust or thinking good things about other people? This is the world we're building, and it's not a good one.

John Rieger (17:59):

So Maria and Glenda, Rappler first made its mark in a decade when legacy media was struggling to adapt to the internet age. What does Rappler have to do to succeed in the decade to come?

Glenda Gloria (18:14):

We continue to unlearn what we have learned, many of the things that we have learned in the last 10 years because the world is fast changing, it's fast moving. And second is we continue to look beyond journalism, and beyond the media industry. Because for us to survive the coming world or the end of the world, we have to really collaborate with the non-media sectors of society, which is what? Which is your entrepreneurs, your lawyers, your NGOs, your youth groups, et cetera. Without that kind of collaboration, it's going to be a very tough battle.

John Rieger (18:56):

You are thinking very penetratingly about what the business model can be for journalism. You've really cast very wide net for ideas.

Maria Ressa (19:08):

We have no choice. I think Glenda is describing a whole of society approach. Look, in the age of exponential propaganda where social media, the main distribution platforms for news is weaponized and actually serves lies, what do you need to do? Civil society, has it actually shifted strategies and tactics in this day and age? That's part of what we need to do. We need to work together to protect the facts. We have three pillars in Rappler, technology, journalism, and community. We build communities of action. The food we feed our communities is journalism.


The journalists speak truth to power. That's important. We're not influencers. Speaking truth to power is difficult, and you're trained for it. And then I guess the other part is we need to build tech that actually has a vision of the internet for the 21st century that is democratic. This battle for democracy is not just a journalist's battle. In the Nobel Lecture I talked about how it is a person to person defense of our democracy, and that is actually every citizen's battle in a democracy.

John Rieger (20:19):

Rappler's Maria Ressa and Glenda Gloria, thank you both for joining us.

Maria Ressa (20:23):

Thank you.

Tracie Yang (20:24):

That's our show for this week. We're grateful to our guests for sharing their time with us and to all of you for tuning in.

John Rieger (20:30):

And if you join us next time, you will hear how Bangladesh and one man's vision gave birth to one of the world's most effective international development NGOs, BRAC.

Tracie Yang (20:39):

That's an acronym, and we'll tell you what it means on the next InAsia podcast.

John Rieger (20:43):

Until then, I'm John Rieger.

Tracie Yang (20:45):

And I'm Tracie Yang.

John Rieger (20:46):

Thanks for listening.