‘You’ve got power; use it’: Nobel laureate Maria Ressa speaks on democracy at Notre Dame Forum event

Author: Notre Dame News

Andrés Mejía Acosta and Maria Ressa sit on blue velvet chairs on a stage with white drapes in the background, answering audience questions
Andrés Mejía Acosta and Maria Ressa (Photo Credit: Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)

As part of the 2023-24 Notre Dame Forum on “The Future of Democracy,” Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa, an acclaimed journalist and renowned defender of democracy, spoke to more than 300 attendees on campus Wednesday (March 20) about the key challenges facing international information ecosystems and global democracy.

In welcoming those gathered, University President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., said that Ressa’s work in combating disinformation and exposing human rights abuses exemplifies Notre Dame’s commitment to being a force for good. Father Jenkins noted that her visit coincides with the launch of the University’s new Democracy Initiative, aimed at enhancing Notre Dame’s research and teaching on democracy and translating this knowledge for policymakers and public officials in the United States and abroad.

University of Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., stands at the podium on stage offering opening remarks
University President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. (Photo Credit: Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)

He referred to Ressa as a “person who exudes compassion, joy and hope” and whose life exemplifies the “triumph of the human spirit.”

Ressa opened her presentation by asking, “What are you willing to sacrifice for the truth?” She stated that democracies across the globe are in trouble, and it is up to each of us to defend democracy. But to do so, Ressa said, we have to know what our values are.

“The first step is to draw the line — these are your values — and then you have to hold the line,” Ressa explained, “because you don’t really know who you are until you’re forced to defend it.” And, Ressa admitted, such action takes courage.

Sharing examples from her own life and work as co-founder of Rappler, the top digital-only news site leading the fight for press freedom in the Philippines, Ressa discussed the ways tech and social media companies are manipulating users. Observing that social media is designed to be addictive, she described how its use ultimately changes users’ behavior by spreading misinformation, influencing feelings, shortening attention spans and promoting “tribalism.” The result, she said, is widespread disbelief, distrust, bullying and dehumanization.

“Essentially, what the tech companies did was to hack our biology by shifting the way we think through how we feel,” she said. “There is no law against making you addicted. There is no law against manipulating you and there is no law against the impact that it has had.”

Ressa also emphasized the positive potential of technology, which can be used to cultivate connections and form communities. “The power of information distribution is now person to person,” she stated. “If you organize, you can be far more powerful than a large news organization.”

Ressa shared that it is possible to rebuild trust in journalism, in democracy and in each other by capitalizing on the innovative and beneficial uses of technology in fields such as medicine, journalism, crisis communications and community building. She also emphasized the need to support responsible, independent and truthful journalism.

In concluding, Ressa noted that Notre Dame, with its strong campus community, location in the Midwest and Catholic mission, is uniquely positioned to make a positive impact, and she encouraged attendees to find ways to act.

A large crowd of attendees fills the Smith Ballroom for a lecture by Maria Ressa, who stands on stage in the background
Maria Ressa (Photo Credit: Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)

“I feel like what we are seeing online is the growth of cults versus the leadership of religions,” she said. “But you are unique because you are not captured, because you have values, and you live the faith. And faith is incredibly important. The time is now. Please act. Notre Dame, you’ve got power; use it.”

Following the lecture, Andrés Mejía Acosta, the Kuster Family Associate Dean for Policy and Practice at the Keough School of Global Affairs, moderated a discussion between Ressa and audience members.

This event was co-sponsored by the Office of the President and the Keough School. Ressa’s lecture was the fifth and final keynote event for the 2023-24 Notre Dame Forum, a series of discussions designed to foster respectful and informed dialogue on national and global issues. In February, Ressa was appointed as a distinguished policy fellow at the Keough School, and she delivered a keynote address on digital democracy at the school’s Washington Office on March 14.

You can watch a recording of the March 20 event here.