Review: “How to Stand Up to a Dictator”

An excellent book is a history, biography, and warning — about power, lies, and authoritarianism

Review: “How to Stand Up to a Dictator”

Maria Ressa is a journalist, a Nobel Prize winner, and a hero in the information space. Born in the Phillipines and raised in the US (a story unto itself), she returned to the Phillipines as an adult, worked for CNN, founded Rappler, and was an early proponent and then opponent of social media as its promise turned to peril.

She also learned early on that the Phillipines was a staging area for information warfare and the rise of digital authoritarianism, with Russia, China, and transgressives in the US, UK, and EU intent on exporting it once it was ready. To her, the events that led up to Brexit, Cambridge Analytica, Trump’s election, and the insurrections in the US and Brazil were not surprises.

She warned Facebook early and often, notching some wins — but the company’s greed and arrogance prevailed.

Her book, “How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future,” was published in late November 2022, and I’ve been savoring it ever since. It is a clearly written, riveting biographical and historical accounting of what has gone wrong in our information space. Ressa is a remarkable person, and her story alone is worth the price of admission. She has been forced to fight a corrupt Phillipines government on multiple fronts, winning a tax evasion case just this year as she and Rappler have been harassed for their truth-telling journalism.

Of course, if you’re a frequent reader here, you know I’ve been paging through the book, praising it and quoting from it liberally. And for good reason. If you’re feeling defeated, cynical, or lost in the face of the avalanche of nonsense coming our way from tourists, miscreants, and grifters in the information space, “How to Stand Up to a Dictator” is like drinking cool, clear water — refreshing, rejuvenating, and re-energizing.

Ressa focuses on how important, difficult, and risky it is to produce good, reliable, truthful information. In our world, which has become almost purely focused on enabling free information consumption, it’s a good reminder that our role has been — and, I would argue, remains — producing good, reliable information to inform the scientific and scholarly community, and ultimately the public sphere.

I won’t go into details, but will share below some of my favorite quotes from the book to let you feel what it’s like to read some of its more powerful messages. They land with a punch, yet all is delivered in a voice redolent with warmth, care, and humanity. Ressa is an excellent writer and her book an inspiration.

Highly Recommended.

Selected Quotes

Bolding only to aid reading by providing visual contrast.

Online violence is real-world violence.
. . . the absence of rule of law in the virtual world is devastating. We live in only one reality, and the breakdown of the rule of law globally was ignited by the lack of a democratic vision for the internet in the twenty-first century. Impunity online naturally led to impunity offline, destroying existing checks and balances.
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.
I was beginning to grasp that journalists were no longer the gatekeepers of facts and information. The new gatekeepers, the technology platforms, had put into place rules that give the equivalent of nuclear weapons to digital populists and authoritarians to turn our society and democracy—all around the world—upside down. . . . an invisible atom bomb exploded in our information ecosystem . . . technology platforms have given geopolitical powers a way to manipulate each of us individually.
What are you willing to sacrifice for the truth?
I learned that drawing the line, calling out unfairness and being honest, though uncomfortable, often means moving life forward, bringing something new to fruition. . . . Staying silent or compliant changed nothing. Speaking up was an act of creation.
A good journalist doesn’t look for balance — as when, say, a world leader commits a war crime or outright lies to his or her citizenry — because that would create a false equivalence. When a journalist confronts the powerful, it is easier and safer to write it in a “balanced” way. But that’s a coward’s way out. A good journalist, for example, would not give equal time and space to known climate deniers and climate change scientists. Good journalists lean on the side of evidence, on incontrovertible facts.
The goal was not to win an argument or win a popularity contest; it was to create the more informed citizenry necessary for a democracy to work. . . . there was a sense of moral responsibility—to help create a better future.
Now . . . replace news organizations with technology companies, which have largely abdicated the gatekeeping role of protecting facts, truth, and trust. These companies welcome an alliance with power, which guarantees market access and growth because their incentive system is built around power and money. In the past, the information we all got was protected from vested interests. In the cases of some corporate media firms, that information was only slightly affected by vested interests. Now, under the technology companies, the information you get is directly determined by the corporations’ drive for profit. . . . It was a disastrous combination of incompetence, arrogance, and impunity.
Today, I’m beyond disillusioned. I believe that Facebook represents one of the gravest threats to democracies around the world, and I am amazed that we have allowed our freedoms to be taken away by technology companies’ greed for growth and revenues. Tech sucked up our personal experiences and data, organized it with artificial intelligence, manipulated us with it, and created behavior at a scale that brought out the worst in humanity. . . . We all let it happen.
. . . nothing less than attacking the [surveillance capitalism and targeted advertising] business model directly could bring true change. . . . The technology companies are not satisfied with destroying democracy; left unchecked, they are capable of destroying much more.
. . . the media can help rebuild democracy around the world.