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Maria Ressa stresses importance of fighting for truth in Harvard speech: 'Our world on fire needs you'

By Melanie Uson Published May 24, 2024 7:04 pm

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa reminded the Class of 2024 of Harvard University to be brave in speaking up on the ongoing wars across the globe, despite the “chilling effect” that comes with it.

Speaking before the estimated 30,000 “battle-tested” graduates on Thursday, May 23, the Rappler CEO recognized how today’s scholars have been able to survive the challenging times of the COVID-19 lockdown and continuously witness the different wars from across the globe through smartphone screens. 

“We live in a dystopian science fiction world, where everything can change in the blink of an eye, when you have been forced to turn crisis into opportunity,” she began in her speech. 

She cited the Philippines’ ongoing battle against misinformation and disinformation for the past years, as well as her personal experience of receiving hate messages and death threats for speaking up. 

“Because I accepted your invitation to be here today, I was attacked online and called anti-semitic. By power and money,” she said, adding, “While the other side was already attacking me because I had been onstage with Hillary Clinton.” 

ICYDK, Ressa is known for her fierce fight for press freedom, especially during former president Rodrigo Duterte's regime. She faced charges of cyber libel and tax evasion, among others. 

"It taught me a valuable lesson,” the veteran investigative journalist said. “These times will hopefully teach you the same lesson I learned. You don’t know who you are until you’re tested, until you fight for what you believe in because that defines who you are. But you’re Harvard. You better get your facts right,” she continued. 

“Because now, you are being tested. The chilling effect means that many are choosing to stay silent because there are consequences to speaking out. I’m shocked at the fear and anger, the paranoia splitting open the major fracture lines of society. The inability to listen,” she said. 

Ressa also recognized the ongoing protests on campuses in the US, including Harvard, for Palestine’s freedom.  

“Protests are healthy; they shouldn’t be violent. Protests give voice; they shouldn’t be silenced,” she said. 

“But you live in complicated, complex times where I think administrators and students also faced an unacknowledged danger: technology, making everything faster, meaner, more polarized. With insidious information operations online that are dividing generations,” she stressed. 

She further shared what she and her team at Rappler learned to cope: Choose your best self, turn crisis into opportunity, and be vulnerable. 

The fight for truth 

Ressa stressed the need to fight for truth and democracy, now more than ever. 

“Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without these three, we have no shared reality, no rule of law, no democracy. We can’t begin to solve existential problems like climate change,” she said. 

She pointed out how the fast-evolving use of data has been transforming the world in the worst way, citing the horrors of genocide in other countries. 

“This outrage economy – built on our data, micro-targeting us – transformed our world, rewarding the worst of humanity. Online violence is real world violence. And people are dying – from genocide in Myanmar, fueled by Facebook according to the UN and Meta itself, to Ukraine, Sudan, Haiti, Armenia, Gaza,” she said. 

Ressa stressed that war is not only present in the mentioned countries but also prevalent on the internet, as the battle against disinformation ensues.

“We are standing on the rubble of the world that was, and we, you, must have the courage, the foresight to imagine – and create the world as it should be: more compassionate, more equal, more sustainable,” stressed. 

“Your Harvard education gives you the tools, make it a world that is safe from fascists and tyrants,” she continued, further stressing the need to work together. “Our world on fire needs you.” 

Ressa is the first Filipino to serve as a commencement speaker at Harvard. Apart from this, she was also conferred an honorary degree (doctor of laws). 

She also serves as the first Filipino Nobel Laureate in its 120-year history.