In How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future, journalist Maria Ressa, winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, gives readers a riveting inside view of what it’s like to be a dissident fighting authoritarianism. This engrossing book is a political history of the Philippines and an intimate memoir, but it’s also a warning to democracies everywhere: Authoritarianism is a threat to us all.
Since the 1980s, Ressa has been a journalist who speaks truth to power, but her path to success unfolded almost by accident. Born in the Philippines, Ressa was brought at age 10 to the United States, where she was raised by her mother and stepfather. When she first arrived, she felt like a confused outsider but quickly realized she felt comfortable at school and could thrive there if she followed these rules for herself: Always choose to learn, embrace your fear, and stand up to bullies. Those courageous lessons would follow her throughout her life as a journalist and a critic of dictators.
Upon returning to the Philippines as an adult, Ressa worked for CNN and then ABS-CBN, where she was head of the news division while the political climate in the Philippines was becoming more and more volatile. She later co-founded her own news service, Rappler, with the intention of integrating social media, citizen journalism and data into old-fashioned journalism. However, she increasingly found that social media, Facebook in particular, and corrupt politicians made for very dangerous bedfellows. Through Rappler’s data-collecting and help from her readers, Ressa discovered that social media was helping to fuel fascism in the Philippines. Disinformation spread quickly and widely because people tended to share information (even lies) when strong emotions were attached to the content. When she brought this to Facebook’s attention, they dismissed her concerns.
With the help of these disinformation campaigns, Rodrigo Duterte was elected president of the Philippines in 2016. He won in a landslide based on false promises of fighting crime and corruption. In reality, he was shutting down press freedoms, ordering gruesome extra-judicial killings and handing out government positions to loyalists and corrupt officials. Ressa’s scrutiny of his administration has led to two arrests for cyber libel; she has been convicted and is currently awaiting her appeal.
The exceptional details in this memoir are both tactile and persistent; you can almost feel and smell the blood as Ressa describes a crime scene. Her ability to recount the finer details of some of the scariest moments of her life (such as witnessing a military coup) is nothing short of breathtaking. Highly researched yet accessible, How to Stand Up to a Dictator is a plea to the world: The best way to maintain a democracy is a strong press, free from corruption and disinformation.