Social media bosses are ‘the largest dictators’, says Nobel peace prize winner

Journalist Maria Ressa named Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk in speech at Hay literary festival in Powys

“Tech bros” such as Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are “the largest dictators”, Maria Ressa, who won the Nobel peace prize in 2021 for her defence of media freedom, has said.

The American-Filipina journalist has spent a number of years fighting charges filed during then president of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte’s administration, but said Duterte “is a far smaller dictator compared to Mark Zuckerberg, and now let me throw in Elon Musk”.

Speaking at the Hay literary festival in Powys, Ressa said Zuckerberg and Musk have “proven that we all, regardless of culture, language, or geography, have far more in common than we have differences because we’re all being manipulated the same way”.

Social media platforms have the ability to “change the way we feel”, she said, which in turn “changes the way we see the world and changes the way we act”.

Ressa said conversations about identity politics online have caused similar instances of polarisation across the world. These debates encourage “the kinds of questions that we think are our free will” – but they are not, Ressa said.

“In the Philippines, it was rich versus poor. In the United States, it’s race,” she said. “Black Lives Matter … was bombarded on both sides by Russian propaganda. And the goal was not to make people believe one thing. The goal was to burst this wide open to create chaos.”

The way tech companies are “inciting polarisation, inciting fear and anger and hatred” changes us “at a personal level, a societal level”, she said.

She suggested two ways to lessen the control tech companies have over us. Firstly, she said, the US should get rid of section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, “which is what gives these companies impunity”. The section protects internet companies from lawsuits over content posted by their users.

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“And the other one is, if you have kids, don’t let them on [social media] until they’re old enough,” she said, because it is “mildly addictive”.

While she thinks attempts to ban Chinese-owned TikTok in the US and Italy are “great”, it “isn’t just TikTok” we should be worried about, but all social media – and the internet as a whole.

“With generative AI, the quality of information you’re getting is already getting crappier,” she said, citing a study published earlier this year that showed a “shocking” amount of the web is generated by poor-quality AI.

“That’s before generative AI really was kicking in, and you know, at a certain point, it will drive us out,” she said.

She urged the audience at Hay to “walk into the real world” and organise with their families and friends, “because the information operations target you. And when you become a broadcast arm, you become part of the information test team”.

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