The world will know whether democracy "lives or dies" by the end of 2024, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa warned Tuesday afternoon at an event at the National Press Club in Washington.
The battle for truth — and for journalism — is at the center of that fight, the journalist added.
"If we don't have integrity of facts, we cannot have integrity of elections," she said.
The primary reason behind this crisis: "The tech-enabled Armageddon" that the world is currently facing, Ressa said, which has been turbocharged by the advent of generative artificial intelligence. "Technology is insidiously manipulating us."
"The prize is our attention. This is the new economic system — the attention economy," Ressa said. "We are Pavlov's dogs, experimented on in real time, with disastrous consequences."
Studies show that false information spreads online faster than the truth — a problematic incentive structure for which tech platforms are to blame, and one that is having severe consequences for democracy around the world, said Ressa, who is the founder and CEO of the Filipino online news site Rappler.
"If you have no 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 — we have no democracy," she said. That process "is the core of the way our world has been turned upside down."
Global freedoms have declined for 17 years in a row, Freedom House said in a March report.
Assaults on press freedom are also part of the crisis facing democracy, and they're a facet with which Ressa is particularly well acquainted.
For years, the Philippine government has consistently targeted Ressa with lawsuits, all in retaliation for Rappler's critical reporting. In January, Ressa and Rappler were acquitted of tax evasion, but she still faces three other criminal cases, including a cyber-libel conviction.
"We're not out of the woods yet," she said Tuesday. "I had to go all the way to the Philippine Supreme Court to be with you today. They have to approve my travel plans."
Rappler is still fighting a potential shutdown, said Ressa, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021.
Last week, the Russian government formally labeled her co-laureate, Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov, a "foreign agent."
Muratov, who led the renowned investigative Russian media outlet Novaya Gazeta said Monday he will mount a legal challenge to fight the designation. His media outlet announced he will temporarily step aside from his role as editor-in-chief while he takes his case through the courts.
Information warfare around the world has been at play for years. For example, in 2014 "we saw information operations that literally changed Philippine history in front of our eyes," Ressa said, transforming former President Ferdinand Marcos from a kleptocrat and a ruthless dictator into the best leader the Philippines has ever had.
"Technology makes us forget — changes the narrative," she said. "If you can make people believe lies are facts, then you can control them."
The dawn of generative artificial intelligence — "which is neither artificial nor intelligent," Ressa quipped — is making the whole situation worse.
"It has no guardrails, with the responsibility of protecting us left in the hands of — actually I think they're largely men — who are rushing ahead for profit," she said.
Digital rights and disinformation experts have raised alarms about how generative AI can be used to more easily and quickly disseminate disinformation online.
But using generative AI isn't always a bad thing, Ressa added. For instance, Rappler has used ChatGPT to help write biographies about political candidates, which staff members then checked for accuracy.
The fight for facts has sweeping implications for all other problems facing the world, like climate change, Ressa said.
"We can't solve the global existential problems if we don't win the battle for facts," she said. "The future is in our hands. This is it."