Ressa, something of a journalistic legend in her country, had invited five candidates for the 2016 Philippine presidential election to a Rappler forum called #TheLeaderIWant. Only Duterte showed on this January afternoon. So, after the crowd stood for the national anthem, Ressa introduced the lone candidate and his running mate. “The stage is yours,” she said to applause.
For the next two hours, Duterte, under bright lights, sat in a white leather chair as Ressa lobbed questions that had been crowdsourced on Facebook, the co-sponsor of the forum. This was a peak moment for both interviewer and subject. While the event elevated Ressa and her four-year-old company, it also gave the then-mayor of Davao City, known as “the Punisher” for his brutal response to crime in the southern Philippine city, an exceptional opportunity to showcase his views. It was broadcast on 200 television and radio stations, and viewing parties on more than 40 college campuses across the Philippines tuned in as the event was livestreamed.
The Philippines is prime Facebook country—smartphones outnumber people, and 97 percent of Filipinos who are online have Facebook accounts. Ressa’s forum introduced Duterte to Filipino millennials on the platform where they live. Duterte, a quick social media study despite being 71 at the time of the election, took it from there. He hired strategists who helped him transform his modest online presence, creating an army of Facebook personalities and bloggers worldwide. His large base of followers—enthusiastic and often vicious—was sometimes called the Duterte Die-Hard Supporters, or simply DDS. No one missed the reference to another DDS: Duterte’s infamous Davao Death Squad, widely thought to have killed hundreds of people.
“At the beginning I actually loved it because I felt like this was untapped potential,” Ressa says. “Duterte’s campaign on social media was groundbreaking.”
Until it became crushing. Since being elected in May 2016, Duterte has turned Facebook into a weapon. The same Facebook personalities who fought dirty to see Duterte win were brought inside the Malacañang Palace. From there they are methodically taking down opponents, including a prominent senator and human-rights activist who became the target of vicious online attacks and was ultimately jailed on a drug charge.
And then, as Ressa began probing the government’s use of social media and writing stories critical of the new president, the force of Facebook was turned against her.