‘Lies Laced With Anger and Hate Spread Fastest’: Journalist Maria Ressa Maps Social Media Disinformation in Documentary ‘A Thousand Cuts’

January 8, 2021

In the months after Rodrigo Duterte was elected president of the Philippines in 2016, Maria Ressa’s staff at the independent news site Rappler investigated a slew of killings believed to be connected to Duterte’s brutal war on drug suspects and users. Ressa, a prominent journalist and Rappler’s CEO, also published a series of stories examining Facebook’s impact on democracy and the rapid-fire spread of online disinformation in support of Duterte, who has said journalists “are not exempted from assassination.”

Almost immediately, Ressa became a target of online disinformation and threats herself. At one point, she was receiving an average of 90 “hate messages” per hour, she says in the new FRONTLINE documentary A Thousand Cuts, directed by Ramona Diaz, which debuted at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and has its U.S. broadcast premiere Friday, Jan. 8 (check local PBS listings). The film tells the story of the war on the press in the Philippines, the impact on democracy and how Ressa became a prime target.

As the documentary explores, the social media assault on Ressa only deepened the veteran journalist’s resolve to continue her team’s accountability reporting — and to identify and map the ways disinformation and hate spread across digital ecosystems.

In the above excerpt from A Thousand Cuts, Ressa, a 2018 TIME Person of the Year, describes her approach: “When you only look at content, it’s a whack-a-mole game. I want to figure out what the lie is then look at the network that spreads the lies. That’s the nervous system.” (Content warning: The examples of online abuse in the above clip include a screengrab of a graphic sexual comment.)

A key part of that nervous system, with potentially large-scale impact, is fake accounts that amplify false claims: “[We] found that 26 fake accounts can influence up to three million other accounts. Three million,” Ressa says in the documentary.

The backlash against Ressa and Rappler’s reporting didn’t stop with a tide of tweets and Facebook posts that included threats of sexual and other forms of violence. Since Duterte became president, more than 10 court actions have been filed against Ressa, Rappler or its staffers — actions meant “to cow, to intimidate,” Ressa previously told FRONTLINE.

She has been arrested multiple times and was convicted in a cyber libel case in June 2020, which she has appealed; an additional cyber libel charge that Ressa called “ludicrous” was issued in December 2020. Per Reuters, Duterte’s office has said that it is not behind court actions involving Rappler and that it’s “unreasonable” to accuse Duterte’s government of harassing the news site.

In the wake of A Thousand Cuts’ Sundance debut, The New York Times called it “absorbing” (Critic’s Pick); The Washington Post said it is “utterly urgent”; and The Hollywood Reporter described it as “essential.” The documentary offers a powerful look at the implications for democracy when press freedom is threatened and disinformation flourishes on social media.

“What we’re seeing is a death by a thousand cuts of our democracy,” Ressa says in the film. “When you have enough of these cuts, you are so weakened that you will die.” But Ressa vows she and Rappler will press on: “We will not duck; we will not hide. We will hold the line.”

A Thousand Cuts comes to PBS stations Friday, Jan. 8, 2021, at 9/8c (check local listings) and will be available to stream on FRONTLINE’s site and YouTube channel, as well as via the PBS Video App and the PBS Documentaries Prime Video Channel. This special Friday-night edition of FRONTLINE will be followed by a roundtable conversation produced in collaboration with WLIW’s Amanpour & Company. The discussion will be moderated by Christiane Amanpour and will feature the documentary’s director, Ramona Diaz, and its central subject, Maria Ressa. 

A Thousand Cuts is a Concordia Studio, Motto Pictures and CineDiaz production, developed in association with Topic for GBH/FRONTLINE. The executive producers are Laurene Powell Jobs, Davis Guggenheim, Jonathan Silberberg, Nicole Stott, Raney Aronson-Rath, David J. Cornfield and Linda A. Cornfield. Edited by Leah Marino. The producers are Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements and Carolyn Hepburn. Produced by Ramona S. Diaz and Leah Marino. Written and directed by Ramona S. Diaz.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



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