Maria Ressa, Time Magazine’s 2018 person of the year, Maria Ressa speaking to students at Ryerson University. (Anika Syeda/ Ryersonian)

Time magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year Maria Ressa visited Ryerson University yesterday to tell students not to lose hope in the media during the current rise of fake news.

The Filipina journalist is the co-founder and CEO of Rappler, an online news platform based in the Philippines specializing in digital content.

The journalist rose to prominence in part because of her coverage of the populist Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte’s violent and authoritarian rule. She also led Rappler into a partnership with Facebook to create an independent fact-checking program in the Phillippines.

For Ressa, this combination has meant navigating the murky waters of online journalism, which has developed a reputation for a high volumes of fake news.

Calling journalists “the first line of defence in any democracy,” she spoke to Ryerson students about the relationship between fake news and its danger to elective government.

“What happens is that these messages are floating on anger and hate,” she said. “It’s meant to incite online violence. It controls the narrative, it creates echo chambers, and if you can tear down kind of voices of trust – that includes journalists – then the voice with the loudest megaphone wins.”

Ressa claims the new information ecosystem of online content distribution currently treats lies the same way as the truth. She simultaneously applauds Canada for its robust democracy while warning the audience to remain vigilant and on the lookout for fake news.

Students in the audience echoed Ressa’s fears about fake news.

“I have encountered fake news all over social media, most often on Facebook and YouTube,” said Nicole Kindos, a fourth-year business management student at Ryerson. “It can be very difficult to differentiate from real and fake news because fake news has enough ‘on the surface’ information, so that if you do not dig deeper to analyze the news being offered, you would instantly believe what is being told to you.”

Kindos, along with several others, attended the event as part of visiting professor Karim Bardeesy’s Making the Future Class.

The professor is a co-founder of the university’s thinktank Ryerson Leadership Lab (RLL), which hosted the event in collaboration with the Ryerson Communication and Design Society, the Ryerson Faculty of Communication and Design, and the Ryerson School of Journalism.

Second-year professional communication student Aysha Anwar attended and photographed the event as a member of RLL. Like Kindos, Anwar had her fears about fake news confirmed by Ressa.

“As a communications student who will likely be deep in the ends of digital and news media, Ressa provided a necessary reminder of the dangers of social media technology – especially in spreading disinformation,” said Anwar.

Anwar agreed with Ressa that this unprecedented push of fake news on the digital frontier is a threat to democracy.

However, Ressa said journalism can play a part in rescuing democracy.

“If you are a journalism student today,” she said on her final note,“do not lose hope. Jump into the fray right now. Craft a much better world for us to live in.”

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