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Women in tech: Veteran journalist uses technology for social change

Maria Ressa is the CEO and executive editor for Rappler, a social news site dedica

For most of us (especially millennials) social media is part of our everyday lives. According to a recent Business Insider report, social is considered the “top Internet activity” for Americans. Translation? On the whole, we devote more of our time to social media than to anything else on the Internet.

“Kids are on social media all the time, and yet they use it mostly for fun things,” says Maria Ressa, CEO and executive editor for Rappler. “In reality, there are many other things that are possible with it. It’s about getting them to ask themselves how they can organize themselves on social media so that they can focus on things in their community.”

This is the driving force behind Rappler, a social news network in the Philippines that directly engages the community. Ressa says that the Rappler philosophy is a simple one – make the community part of what you’re doing as a news organization. In a nutshell, she believes in using social media to engage more than to broadcast.

“Social media is more than just a megaphone,” says Ressa, who helped launch Rappler in 2011. “Instead, if you can get the community to buy into the same values and to create with you, then you have a potent tool for social change.”

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Using social media to engage and mobilize the community is what motivates Ressa the most. It appears that she and her team are doing something right. After just a year and a half after its launch, Rappler became the third top online news site in the Philippines. Ressa adds that they’ve continued to grow their revenue by at least 100 percent every year.

Born in the Philippines, Ressa actually grew up as a public-school kid in Tom’s River, New Jersey. Her path led her back to the Philippines during the 1986 People Power Revolution. While spending almost 20 years as CNN’s bureau chief for Southeast Asia, she watched as many of the surrounding countries moved from one-man authoritarian rule to democracy. From there, she took the reins of news and current affairs for six years at ABS-CBN, a huge multi-platform news organization.

But as social media made its way into the Philippines, the veteran journalist couldn't help but see a real opportunity for social change within this new platform. Strangely, the light bulb went off while she was investigating the ways in which the ideology of terrorism was rapidly spreading online.

“If you deconstruct a lot of the ideas that spread terrorism on social media, you can actually ignite people to work for change,” says Ressa. “That sounds super idealistic, but it’s actually quite pragmatic.”

With that, Rappler was born. A mix of seasoned journalists and younger digital natives is what’s fueling the social news site. The idea is to find creative ways to use technology to help foster civic engagement and, in turn, ignite positive social change.

Does the model work? Ressa says the proof is in the pudding. In 2013, Rappler heavily reported on a scandal involving institutionalized corruption. Within one week, 100,000 protestors had mobilized on the streets.

“This is why I love social media,” says Ressa. “It’s going to be this next generation that fights this endemic corruption because my generation in this country failed.”

 
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