Maria Ressa, Class of 1986, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 for her efforts to safeguard freedom of expression in the Philippines. Perhaps no one better understands that democracy is a fragile institution, and one that is too easily dismantled by disinformation.
Students entering the University this fall as the Class of 2027 will explore the tenuous threads that keep democracy woven together as they consider Ressa’s book, “How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future,” this year’s Princeton Pre-read selection.
The Pre-read is a Princeton tradition that introduces first-year students to the intellectual life of the University by offering opportunities to engage with a book that is made available to students, faculty and staff. After arriving on campus, the students come together to discuss the book with its author and President Christopher L. Eisgruber during Orientation.
A Pre-read edition of the book was sent to first-years this summer, and other members of the University community may request copies through the Pre-Read website. This year's Pre-read Assembly is scheduled for Sept. 3.
Published by Harper Books in 2022, “How to Stand Up to A Dictator” recounts Ressa’s journey from CNN reporter to CEO and executive editor of the Philippines-based online news organization Rappler.com, and her groundbreaking coverage of the Philippine government that has made her an enemy of authoritarian President Rodrigo Duterte.
“I have met many impressive Princeton alumni, but none whom I admire more than Maria Ressa,” Eisgruber wrote to students in his foreword to the special Pre-read edition. “Her courage is awesome, her values are inspiring, and her energy is boundless. She is also an almost unbelievably generous person who radiates compassion and good humor despite having faced extraordinary threats and hardships.”
A Princeton preparation for challenges to come
“How to Stand Up to a Dictator” includes a chapter about Ressa’s time at Princeton. “One of many reasons that I chose the book as this year’s Pre-read,” Eisgruber noted in the foreword, “is that it describes how Maria’s education prepared her, sometimes in surprising ways, for unexpected challenges over the course of her career.”
Duterte’s regime has used repeated intimidation tactics against Ressa and Rappler.com after Rappler documented how social media in the Philippines was being used to spread disinformation, harass opponents and manipulate public discourse. In 2020, she was convicted in the Philippines for “cyber libel,” along with a former Rappler reporter. The International Journalists’ Network reports that the state has brought 23 cases against Ressa since 2018, three of which she continues to appeal.
“Democracy has become a woman-to-woman, man-to-man defense of our values,” Ressa said during her Nobel lecture in December 2021. “We’re at a sliding door moment, where we can continue down the path we’re on and descend further into fascism, or we can each choose to fight for a better world. To do that, you have to ask yourself: what are you willing to sacrifice for the truth?”
Ressa was born in the Philippines and grew up in Toms River, New Jersey. She graduated from Princeton in 1986 with a bachelor of arts in English and a certificate in theater and dance. She taught in Princeton’s Program in Journalism in the 2000-01 academic year while she worked for CNN.
She has since returned to Princeton several times. During a visit to campus in April 2019, she met with students, faculty and the campus community in large and small forums to discuss freedom of the press and how to combat disinformation.
She sat for an interview with Princeton’s She Roars podcast about the weaponization of social media in the Philippines and the dangers of her work. In her address to Princeton graduates during the University’s virtual Commencement in 2020, she advised them to make the choice to build community and learn while “avoiding the mob,” and to embrace fear.
In 2022, Ressa received the Woodrow Wilson Award, Princeton’s highest undergraduate honor. In her speech, she addressed how social media and other digital platforms make it much harder for the public to discern what is true. “Studies have shown that lies laced with anger and hate spread [online] faster and further than facts,” she said. “Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without these, we have no shared reality, no rule of law, no democracy.”
Honors around the world
In addition to her Nobel Peace Prize, Ressa has been honored around the world for her work in fighting disinformation and attempts to silence the free press. In 2018, she was named TIME magazine’s “Person of the Year” and won the prestigious Golden Pen of Freedom Award from the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers. She also received the 2018 Gwen Ifill Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists. Prospect magazine selected her as one of the world’s top 50 thinkers.
This summer, the incoming class received a copy of “How to Stand Up to a Dictator” to read. The class will have many opportunities to discuss the book this fall with Eisgruber and other faculty and staff during Pre-read precepts in the residential colleges and elsewhere around campus.
In a video announcing the Pre-read to the Class of 2027, Eisgruber noted that in Ressa’s book, she offers readers “an urgent invitation to join what [she] calls ‘the fight for our future,’ the quest to protect truth, democracy and humane understanding from the corrosive effects of online media platforms and the algorithms that drive them. I look forward to examining these and other topics with you, and to welcoming you when you arrive on campus.”
Ressa continues to face the legal battles her book chronicles. At present, she plans to join the class discussion of the book during Orientation week.
A decade of Princeton Pre-reads
The Princeton Pre-read started in 2013 and has continued with a new selection each year:
2013 — “The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen” by Kwame Anthony Appiah
2014 — “Meaning in Life and Why It Matters” by Susan Wolf
2015 — “Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do” by Claude Steele
2016 — “Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality” by Danielle Allen
2017 — “What Is Populism?” by Jan-Werner Müller
2018 — “Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech” by Keith Whittington
2019 — “Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy” by James Williams
2020 — “This America” by Jill Lepore
2021 — “Moving Up Without Losing Your Way” by Jennifer Morton
2022 — “Every Day the River Changes” by Jordan Salama