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‘Welcome to the Battlefield’: Maria Ressa Talks Tech, Fascism in Harvard Commencement Address

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Nobel Peace Prize-winning journalist Maria A. Ressa warned Harvard graduates of impending fascism due to Big Tech in her Commencement address Thursday, imploring them to “choose their best self” in response.

“These times will hopefully teach you the same lesson I learned,” Ressa said, referring to her life as a journalist in the Philippines. “You don’t know who you are until you’re tested, until you fight for what you believe in, because that defines who you are.”

“But you are Harvard,” she added. “You better get your facts right because now you are being tested.”

During her speech, she said that after she was named Harvard’s Commencement speaker in March, she faced allegations of antisemitism. The allegations followed a Washington Free Beacon article accusing an editorial in Rappler, a Philippines-based news site Ressa co-founded, of comparing the state of Israel to Hitler.

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“Because I accepted your invitation to be here today, I was attacked online and called antisemitic by power and money because they want power and money,” Ressa said.

After her speech concluded, Harvard Chabad Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi rose from his seat onstage and confronted Ressa about her remark as Pusey Chaplain Matthew Ichihashi Potts delivered the benediction.

Zarchi said he asked Ressa to publicly clarify what she meant, but could not make out her response as Potts addressed the crowd. Zarchi said he left the stage minutes before the ceremony ended when he felt it was clear she would not clarify her remarks.

Ressa did not respond to a request for comment on the remarks. A University spokesperson also did not comment.

In a direct message over X to Avraham Berkowitz, a rabbi who posted his own call for Ressa to clarify her words, Ressa wrote that “power and money referred to Big Tech and the attacks by politicians and business because they want money and power.” She later wrote in a separate post on X that she had clarified directly to Zarchi but that she was “not sure he heard.”

Ressa began her speech by thanking former Harvard President Claudine Gay, who Ressa said first invited her to speak. The audience laughed as Ressa acknowledged the “mysterious Harvard Corporation” in addition to graduates, faculty, and guests in attendance.

Ressa said the thousands of graduates assembled in Harvard Yard were “battle-tested” and prepared to face challenges like misinformation, surveillance, and facism.

She zeroed in on the use of technology to deepen divisions between groups of people as the “accelerant to conflict and violence.”

“It turned what once used to be our civilized Harvard, thinking slow, public discussions – into what’s become a gladiator’s battle to the death,” Ressa said.

Ressa also addressed the campus protests “testing everyone in America” and said she was “shocked at the fear and anger, the paranoia splitting open the major fracture lines of society, the inability to listen.”

“Protests are healthy; they shouldn’t be violent. Protests give voice; they shouldn’t be silenced,” she said, seemingly referencing the Harvard College Administrative Board’s decision to discipline more than 25 students for their involvement in a 20-day pro-Palestine encampment in Harvard Yard.

Ressa also praised the student speeches that preceded hers, which included two speeches that went off-script to reference the 13 seniors denied diplomas by the Harvard Corporation after being disciplined for their involvement in the encampment.

Ressa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 for what the Nobel Committee described as her “efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.” She shared the award with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov, the former editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta.

She received the recognition after a career in investigative journalism spanning almost four decades. Ressa worked at CNN in Manila and Jakarta and led multimedia news operations at ABS-CBN, the largest news organization in the Philippines, before co-founding Rappler in 2012.

Ressa faced legal challenges in the Philippines, such as libel and tax fraud charges, while reporting on the Duterte administration — challenges she said were motivated by a desire to crackdown on press freedom.

She told the audience she had to request permission to come to Harvard by the Philippine Supreme Court and had repeatedly faced political persecution.

“Anyone else out here on bail?” Ressa asked. “Just me?”

Ressa told graduates to be “clear about your values” and to be “vulnerable” with each other in order to build relationships, instead of creating further division.

“We’re standing on the rubble of the world that was. And we, you, must have the courage, the foresight, to imagine and create the world as it should be – more compassionate, more equal, more sustainable,” she said.

“Our world on fire needs you. So, Class of 2024, welcome to the battlefield,” Ressa added. “Join us.”

—Staff writer Emma H. Haidar can be reached at emma.haidar@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @HaidarEmma.

—Staff writer Cam E. Kettles can be reached at cam.kettles@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @cam_kettles or on Threads @camkettles.

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