Maria Ramirez is a journalist and new-media entrepreneur. A Fall 2018 IOP Fellow, she was the senior political reporter for Univision through the 2016 election cycle and is a founder of Politibot, a politics-centered Spanish language chatbot. Her work can be found in publications such as The Atlantic. Ramirez sat down with The Gate to discuss the current state and future of journalism.
The Gate: What inspired you to become a journalist?
Maria Ramirez: Both my parents are journalists, so I really grew up with news, newspapers, radio newscast. It was something that was in the atmosphere of my family. While I wasn't quite sure when I finished college if that was what I really wanted to do, I really fell in love with journalism just doing it. The first thing that I really enjoyed was working for a newswire in Spain called EFE, covering national politics and just going around following politicians. The first scoop that I got that was different from other people's coverage was about a politician who said something that he probably shouldn't have, and I really loved that feeling of having something special and discovering something that may be relevant just for yourself.
Gate: How do you see disinformation, disseminated by both Americans and foreign actors, affecting election outcomes and the American political climate?
MR: I think it's a challenge for all of us. It's particularly a challenge for platforms, which obviously play a big role in it. They have to rethink the rules and be more aggressive about this. In the aftermath of the 2016 elections, there were some changes, but I'm afraid [the media] are giving up because it is complicated and it takes time. Some of the initiatives launched, particularly with Facebook, are sort of withdrawing. As journalists, our job now is making sure to fight the spread of rumors and try to report on that as well. It is also a challenge for every reader, who needs to be more critical of everything they see online. Just checking the source can be easy to detect this bold false information that’s out there.
Gate: In what ways has disinformation manifested differently in the United States and Europe? Are there are any lessons to gleam from past crises, such as the Catalan crisis of the conflict in Ukraine?
MR: I think some of the patterns are very similar all around the world. Sometimes it is more bold, sometimes it is not. What I think has been different in Europe is that some media outlets have been part of the problem. Sometimes disseminating rumors or not being fast enough on the banking rumors or just checking things before publishing. I think that was the problem in the case of Catalonia for instance. Of course social media is a challenge because it is such a fast medium that sometimes you don't think enough before tweeting or sharing information, but in the case of Europe, the spread of mal-information has been worse because of mainstream media compared to the United States, where I think mainstream media has been better about not sharing false information. The underlying problem is also society. There are some problems going on within a very polarized society in Europe in the cases of Brexit, Catalonia, and Ukraine. The first problem, of course, is trying to address the division in some of our societies, trying to talk through the problems more, and having more public forums to share information and concerns before people are the prey of malinformation actors.
Gate: Although Russian security forces were responsible for much of the disinformation dispersed across social media in the 2016 election cycle, to what extent is the environment and culture that allows the proliferation of disinformation the responsibility of US citizens?
MR: I think, as I was saying, part of the problem is the polarization of society. In the end the main spreaders of mal-information are citizens. Maybe they are being targeted by mal-actors or campaigns, but it is the ultimate responsibility of every reader who shares information. We should give more tools to people, which is why I believe the role of platforms is important—maybe just to be more clear about the source of information or basic data of a website. Some basic information would be helpful for anyone to just detect more quickly if anything is true or not. I believe there’s a responsibility for everyone to think a bit more. Younger people are better at this because they grew up around all these digital tools. They are more new to older people so maybe they are more insecure about that. I think the experience of these last years has made us more aware of these problems.
Gate: Do you think the internet can be used to depolarize people, just as it was used to polarize people?
MR: I think, in the end, it is a public forum for conversation. If you think about what Twitter or Facebook was at the beginning, it was a tool for good, trying to connect people and having people from far away discover things or conversations. I think you can still use internet tools like that, but probably you need a more closed, controlled environment. That’s why Facebook groups or chatbots could be useful for this because it's not open to everybody. You segment and organize the conversation a bit so there is less noise.
Gate: With people calling for everything from government regulation to higher levels of oversight from social media companies, what responses do you believe are necessary to prevent or deter the spread of false information?
MR: I think the best thing would be for platforms to try to organize their tools in a more useful way. I think it is also convenient for them because although the business ad model was working perfectly, the backlash that we are living through now could put them in danger. Government regulation with free speech is always tricky. Although there are some things that could be useful—like in the case of privacy and maybe in some cases hate speech—I think ultimately self-regulation from the platforms and changing the rules could be more useful. When you have the government intervening in free speech, it can be tricky and a way for users and readers to not trust the platform or the content. They could think they are partisan. All governments in the end are partisan.
Gate: Distrust of the media and journalists has increased over the past couple of years. How has that affected your work as a journalist in particular?
MR: I think it’s been tough, especially when you cover campaigns because campaigns by nature are very partisan. I have seen that even before social media—people are distrustful if you publish something that is not good for the candidate. But in the last few years, what I felt is that there is a more aggressive tone towards journalists. It is very hard, especially on social media, when you are harassed all the time, especially if you are a woman. Sometimes you avoid sharing information or you avoid talking about certain issues because as an individual it can be hard to be harassed all the time. In terms of the practical job, in 2016 it was hard to talk to some of the voters because they had this instinctual reaction that [journalists] are not going to represent truthfully this rally or quotes about a candidate. If you insist and try to work it out, most of the people would talk and actually even some of the skeptics engage in the conversation, but it's more challenging. We also have to make an effort to be more transparent and to explain what we do all the time, which is good in many ways. I lived through an era where journalists were heroes and very appreciated and then this other time when there is all this mistrust. At this time where there is this big debate, maybe good can come out of all of this.
Gate: Do you have any stories from the 2016 election trail or otherwise that captures the change in the perception of journalists?
MR: In 2016, I was working for Univision. In some cases, especially at Trump rallies, some voters wouldn't even talk to me when I said I was [from] Univision. They were very aggressive or they would start lecturing me about immigration, although I didn't ask about immigration. That didn't happen before or at least not in the same kind of tone as in previous campaigns. I used to try to target women at Trump rallies. I approached women because I felt they were easier to talk to and they were. You develop strategies when you feel like you are in a hostile environment. Especially in America, where people love to talk and to tell the stories of their lives, I've never seen this “I don't want to talk to you” [attitude]. Actually, Republican Latinos, who maybe knew Univision, would just run away too.
Gate: Do you have any ideas why Republican Latinos were hesitant to talk to you once they found out that you were from Univision?
MR: Well in 2016, there was this confrontation between Jorge Ramos, who is the anchor of Univision, and Trump in a press conference. That moment was kind of the moment for many that defined Univision unfortunately. They were reluctant because of that. They felt that Jorge Ramos was too aggressive towards Trump and he had something against Trump. So that extended to everyone at Univision, although we were just reporting the campaign. It was just in some cases. It was more common that when I would say Univision, they would start talking about immigration no matter what.
Gate: Once you’re finished as an IOP fellow, whats next? Any new media projects or companies?
MR: I'm starting a new job as the chief strategy officer at El Diario, which is a news outlet in Spain that revolves around investigative journalism on politics and is based on subscriptions. It has the most successful subscription model in Spain. It is a nice change. I love reporting and I am sure I will go back to it, but I also like to try new things. From this new position at the newspaper, between the business side and the newsroom, I’m just going to try to push for innovation. For at least just a little, I am going to try that side of things.