Women in STEM: Davey Alba holds truth to power in Technology journalism

“If you want to know what happens to a country that has opened itself entirely to Facebook, look to the Philippines. It’s a society where, increasingly, the truth no longer matters, propaganda is ubiquitous, and lives are wrecked and people die as a result—half a world away from the Silicon Valley engineers who’d promised to connect their world,” stated Davey Alba (AB-CAM, ‘09) in her 2019 award-winning story, How Duterte Used Facebook To Fuel The Philippine Drug War.

Since graduating from DLSU and pursuing a Master of Arts (MA) degree in Science Journalism at Columbia University in 2013, Alba continues to reach new heights in the world of journalism. Now working as a technology reporter for The New York Times, her main area of focus centers around the pervasive effects of Technology in people’s lives.

One of Alba’s most notable achievements—her aforementioned narrative on President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war in the country—garnered her the Livingston Award for Excellence in International Reporting in 2019, as well as the 2019 Mirror Award for Best Story on Journalism in Peril.

Seeking promise

Alba and her family planned to move to the United States (US) in 2008 at the height of the Great Recession; her father sought out employment in the country but was ultimately unable to, forcing them to return to the Philippines. In 2010, a year after obtaining her undergraduate degree at DLSU, her family made another attempt at emigrating and succeeded. After some time, however, her parents returned to the Philippines; Alba, on the other hand, stayed behind. While in the US, she signed up for an editorial internship in Gizmodo in the San Francisco Bay Area in California, along with other journalism jobs.

Prior to landing in Columbia University, Alba recalls that her collective experiences in her first three jobs—as an account manager at a digital agency in the Philippines, then as an intern at Gizmodo, and finally as a fact-checker at WIRED—did not extensively shape her to become who she is today. It did, however, grant her perspective. 

“When you’re starting out, doing early-career jobs can light a fire under you to clarify your goals and aspirations, and make your vision for your future professional self clearer. I think those jobs and early experiences did that for me,” Alba elaborates. 

Igniting a spark

The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism stimulated growth and served as an avenue of new opportunities for Alba; it was there that she learned a lot about the craft of writing and was introduced to the works of several of her now all-time favorite authors. 

However, perhaps the most pivotal experience that Columbia gave Alba was how it led her back to reporting on Technology—a topic she had originally wanted to shift away from. When she began attending the university, reportage on Technology at the time skewed more toward consumer-focused writing. Her time at Columbia introduced her to numerous stories that portrayed the invisible power that Technology continues to accumulate as it permeates systems that run our world. After a few years, she began to see the topical shift from an emphasis on marketing gadgets to stories illuminating how Technology affects human lives—a lens that, Alba describes, has enabled Technology reporting to emerge as “one of the most essential beats to explain our world today.”

Having come a long way since her days at Taft, and dabbling in all sorts of stories, the Times reporter encourages aspiring writers, “If you are sure this is what you want to do, and you’re willing to be patient and put in the work, it’s worth it to stick to it even if it takes time to develop yourself as a writer.” 

Truth cannot be silenced

Her feature on Duterte’s Drug War in the Philippines initially stemmed from observing her family and relatives whenever she would come visit the Philippines. Working for BuzzFeed News at the time, Alba noticed how more and more people started developing an unsettling addiction to Facebook. During this time, the aggressive spread of fake news took over most social media platforms, especially Facebook, sparking rumors of the existence of troll farms—institutionalized groups that are allegedly paid to post pro-Duterte rhetoric and silence critics by flooding them with harassing messages. 

After closely following and investigating several leads on the story, Alba learned that the entire operation was engineered by Duterte’s digital strategists and bolstered by Facebook’s algorithms, which prioritized engagement above any other metric. Social media influencers then furthered the effort largely through the proliferation of misinformation and propaganda. Gathering enough evidence green-lit the journalist to then go on a reporting trip to the Philippines and expose the arresting developments.

With that whirlwind of a journey behind the Duterte Drug War story, it became Alba’s favorite piece, and one that she believes landed her a spot at The New York Times. The gravity of the platform she now finds herself on is not lost on her, as she affirms, “People call The New York Times the paper of record for a reason, and it’s an enormous privilege to be part of the project of writing the first draft of history.”     

The culmination of dreams

Alba is certain that there are more stories in the same vein that have yet to surface. “It feels like an anxiety is growing, with the vague sense that [Technology] is somehow to blame,” she remarks, further emphasizing the severe lack of reportage that interrogates powerful institutions’ outward display of “high-tech progress”. 

Her experiences as a Technology reporter continue to fuel her pursuit to uncover stories concealed by tall shadows cast by the blinding lights of Technology’s unrelenting and perpetual expansion. As such, Alba plans to continue doing accountability journalism—which she describes as “holding truth to power, uncovering abuses, and explaining our world and the insidious and surprising consequences of Technology creeping into every facet of our lives.”

Journalism is more unstable than ever career-wise, she argues, yet it remains ever-powerful, eliciting a tug in her heart every time she reads a feature that moves her. This intangible feeling pushes her to persevere—to see and pay attention to how journalism could make an impact in the world. “The work could get laws changed, free people from jail, bring injustices to light. It [is] thrilling to be working in this kind of industry,” Alba concludes.

Kent Regalado

By Kent Regalado

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