Featured image courtesy EPThinkTank/Alswart

Editor’s Note: This discussion note was prepared in the run up to the Digital Disinformation Forum, held on June 26 and 27. Excerpts of this were used in a moderated discussion on the media’s efforts to build resilience to disinformation. 

Fake news became a buzzword around the 2016 US Presidential election campaign. However, it’s something we have been grappling with in Sri Lanka for years. Fake news, is news created with the intent to deceive. However, the term has also been distorted over the years. Not only has it been used by people to dismiss news they don’t like, but it has also become confused with reporting that requires correction, as the Washington Post pointed out. In fact, saying something is ‘fake news’ doesn’t necessarily make it so – Trump himself often accuses entire publication houses as being fake.

To understand how and why fake news has been such a persistent problem in Sri Lanka, it’s necessary to understand a little about the political context. Sri Lanka is still recovering from nearly three decades of civil war that, among other issues along lines of language, land, ethnic politics, education and employment, has sowed deep and enduring divisions between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamil communities.

For decades, politicians have deliberately pandered to the Sinhala majority community and their needs in order to gain political mileage- from as back as 1956, when Prime Minister S W R D Bandaranaike passed the Sinhala Only Act, which made Sinhalese the official language of administrative service. In the run up to elections, politicians, news outlets and social media have all put out information designed deliberately to mislead.

During the 2015 Presidential election, then President Mahinda Rajapaksa was accompanied to the polling station by another Presidential candidate R A Sirisena, who incidentally bears a striking resemblance to current President Maithripala Sirisena, and was wearing the white national suit, that Sirisena habitually wears.

Afterwards, Mahinda Rajapakse said “Sirisena even accompanied me to the polling station” a clear attempt to mislead voters to believe that the Joint Opposition Candidate had decided to endorse him instead. One month before the election, R A Sirisena, (who the media dubbed the ‘fake’ Sirisena) also placed an election ad in the newspapers, promising to abolish the Executive Presidency if he were elected within 115 days – mimicking Maithripala Sirisena’s promise to abolish Executive Presidency within 100 days. In the election campaign itself, Rajapaksa made use of more than 150 social media accounts, running a deliberate campaign of disinformation and misinformation against his opponents.

A report released by the Centre for Policy Alternatives “Saving Sunil: A study of dangerous speech around a Facebook page dedicated to Sgt. Sunil Rathnayake” studied discourse on Facebook around the murder conviction of Staff Sergeant R. M. Sunil Rathnayake of the Sri Lanka Army. Rathnayake was found guilty of murdering 8 civilians including a 5-year-old child in Mirusuvil, Jaffna in 2015, while four other defendants were released due to lack of evidence. The verdict against Sergeant Rathnayake was delivered the day before Parliament was dissolved by President Sirisena in June 2015, calling for general elections.

This Facebook page, which had 16,000 followers (11,000 of them in the first two days since the page was set up) was politicised and used as a campaign platform which peddled the hardline rhetoric advocated by former Mahinda Rajapakse, which promised to protect and safeguard the military (and the interests of the wider Sinhala Buddhist community).

The administrators of the Facebook page praised Sergeant Rathnayake as a war hero and used memes depicting the many struggles and sacrifices faced by soldiers, leading to emotive responses and hate speech against any detractors who dared to question this version of events. This is a reflection of the veneration of the military, which translates to relative impunity.

Post-war, the Army continues to play a major role in day to day life in the North and East in particular, where most of the fighting took place. Not only are they present in large military camps, but they also run hotels and shops. They also continue to occupy large tracts of land once owned by civilians, despite sustained protests by civilians demanding the return of their land and homes. There is also a heavy degree of military surveillance and intimidation.

Sergeant Rathnayake’s case is emblematic since it was a rare instance where one of the perpetrators was held accountable for his actions – and the virulence of the hate speech generated on the Facebook page itself highlights just how far the pro Mahinda Rajapaksa camp was willing to go in the interest of garnering votes – pandering to the interests of the majority Sinhalese community by peddling misinformation.

It’s interesting to note that this report also quotes police statistics to the effect that 20% of Sri Lanka’s Facebook accounts out of a total of 1.2 million (in 2012), were fake.

In a survey conducted from June 2015 by the Centre for Policy Alternatives conducted in the Western province, the most connected part of the island, a sizeable percentage of those polled said they would take action upon seeing something online – and for 61.5% of those people, that action was sharing it with friends and family, explaining how fake news can spread so quickly. It also speaks to the relatively low media literacy (the ability to critically engage with media) despite the relatively high literacy levels in Sri Lanka.

Fake news isn’t just perpetuated by social media in Sri Lanka, but sometimes through mainstream media as well. A pertinent recent example was a story on blood donation, which saw a leading daily newspaper, Daily Mirror quote the Director General of the Jaffna Teaching Hospital, saying that members of the upper caste were refusing to donate blood for fear it would be given to patient of a lower caste. A journalist from Jaffna called the Director General, who flatly denied the statement, saying he had in fact told the Daily Mirror journalist the exact opposite.

By then, the damage was done – it was reported in several Sinhala newspapers, including in Rivira, a newspaper with a pro Government stance, which noted that the Army had recently donated blood in the North, conflating this with the supposed shortage of blood due to caste discrimination. Even after this was discovered, the Daily Mirror ran a clarification that did not acknowledge the seriousness of the error they had made.

Recently, there has also been a wave of attacks on religious minorities, particularly Muslims, with more than 20 attacks on Muslim owned shops and places of business since April alone, by supporters of the Buddhist extremist group the Bodu Bala Sena. The group is comparable with Myanmar’s Ma Ba Tha, headed by controversial monk Ashin Wirathu Thero. In fact, in September 2014, the Bodu Bala Sena held a Buddhist convention at which Wirathu Thero was a key guest. When this group first became active, they spread hate messages, mainly through Facebook, claiming, for example, that popular Muslim-owned shop No Limit was giving out toffees which, when consumed, would render Sinhalese mothers infertile. These rumours persist even today.

During a recent visit to Dharga Town, Aluthgama, where three years ago a mob of BBS supporters set fire to homes, causing significant property damage and killing three, one of the residents spoke of a widely- circulated video showing a confrontation between a Sinhalese and a Muslim, because the latter had accidentally scratched her with her bag buckle as she tried to get off a bus in Kandy. The Sinhalese had accused her of trying to render her infertile.

Three years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the attack in Aluthgama, former editor in Chief of the Government newspaper the Daily News and former Presidential spokesman Bandula Jayasekara used Twitter to mobilise hatred against reporters and civil society activists who were reporting on the violence in Aluthgama. Some of the reporters received death threats as a result of this campaign. At the same time, Minister of Power and Energy, Champika Ranawaka accused citizen journalists and English media, were spreading ‘fabricated stories’ about the violence in Aluthgama.

Conversely, you also see the Army and even members of Government dismissing news as ‘fake.’ In 2012, an Army seminar condemned the ‘anti-Sri Lankan diaspora’ who questioned Sri Lanka’s rights record, particularly in the last stages of the war.

“Another concern is the concerted campaign of disinformation and pressure exerted by the so called “anti-Sri Lanka Diaspora” on host countries around the world to question our record. We call on those countries who express an interest in reconciliation in Sri Lanka to focus on the activities of these groups which are aimed at creating instability and undermining reconciliation.”

This is just one example of the State, or arms of the State, equating dissent with terrorism or an otherwise nefarious agenda – a problem that Sri Lankan news providers often face when writing critically, particularly about human rights issues.

In 2011, following the killing of Osama Bin Laden, a full-page ad appeared in the Daily Mirror, attributed to the “Free Mass Media Association” and “The International Accountability Network” which does not exist. The ad sarcastically asked why no one questioned then President Obama about any rights violations that might have taken place during the sting operation.

Another full-page advertisement placed by the same Accountability Network said that the UN Darusman report on accountability was based on ‘lies from the diaspora.’ While the election of President Maithripala Sirisena on January 8, 2015, widened the space for critical reporting and dissent, this rhetoric continues to be used. In particular, Non-Governmental Organisations have been demonised as a result of this, as have bodies such as the UN. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillai, in September 2013 released an unusual official statement accusing the government and in particular the Secretary of Defence, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, of running a coordinated disinformation campaign around her visit to Sri Lanka.

Compounding the issue is the concentration of ownership of media companies. An assessment of the media landscape in Sri Lanka found many media companies either had politicians on the Board of Directors, or were directly state-owned. The lack of funding for media initiatives means there are few independent private media companies, and most journalists are often restricted to working with these publications, and so have to conform to their agendas and opinions.

There are currently consultations being held for an Independent Council for Media Standards –which we raised concerns about in terms of the composition of the Council (essentially subject to appointment by the President and the Constitutional Council) as well as allowing for the disclosure of sources, subject to national security interests. These are issues which could be used by future regimes to crack down on dissent, as has been the case in the past.

In terms of external influence, the Sri Lankan government tends to view outside scrutiny around areas of rights, accountability, governance and democracy with suspicion. However, this is not to say that they don’t use foreign technology for surveillance – the previous regime imported wiretapping equipment for use before the Presidential election, but telecommunications company, Sri Lanka Telecom, refused to install the equipment.

There was also the extra-legal blocking of websites such as Sri Lanka Mirror, the Independent and LankawayNews by the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission. The website Colombo Telegraph also alleged that their site was subject to packet filtering, or Deep Packet Inspection carried out by Sri Lanka Telecom and Mobitel, two major telecommunication service providers, in order to deny access or make the sites extremely unresponsive when viewed from within Sri Lanka.

In this environment, the question is how to combat fake news and disinformation campaigns effectively? Here, Groundviews and other organisations engaged in combating this have focused on maintaining quality when reporting – ensuring that stories are corroborated by multiple sources, backed up by audio recordings or notations, should they be contested.

When it comes to sharing content, guides issued by BBC and NPR have proved useful – checking the source from which information comes, ensuring there are multiple sources corroborating it, that the information makes sense, and is coming from experts on the ground. Reverse image checking and using tools that analyse whether a photo has been manipulated are also important – Groundviews used reverse image checking for instance, before tweeting any photos from Aluthgama in 2014. Groundviews was also the only organisation which promoted media literacy during the riots, in order to minimise the spread of rumours.

Google and Facebook have both developed tools that allow users to flag content as fake. Having discovered it is fake, it’s important to flag it, with evidence, to help stop rumours from spreading. As mentioned earlier, Sri Lankans tend to digest media uncritically and unquestioningly. This will have to change in order to stop misinformation from spreading – and this can be done through spreading awareness – whether through short videos, articles on how to spot fake news or training.

Ensuring that media institutions follow established codes of ethics are also important, as is flagging those who flout them, something Groundviews has done on the site, and on social media. Social media allows journalists to take corrective action on errors which occur, and at a much faster rate than traditional media.

Initiatives like the Bengaluru based Check 4 Spam, which uses WhatsApp to debunk myths, could be used effectively in Sri Lanka as well. Data initiatives such as Verite’ Research’s “The Media Analysis” which signposts the differences and nuances in reporting on a given issue between the Sinhala and the Tamil language newspapers are important, as is their initiative ‘Ethics Eye‘ which, apart from flagging unethical reporting also highlights reporting errors and factual misinformation. There are also initiatives like handiya.org, with their ‘media scorecard’ that keeps track of reporting on constitutional reform in all three languages, and in particular whether they are inaccurate, peddle conspiracy theories or do not have any proof to back their assertions.

The role of satire in combating fake news is also something that needs to be examined, particularly in restrictive environments. During the war, satire played a key role in highlighting and combating propaganda that was peddled by the State. The front lines of the conflict were closed to most outsiders, and at one point, news had to be approved by the Censor Board.

During these times, the role of cartoonists, and satire columns became vital in highlighting unspoken truths. At a recent talk at the Alliance Francaise, for instance, cartoonist Gihan de Chickera spoke about a popular cartoon of his, depicting a white van surrounded by a police escort. White vans were used to abduct dissenters during the war, and it was widely known that this was carried out by the State. Journalists could not write about this for fear of repercussions – outspoken journalists such as Poddala Jayantha, Namal Perera and many others learned this the hard way, being themselves abducted, beaten, and lucky to escape with their lives.

Groundviews itself ran satire pieces during this culture of censorship and violence, under the name Banyan News Reporters. These covered, for instance, government censorship of movies, the MP’s need for security escorts, and nepotism, all in a satirical way highlighting disturbing truths that would not otherwise be reported on.

Sri Lanka is undergoing a period of transition, with the State promising to undertake constitutional reform processes and establish transitional justice mechanisms. As a first priority, the State has promised to hold a referendum in the near future.

Sri Lanka has a narrow window of opportunity with the election of President Sirisena, who with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution has promised to abolish Executive Presidency, establish a Constitutional Council, and removed his own power to dissolve Parliament at his own discretion, thus redressing the balance of power, which up until then was heavily vested in the President. However this is all subject to a referendum.

Given this volatility, the spread of misinformation becomes dangerous, and could have wide-reaching implications – should there be a change in power, all the tentative progress made will have been in vain. In this sense tackling misinformation and fake news becomes a vital process for Sri Lanka, now and in the future.

Readers who enjoyed this might find “The continuing disinformation campaigns in Sri Lanka: is mainstream media complicit?” and “Aluthgama riots and deaths: vital updates” enlightening.