On Friday night, President Maithripala Sirisena shockingly announced that he’d appointed Mahinda Rajapakse as Prime Minister. In response, Ranil Wickremesinghe announced that this act was unconstitutional and he was still the Prime Minister. Naturally, this led to a confusing weekend as Sri Lanka tried to answer, “So who is our Prime Minister now?” Naturally, the bots on the internet decided to give us fake news “alternative facts” to answer that question.
Sadly, this is the new normal in politics
On Friday night, following the shocking announcement, DailyFT reported that SLPP trade unions had occupied state-owned media. Later, Dharisha Bastians – Editor of the Sunday Observer tweeted that she stepped down. She was unwilling to adopt the editorial line demanded by the SLPP unions. Sadly, that didn’t save Lakehouse.
The front page of the latest edition of the Sunday Observer became another sad example. Overnight, traditional media had begun normalizing the constitutional crisis. Of course, the bias in traditional media is nothing new. This bias is one of the reasons as for why people turn to the internet to find get news and hopefully the full story.
Revealing timbre, thrust & tone on @rupavahinitv & @ITNSriLanka #Facebook pages, since Friday. Pinned posts overtly support MR (as PM – no questions asked). ITN doesn’t even make an attempt to cover bias. Both legitimise unconstitutional appointment. #lka #srilanka pic.twitter.com/uABLg45jqb
— Sanjana Hattotuwa (@sanjanah) October 27, 2018
However, the rise of digital media has not been ignored by politicians. They’ve come to understand all too well exactly how powerful it can be in shaping our opinions. All it takes is a few dollars and you can send a message across to thousands. During the 2016 US elections, the world saw first-hand exactly how dangerous this can be when abused to send a fake message.
Ever since things have only gotten worse. In Myanmar, fake news on Facebook has resulted in a brutal genocide. Only six months ago, Sri Lanka faced this problem before with the Digana riots that saw Facebook being blocked. And now we’re back to square one.
The not so harmless messages on WhatsApp
One of the messages we received via WhatsApp read, “Presidential Secretariat has issued a gazette notification to declare Monday 29th October 2018 as a public holiday in view of the prevailing political crisis in the country- adaderana.lk.”Janeeth Rodrigo – General Manager for Digital Media at Derana, later confirmed that this was a case of fake news making its rounds.
At first glance, one might think that was a harmless message. One could go on to argue, “Sure it was fake but what’s the harm in it? It’s just a simple day off from work. Besides with this political climate, we could all use a day off!” Yet that’s exactly why such messages are dangerous. Besides the economic cost from a lost day of productivity, such thinking in response to these messages lower our guard.
Once our guard is lowered then we see even more dangerous fake news being forwarded. To understand the dangers of this, one only needs to look back six months ago. Fake news spread across countless WhatsApp groups were among the crucial factors that fueled the deadly Digana riots.
If one needs even more proof, India presents another deadly example. Fake news circulating across WhatsApp has resulted in India having to deal with mobs lynching people, delaying vaccinations, and scams. To quote the BBC, “as one parent told me, “how can people close to us be so wrong”.”
The more complex Facebook pages
Of course, WhatsApp wasn’t the only medium used to spread the fake news over the weekend. With over 90% of Sri Lanka’s internet population on Facebook, it too became another weapon of choice for the trolls. One example that we found close to the tech industry was in the form of a fake Facebook Page.
Posts supporting Mahinda Rajapakse appeared on a Facebook page that was named, “Trace – Expert City”. This was, of course, met with confusion by the few in the tech community that initially saw it. Luckily, it wasn’t long before the official Facebook page of TRACE responded and informed everyone that this was a fake Facebook page.
Nonetheless, this should serve as a stark warning to everyone. Groundviews has extensively documented how Namal Rajapaksa has utilized Twitter bots. These bots are now mobilized strategically to push his and by extension the narrative of his political party. The article, which deserves a careful reading, warned of the dangers this presented to Sri Lankan democracy. Alas, these warnings have continued to go unheeded.
The consequences of misinformation
Yesterday, Dr. Harsha De Silva – State Minister of National Policies and Economic Affairs sent out a tweet. This tweet read, “Rumors abound #SriLanka TRC planning to shut down 3G and 4G network to create an internet blackout to suppress public outcry against unconstitutional removal of PM @RW_UNP.”
The keyword in that tweet being, “Rumors”. When asked if this was confirmed, Dr. Harsha simply tweeted, “No. That is why I said ‘rumors’. I hope they won’t do it.” Now unlike the bots and trolls, Dr. Harsha is an actual person. That means he’s entitled to the right to free speech to say what he wishes as we all are. However, he’s also an elected Member of Parliament.
As such, given the tense situation of the country, many of us would refer to officials like him and other authorities for credible information. We’d expect the government official that told us in 2013 that social media should be used responsibly to know this. But when officials share unverified information, it amounts to misinformation.
With many Ministers crossing back and forth between parties, this misinformation only serves to fuel the confusion and chaos. As a result, it only hampers the trust between the public and officials. Ultimately, this serves to remind us that we as individuals also play a role in fighting fake news. So what can we do?
How we can stop fake news
Simply put, we need to take a few moments to verify the information we get. It took us 5 minutes longer than we’d like to admit to verify Dr. Harsha’s irresponsible tweet. We’ll admit it was a hassle. However, in these confusing times, it is an absolute necessity. When we share unverified news, it only serves to add to the confusion and eventually in people losing their lives.
We’ve seen this time and time again. The above three examples are just a few among the latest such incidents. Sadly, we’ve never taken these lessons to heart. But it’s better late than never to learn and act upon these lessons. Once we do so, we must push the authorities to democratically solve this burning issue.
Irrespective of which side of the issue you stand, we can all agree there are two ways to solve this constitutional crisis permanently. The first would be for Parliament to demonstrate whether Ranil Wickremesinghe or Mahinda Rajapakse commands the support of the majority. Sadly, with Parliament on mandatory leave, this isn’t likely to happen any time soon.
This second option would be to have the Supreme Court listen to the arguments from both sides and issue a verdict. Of course, this requires a case being filed almost immediately. Yet, the silence from all institutions except the Speaker of Parliament means this is unlikely to happen either. And this will be the case, as long as we keep arguing about every word uttered by politicians.
And as we’ve seen over the weekend, these words need to be taken with many grains of salt. So next time you think of forwarding that WhatsApp message, sharing that Facebook post, or retweeting that tweet, be sure to pause for a bit. Take a moment and check that piece of news is true. If we don’t then we’ll be getting a state ruled by chaos and confusion.