Fake news an Enemy of Democracy!
Posted on February 18th, 2019

By Harindra B. Dassanayake Courtesy Ceylon Today

As bizarre and surreal as it may sound, the incumbent President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, had to repeatedly refute a claim that he was actually dead and it is a clone that is running his office as President. At the time of writing, the pinned tweet of his official twitter account (https://twitter.com/MBuhari) claims he is real! Adding to the chaos and confusion, the Presidential election which had been scheduled for Saturday (16 February) was rescheduled for next Saturday (23), just five hours before the start of polling in the largest democracy in Africa.

No one side alone was responsible for the fake news battle that undermined democratic elections in that oil-rich country of 190 million people. The President’s special aide on social media has more than once been named and shamed for spreading false information. She once had tweeted pictures of a road construction project, which was claimed to have been implemented by President Buhari, only to be proved by activists that it was actually a road construction project in Rwanda. She posted an apology on her verified twitter account, Sorry, it won’t happen again”. However, months later, she posted a picture of lunch packets with Nigerian currency notes and claimed Keep them in poverty, then give them handouts  – ATIKU in Sokoto yesterday”, hitting out at the opposition candidate Atiku Abubakar.

Disinformation is not a new strategy in political campaigns. However, we are increasingly witnessing a very high proliferation of disinformation, rumours and fake claims such as above during elections and social upheavals around the world from the rich to the not-so-rich nations alike.

Our Germs – Their Wind

In March last year, Sri Lanka witnessed an unfortunate outbreak of violence in Digana and many other places around Kandy, caused mainly by unchecked spread of hate speech propagating false claims of temples been set on fire, and Buddhist clergy been attacked. While rumours and ‘cooked-up’ stories are not new, it is the speed at which they spread that is a serious concern today. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter, Viber, Instagram and Imo are among those popular in Sri Lanka, today. It is not a social media platform that creates fake news, but they carry a message originating from a user. In that sense, social media sites are like fast winds that carry germs that are in our house. What is interesting and concerning is the way they carry the message. These messages spread super-fast and that is the whole feature of the internet.

Interestingly, these messages are often seen by people who are like-minded. Therefore, if it is a falsehood, it is more likely to be believed. If that is hatred inciting violence, the likelihood of converting a message of hatred into a violent act is high. This happens because of the algorithms that these platforms use to decide who should see a post.

During the outbreak of communal violence in Sri Lanka last March, it was evident that social media platforms played a key role in it, especially virally spreading a video from Ampara, where eatery worker is forced to accept there was a sterilisation pill in the food. Later, it was tested to be a lump of flour.  By then, the damage was done and many houses were already on flames. Besides, some were even reluctant to believe the results of the test, conducted by Government agencies, suspecting it was a cover-up by the Government to mitigate the situation. It was in such unchecked spread of falsehoods on social media that the President ordered to restrict access to certain social media platforms, including the social media giant Facebook.

(Anti)-Community Standards?

Social media giants, themselves like Governments, behave in strange ways. During the March outbreak of violence, Sri Lanka’s Minister of Mass Media Managala Samaraweera reported about a post in Sinhala that was outright incitement of violence by calling out people to go and kill members of another community. Instead of immediately responding to the issue Facebook decided to check if the post meets the ‘community standards’ of the social media platform. However, it took so long that until the crackdown on the platform, the said post just continued to spread all over the internet propagating hatred.

This issue was brought up by an agent of the Singapore Government during an international hearing on fake news and disinformation, where a Facebook’s Vice President admitted that the social media giant committed a serious mistake” by not removing the said post reported by non-other than the Minister of Mass Media (It is worth reading the full report on Channel News Asia here: https://goo.gl/f2axN6). Governments continue to engage social media platforms and bring them to respect ‘laws of the land’, and to be sensitive to local realities.

Fact check All!

Just as it is important to control the spreading of falsehoods on the internet, it is mandatory that checking the validity of those news that virally spread on the internet is carried out as a matter of urgency. This is not something Governments are not good at, mainly due to the lack of public trust in Government’s version of an issue, however true it may be.

Mostly, fact checking and verification of news is done by journalists and organised news agencies. In the case of Nigeria, it was a group of journalists who exposed some election related falsehoods. Recently, a new institute by the name Centre for Investigative Reporting” was established in Colombo. The role such agencies will have to play will be critical for safeguarding our democracy.

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