What’s your source?

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Information – the currency of the new age and the backbone of modern civilisation – is more valuable than gold and more powerful than any ballistic missile. The power of information cannot be understated, and has grown in importance with the adoption of social media. Today, information has become a tool, used to influence people, and has succeeded on many an occasion, here on our shores of Sri Lanka.

In order for Sri Lanka to build a stronger democracy for the future, we must learn to understand the nature of information, how it has been used in the past to influence people, and how we can become a more discerning people with the information that we are exposed to.

For this purpose, we must first learn the significance of the terms ‘misinformation,’ ‘disinformation’ and ‘malinformation,’ aside from actual ‘information,’ which is self-explanatory. For this purpose, Ceylon Today spoke with Founder and Executive Director of the Centre for Investigative Reporting, Dilrukshi Handunnetti.

Understanding is key

According to Handunnetti, information and misinformation have been a part of society long before it achieved the level of sophistication it has today. From village rumours and gossip, to social media posts today, “There has always been information and misinformation in the world,” she explained. “But its frequency, intensity and ability to influence and hurt people is increasing, which is why we need to have this conversation.”

She explained that misinformation is false information that is shared with no intention of causing harm. WhatsApp forwards that are irresponsibly ‘shared as received,’ and simple rumours shared in the neighbourhood would usually fall under this category according to Handunnetti. “Those who innocently spread false information are considered as agents of misinformation.”

However, this is very distinct from disinformation, because “Disinformation also involves false information, but that which is shared deliberately.” It could be intended to cause some sort of harm to a group of people, an organisation or even a nation. “It’s strategic, planned and deliberately done.

Malinformation by far is what I would consider the most venomous. It is derived from the term malicious information. Although it does have some similarities to disinformation, being spread with the intent to cause harm, in malinformation, it is information that is based on reality.”

Handunnetti further explained that malinformation is created when a truth is warped for malicious purposes. “There is a small piece of truth, but is warped to inflict harm on a person, and organisation, a community or even a nation,” arguably a tactic often used in Sri Lankan politics.

A tool for propaganda

Handunnetti noted that ‘propaganda’ is a great example of how information can be used as a tool weaponised for a specific agenda. “Turn back time a few decades ago, the word ‘propaganda’ was a term used by marketing and various other campaigns. But its meaning has changed since then into what we interpret the word ‘propaganda’ today,” she observed.

According to Handunnetti, propaganda and the manipulation of information is a great example of how powerful using information as a weapon can be. Highlighting Indian journalist Swati Chaturvedi’s book, I am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army, she affirmed that this is a tactic that has been used in the past, both beyond our borders and in Sri Lanka. “It has happened, and continues to happen. It has even had an impact on some of our elections.”

Dr. Sanjana Hattotuwa is a leading figure in researching the impact and use of social media in Sri Lanka since 2007. He regularly shares his insights and observations of social media through his Twitter account.

Speaking with Ceylon Today, he explained that, “The Rajapaksa’s since 2010 have been the first family in instrumentalising social media, and that has been observed for over a decade with evidence.”

 He explained that instrumentalisation has continued in between elections, when in power and even when not in power, “Along with powerful and influential media proxies who themselves are very adept at weaponising social media. They, their proxies, their affiliates and associates have been the ones who have weaponised social media almost primarily, predominantly and exclusively,” he said.

“It’s not that they aren’t doing it now. Misinformation, disinformation and narrative corruption; the kind of content they’ve always used in the past to raise racial division, communal hatred, Islamophobia, suspicion, fear, anxiety, and instrumentalise anger is still going on.”

However, even these efforts have not been able to curb the effect caused by the Gota Go Gama (GGG) protests and the #GoHomeGota uprising that continues to operate throughout the nation. He explained that these protests are “historically unprecedented, geographically dispersed and demographically diverse. There is no comparison to anything that has occurred in the past.”

Because of how novel the protests are – a completely decentralised uprising of the people with no clear leadership structure – and the sheer volume of content being produced for the online protests under #GoHomeGota, those behind using social media have failed to understand its nature and nurture, and as a result, every effort has resulted in failure and further galvanising protestors. But that does not mean that the attempts to corrupt the narrative of the protests and sow disinformation have been weak.

“Narrative corruption is a key disinformation strategy that seeks to break up a movement like this,” he explained. “It hasn’t worked, but there have been sustained, strategic and very sophisticated attempts since 9 April which are ongoing as well, conducted by individuals, entities and networks that for years have been affiliated with or have been in the services of the Rajapaksas.”

He noted one such example being the attempt to dilute public anger directed towards the Rajapaksa family, by deflecting part of the blame to the 225 at Parliament., as well as the ‘leaked’ information on corruption by the Rajapaksa’s which was posted with the intent to become viral, only to be quickly disproven and to reduce the legitimacy of any other allegations that might be pointed at them.

Referring to the information he has made public on his Twitter account, he highlighted that these campaigns are sometimes very sophisticated, and others blatant, and, “All of them are networked, constellations involving hundreds of pages, which I have been tracking for my doctoral research as well, which are linked to the Rajapaksa family.”

He noted that this has spread throughout multiple platforms on social media, not just Facebook, but also Twitter and Instagram.

A cause for concern

Dr. Hattotuwa notes that one of the main reasons behind such campaigns failing against the #GoHomeGota online protests is due to being drowned out by the sheer volume these networked pages had to compete with; a result of the decentralised, widespread nature of the protests.

However, it brings up a legitimate concern over potential campaigns of the past, which have succeeded. The Rajapaksas aren’t the only group that uses social media and information manipulation for their stratagem. Sri Lanka must protect themselves from potential future attempts to manipulate and warp information.

Dr. Hattotuwa shared that it is for this very purpose that he shares his observations on social media; to educate the public. And although we have made progress as a result of the protests and people’s uprising, the road to becoming a more aware and media literate nation is a long and laborious effort which will take a lot more than a Go Home Gota protest.

“It is very hard for someone who isn’t media literate to determine what is true and what isn’t. Sri Lanka is a highly literate country but we have poor media literacy,” he explained. “The consequence of that in a moment like this is that there is always the danger of those in good faith, being duped into sharing content from a disinformation or misinformation strategy, believing it to be true.”

The sword and shield

In this situation, being able to identify a potential attempt at disinfomation, malinformation or even an instance of misinformation will be your greatest defence against parties attempting to corrupt a narrative, and your greatest weapon to thwart one from taking effect. The question is how?

Much like you would take the story of a notorious gossiper with a generous pinch of salt, Handunnetti believes that the best place to start is by exercising a little common sense and critical thinking.

“Ask yourself, is this true? Why is this happening now? Look for the source, do some fact checking,” she recommended. “You need to find good, reliable sources of information, and exercise your good judgement.”

She suggested that a good yardstick would be to inspect if the person making the statement has a history of being truthful and accurate with the information being provided, and to consider if there are any political and business related biases that may be influencing such statements.

Another important thing to do is to avoid falling into the trap of confirmation bias. “We all like seeing and hearing things that affirm our views and what we believe to be true,” she explained. “We tend to gravitate to information and sources that cater to this, and social media platforms are well aware of this, creating algorithms that are made to cater to our confirmation biases, ensuring we spend more time on their services.

“This is usually difficult for a person because when a piece of information appears to be true, and you want to believe it to be true, you succumb to confirmation bias and share the information. You really have to exercise some common sense and critical thinking, ask yourself, if this is true, or do you just want it to be.”

A change in nature

Of course, this implies a complete change in the nature of how we consume and interact with content on various social media platforms. . To learn more on how to become a better content consumer, Ceylon Today reached out to Chalitha Weerakkody, more popularly known as ‘PissuKanna’ on social media. When he’s not creating content on his multiple channels, he works as the Personal Brand Manager of Davie Fogarty, the owner of the Oodie; a multimillion dollar e-commerce company and one of the fastest growing e-commerce business in Australia.  .

He agrees that as Sri Lankans, we have a tendency to be drawn to drama, to gossip and hearsay when seeking out information. “People are attracted to content with drama and stories. It’s engaging and it creates conversations. If you watch the news regularly, you would notice that what most politicians have been doing is creating content; going to Parliament and stirring up some argument or another,” he opined.

“Just like everyone else in the world, us Sri Lankans are drawn to drama. It creates conversations, it’s memorable. But it’s because we paid attention to only the drama that the country is struggling as it is today.”

Social media pages pushing certain agendas follow a similar system, creating dramatic conversations using their meme formats more often than not. “It’s pretty obvious that there are meme pages on social media being used by political parties for their agendas. What a lot of them do is plant ideas in people using their content.

“I’m sure you’ve encountered individuals who are die-hard followers of certain politicos or political parties. We would fall into a similar trap if we limit ourselves to only consume content from a single creator, or source. Same goes with information,” he explained.

“Instead of coming up with an opinion the moment you hear a piece of information, we have to stop and ask the right questions, do our own research to see if the facts are correct, you could even share information of any discrepancies you stumble upon. It’s all about becoming more responsible content consumers.”

For decades, many journalists have investigated stories, risking life and limb to deliver accurate facts to the public, often to be overlooked by a new piece of drama created by political groups or agendas. Perhaps now it is time we create a shift in outlook, and become more objective, factual, and responsible consumers of content and information, aware of how powerful that like or share button is.

By Shanuka Kadupitiyage