People are well-fed with information today, thanks to the advent of Social Media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Just with a touch on the facility available on their mobile phones, individuals access information available to them in terms of news stories, long reads and posts.
There are merits and demerits in counting on social media platforms for information. In the first instance, the main disadvantage is the strong possibility of you being flooded with misinformation and disinformation. It is counterproductive during a crisis such as communal violence. Misinformation and disinformation can fan tension leading to things spinning out of control. So to speak, the government had to block access to social media when communal violence broke out in recent times. That was to disrupt rumours.
In such a context, the role of traditional media becomes more and more relevant as a countermeasure for false propaganda through social media platforms by vested interest groups. That is up for the traditional to ferret out the truth from the mess and disseminate it for public consumption in the correct perspective. Countering disinformation and misinformation is a challenge not only for Sri Lanka but also for a host of countries.
"The regulation of social media activities. Citing an example from his country, he said the U.S. Congress had proposed to introduce legislation to identify the sponsors of political ads"
In this regard, senior behavioural scientist from the United States (U.S.) Todd C. Helmus was in Sri Lanka to share his views on countering misinformation. He has specialized in terrorism, strategic communications and social media. His research also focuses on countering violent extremism with specific studies examining the networks of ISIS supporters and opponents on Twitter, identifying ways to enlist key influencers in support of U.S. strategic communications and developing approaches to assess the impact of propaganda campaigns. He had served as a deployed advisor to U.S. commanders in Iraq (2008) and Afghanistan (2010-2011) and led studies on U.S. efforts to train Afghan special operations forces.
In an interactive session with a select group of journalists during his recent stay in Sri Lanka, Mr Helmus said countering misinformation was a challenge because people were sharing ‘false and vague’ content in social media. According to him, people sometimes do it with a purpose to advance their course. Or else, they do it because the content is really interesting and shareable.
As such he said journalists had a role to play in identifying factually correct information. According to him, it is an area where journalists are required to employ investigative journalism practices. Dissemination of truthful information should not be made a task to be fulfilled by journalists in the mainstream media only. Instead, he said social media platforms should also play a role in this respect.
Asserting that Facebook was investing a lot of resources for content moderation, he said social networks could also do it.
“It is important for Twitter and Social media to remove content that violates their policies. They should provide tools for people to identify the truth,” he said.
Alongside, he cited the improvement of people’s media literacy and building fact-checking tools relevant to Sri Lanka as an effective means of countering misinformation and disinformation.
He briefed the journalists how extremists were countered in the U.S. and said it was a localized programme.
- Support from civil society within Muslim community important in countering Islamic terrorism
- No credible evidence to link US with IS terrorism
- Regulation of social media has potential value
“It is a localized approach. The U.S. government does not conduct counter-violence programme. They do not conduct messaging programmes. At the government level, they support community-level organizations, nonprofit organizations, civil society and state and local governments to conduct programmes in their backyards. There have been several challenges in executing these programmes,” he said.
Responding to countering Islamic terrorism in his country, he said it was a relatively small issue there.
“Civil society sometimes has stereotypes about the Muslim community as a security threat. Islamic terrorism is a small issue relatively in the U.S. 550 individuals have been arrested under terrorism charges. It is important that the U.S. communicate that it is not a Muslim problem,” he said.
In countering extremist ideologies of any sort, he stressed the importance of securing the support of civil society within the community concerned.
“It is important to have civil society within the Muslim community speaking out against Islamic terrorism. The best messengers to counter it will be people from that community,” he said.
Responding to a query about the U.S. being accused of being behind ISIS terrorism, he had only heard accusations, but no credible evidence to prove it. He said the U.S. was spending billions of dollars to fight ISIS.
“There is only spending, no profit,” he said.
Asked about the regulation of social media, he opined that there could be potential value in the regulation of social media activities. Citing an example from his country, he said the U.S. Congress had proposed to introduce legislation to identify the sponsors of political ads.
His views fall in the context since the Sri Lankan authorities were contemplating to enact legislation to regulate the activities of social media. It has become an essential requirement for people today for information sharing, networking, advertising etc. On the one hand, there is the right to freedom of speech. On the other hand, there is the need to disrupt the spread of misinformation and disinformation. In working out legislations to counter social media, both aspects have to be reconciled.