Last week one of the Sri Lankan journalists, Rahul Samantha Hettiarchchi from Hambantota, whom I have worked with for a long time, had the worst type of experience in byline theft. Hettiarchchi, who is a pioneer in the use of the Right to Information Act for his reporting had just submitted a month-long investigative story on Minister Sajith Premadasa. When the story appeared, he was in for a rude shock – above his byline was that of a staffer from Colombo!
A livid Hettiarchchi, called the newspaper editor and the journalist with whom now he reluctantly shared a byline. Both were conciliatory, the former apologized and the latter feigned ignorance on the double byline.
- What Facebook did was something that could not have been done without it
- Social media allows for news, gossip, rumour, opinion, insults, almost anything to be posted
It is Hettiarchchi’s next step that is of interest to the gamut of this column. He took his grievances on to Facebook. His complaint was taken over by colleagues and friends. What Facebook did was something that could not have been done without it. If Hettiarchchi’s complaint had been limited to those phone calls and a letter, only those within those circles would have known about it. But with Facebook, not only did this unethical act became well-known; but so were the culprits – name and shame are now more effective.
What mainstream legacy media generally holds back, sometimes due to a sense of archaic attitude but more often due to advertising and political pressure, social media outs without much fuss.
Soon after the arrest of Makandure Madush, all kinds of rumours began swirling about his connections to politicians. Soon enough, Facebook posts and Instagram memes began to pop up on these. On at least one occasion, an MP thought it fit to counter those allegations on Facebook from the floor of the parliament. Now there is even a retort to his parliamentary speech. By week’s end, the original post had been shared over 1500 times and the rejoinder 900 times. Yesterday the lead story in an English newspaper was all on these allegations.
Another example of how potent social media has become is when Minister Harsha de Silva posted a picture of a billboard of the opening of a new public swimming pool with his face on it. That post generated some major blowback and some hilarious memes. De Silva later ordered the billboard to be changed announcing that he had taken note of public criticism of his actions. His picture was taken off, but those memes have not vanished. Without social media and those reactions, it is unlikely that minister de Silva would have got to know about the deep felt public apathy for such stunts, in such a quick time or in such volume. One click, and anybody can now make anybody else, including ministers aware of how they feel.
When worms were discovered in some food served at Colombo’s newest food court, the video went viral and the management was quick to take action. For such a complaint to get onto legacy media, it would have taken far longer
Another example, but this one showing the negative side of social media is the video of a young woman’s suicidal rant. This would never have been put on any legacy media, but has made it on to Facebook, posted by the woman herself. It has racked up over 473,000 views and 6,500 shares. Another video of similar strain by the same person had been watched over 65,000 times. That is half a million views and counting of a love story gone horribly wrong.
Whether such videos should be allowed to circulate in public domain is the big question. And also, whether Facebook, which is by far the most accessed social media forum in Sri Lanka is capable of monitoring such content coming in Sinhala. All the above posts were in Sinhala, which goes on to show that part of the attraction and popularity of Facebook is linked to how easily it supports vernacular posts.
Social media seems to be the first recourse now. When worms were discovered in some food served at Colombo’s newest food court, the video went viral and the management was quick to take action. For such a complaint to get onto legacy media, it would have taken far longer. There is also no guarantee that advertising or other pressures would have culled the video.
Social media allows for news, gossip, rumour, opinion, insults, almost anything to be posted. On a positive note, it creates for divergent views that could otherwise be kept out of public domain and resists censorship.
On the other side, the same lack of gatekeepers allows for fake news, misinformation, rumour, innuendo and personal attacks to be made accessible to millions. User discretion is paramount.
The author is the Asia-Pacific Coordinator for the DART Centre for Journalism and Trauma, a project of the Columbia Journalism School