The better part of last two months has been spent on looking at the Presidential Election in general and social media implications in particular. It is an intriguing study to look at how the traditional love Sri Lankans show for all things innuendo has transferred itself on to the digital sphere.
There has been so much talk, too much talk really, on verifying fake news and debunking them. So much so, that potential fact-checker have chickened out and tried to gag staff when I reported on the launch of a fact-checking program the last time I wrote in these pages. Oddly enough, they want to fact-check, but want to keep that secret. Despite all the talk, action has not matched the bravado, even from these wanna-be clandestine warriors for free speech. One post last week stood out to show this.
Last week, a colleague of mine Ishara Danasekera shared a disturbing post on social media. Less than day after postal voting opened, the post in a page under the name of a popular musician, but without any official affiliations to him was talking about the postal voting results with graphics, no less. The page was linked to one candidate’s official page as well.
It was a classic Sri Lanka hack-job, replete with unnamed sources and gaudy graphics.
Despite all the talk, action has not matched the bravado, even from these wanna-be clandestine warriors for free speech. One post last week stood out to show this
The post was not taken down, despite individual reporting of the post as fake to Facebook as well as concerns raised by the monitoring body CMEV to the Elections Commission. The Elections Commission has at various occasions indicated that it was in a somewhat of a working relationship with Facebook. Both parties have admitted to that, but neither have given out any details. On this occasion however whatever arrangements there were failed miserably. The post remained live despite the reporting. Within three days of going live, it has been seen by over 200,000 Facebook users.
There was not even a murmur from Facebook or the Elections Commission on the post that said of postal voting results when the votes are in reality counted after polling closes. It was not probably thought that important.
One problematic area has been the opaque nature of the details that Facebook has revealed on its on-going operations and cooperation. It says it has increased its resources both tech and human, but has stopped short of divulging details of what the increase meant. There have been no details either of any posts related to the presidential election that have been reported or taken down. It has held two interactions with local journalists, both off the record.
There have been several national organisations that have privately said that they are engaged in fact-checking, but no one has come out publicly with details. Even Facebook has been shy of revealing the full details of organisations it is working with on fact-checking.
Fake posts, especially manipulated images and visuals have been quite common but nothing so far has really caught fire. Like I have said earlier, several Sri Lankans, - based in and out - have taken it upon themselves to fact check. Their work has been stellar, they have outdone everyone else. Their work has kept fakes at bay but they don’t have either the professional training nor the technical edge that comes with institutionalised operations. They also are taking some serious risks.
There was not even a murmur from Facebook or the Elections Commission on the post that said of postal voting results when the votes are in reality counted after polling closes
So far, the Elections Commissioner has shown that its adaptation of regulations that were developed to monitor off-line communication means for online platforms has not proved effective.
While official pages of candidates have toned down the scathing nature of the advertising content, probably more due to Facebook introducing stricter ad parameters for political ads than anything else, pages that have no official affiliations have had no such inhibitions. Their post and ads have been far more abusive and extremist.
Less talk and a bit more action can really help.
The author is currently pursuing a Masters by Research at CQ University, Melbourne on online journalism and trauma.