Fact-check to avoid disconnect between the real and the online

30 January 2019 12:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Social media is no longer an afterthought. It now forms an integral part of any company, any public personality and any public movement -- anything anyone wants to be known by someone else is more often in social media than not.   

It most certainly should when at least a fifth of your own country’s men and women are likely to be members of the world’s largest social media platform.   

Last year, the impact of social media on the Sri Lankan society was made clear twice -- once in March when platforms were blocked following riots in Kandy. This was more of a knee-jerk reaction to failures on the part of law enforcement to crackdown on violent mobs and also social media platforms to deal effectively with inflammatory content, on which they had been made aware of.   


  • SL badly in need of real-time fact-checking
  • Twitter is where the initial break-out of a story takes places
  • Political parties gearing up for battles ahead
  • No one would be foolish to say Facebook and Twitter were the two holy factors that combined to restore the pre-October 26 status quo

The second instance was during the impasse over the PM post. A pertinent question would be whether the peaceful campaign to restore the PM post back to Ranil Wickremesinghe would have evolved peacefully and eventually succeeded without social media.   

No one would be foolish to say Facebook and Twitter were the two holy factors that combined to restore the pre-October 26 status quo. There were more potent forces than them at play.   

Would the country at large be in a position to have so many diverse information sources and opinions without social media, given how muzzled the national media could be?

 

But they did play more than a peripheral role. Combine the overtly biased reporting over some of the private networks with the embarrassingly-poor reportage in State media, and the country was getting a full dose of lopsided vitriol. The content often lacked any kind of subtlety, substance and sometimes were personal attacks of the worst kind.   

Would the UNP, JVP, other political parties and citizen groups clamouring against the removal of  Wickremesinghe be in a position to get two words into this one-sided dog fight without social media?   

Would the country at large be in a position to have so many diverse information sources and opinions without social media, given how muzzled the national media could be?  

Finally, would fake content, like forged letters from the Speaker’s office be found out speedily enough and before they could have spread without the crowd sourcing nature of social media?  

In its tips for 2019, Twitter says its users should use the app as the place to break the news. That is precisely what is happening -- Twitter is where the initial break-out of a story takes places and then it takes a life of its own on Facebook, Instagram and others. On that second platform, I am now convinced, is where we get some of the best political and social commentary. They come from a multitude of sources, some partial, some not, in the form of memes.   

Look at the Facebook effect -- last week, the story on those youth foolishly on top of a stupa gained national attention and landed them in jail because of the social media network. If it were not so popular, the images would have not made such a commotion. I have no proof, but I would not be surprised if the youth posed as they did because of the attraction of social media. Just last December, we had a man approach an elephant who was of no harm to anyone, to make a Facebook video and get killed in the process.   

In an election year, political parties are gearing up for the battles ahead. They are putting in place resources and personnel to make sure they have traction online.   

In an election year, political parties are gearing up for the battles ahead. They are putting in place resources and personnel to make sure they have traction online

 

As much as the potential and reach of the likes of Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Twitter rise, so will the dangers. A big concern would be fake and inflammatory content ploughing into communities and creating reverberations within those echo chambers.   

During the October-December impasse, the impact of fake content was low. The ones that were floated were easily revealed as fakes. But that was because relevant parties reacted fast, the level of fakes was not high and not because the platforms were geared for such.   

There is however no guarantee that a similar situation would prevail during national elections. Sri Lanka is badly in need of real-time fact-checking.   

The author is the Asia-Pacific Coordinator for the DART Centre for Journalism and Trauma, a project of the Columbia Journalism School

Twitter - @amanthap 

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