Overheard during school pick-up run. “You will have two hate marks on your Facebook page,” a young kid obviously annoyed at something tells his mother.
“What did you say, where did you learn that, you don’t even have a Facebook page,” the incredulous mother blurts out, her eyes wide as marbles at what she just heard. This eight-year-old, who presumably does not have a Facebook account is nevertheless aware of social media and the intimate role it plays in his mother’s life. Before he could ride a bicycle, he probably played games on a smartphone.
This is the reach of social media. And it is going to keep growing. This is the reach and impact that most main stream media in Sri Lanka are yet to properly grasp or to use as platforms.
From the beginning most of the main stream media just replicated what was being put on their traditional platforms on the web and in turn on social media. There were situations where newspapers would run headlines longer than 140 characters on twitter and the tweet would look like gibberish. Even now there are journalists who have not grasped the concept of the micro-blog of 280 characters and the tweets, more like essays, end up broken automatically into two.
The TV channels had some advantage since they were dabbling in images, they could use this on the digital platforms and appeal to the habits of those who are using handheld devices and not broadsheet newspapers or bulky TV sets.
In Sri Lanka, it is the gossip sites that have multiplied with huge followings. The mushrooming sites and affiliated social media accounts have garnered the greatest number of followers in the vernacular. Their attraction is such that even TV and radio stations have begun to use the word gossip in the tag lines for the digital sites. These sites use user-generated content on top of the main news coverage.
They are also not bound by the professionalism and ethics of main stream media – thus rumour and innuendo simply appear on the them as rumour and innuendo. But they are mighty popular – last month one single post on one such site, on an alleged clause in the new constitutional reforms relating to dual citizens contesting elections was shared over 450 times on Facebook. The story had no basis except a speech and there was no double checking done on the part of the news channel.
But this is the kind of misinformation that is out there. This example is probably a lame version as it at least had a speech as a source. There are some which are outright fabrications. It is with these lies that we will have huge problems. Fake news and machine generated content are a vicious combination.
Already we have seen in other parts of the world how social media can be leveraged to create, amplify some and drown out others. The web is a massive echo chamber and machines are being used to create noise.
There is even a new term for all this - computation of influence, fancy sounding, but utterly dangerous. Machines can be programmed to detect certain words, phrases and accounts and amplify them.
You actually don’t need bot armies at your disposal to do these, there are companies out there that will get you 5000 re-tweets for less than $30 and 10,000 for less than $50.
Already there is research by Sri Lankan experts that indicate a trend of 100’s of machine-controlled twitter accounts with ostensible Sri Lankan origins that were created between late March and May. We are yet to see the being deployed, but they remain weaponized.
The author is the Asia-Pacific Coordinator for the DART Centre for Journalism and Trauma, a project of Columbia Journalism School