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Toxic sludge opens after election

20 November 2019 12:42 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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The election is over; done with. At least for the time being that is. In the run-up to the election, so much attention was paid on the threat posed by fake news and disinformation. 

Even within these columns, I have written, on several occasions, on the threat and fact-checking measures. A positive impact was that the attention, national and international, organically created a set of amateur fact-checkers and also imbued a cautionary attitude among others. That meant that even before fakes were detected, the sceptics would start tearing into the specifics of why any post could not be authentic. 

The organised, professional fact-checking measures were too little and both Facebook and the Elections Commission decided to hold on to details which would have given us a clearer picture. 

Fake news did not take off, why? Couple of reasons for this:  

  • There were hardly any really sophisticated fakes; some were downright sloppy – like the video of the State Department spokesperson 
  • There was general scepticism 
  • There were volunteers who were looking out for fakes 
  • For what it’s worth that each camp was alert to what rivals could do and was fast off the blocks to debunk any such fake also helped

But I keep circling back to repeated criticism that Facebook and the Elections Commission did not act fast and proactively enough to stem fakes. This could be simply because both or one of them lacked the resources and the will to do that. 

If Facebook had been at least a wee bit more transparent with what it was doing on the election, then more would have complained and we would have known clearly what the company could do

This weakness came to play a big role after the election when hate speech reared its ugly head all over social media. As President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory became apparent, hate speech started spewing out. 

First, it was on the racist tendencies of the North and East who had by and large voted for a candidate not from their own community. The results for the North and East came in at the forefront of national results, but the venom was not limited to minorities. 

Then, there were macabre remarks on Negombo. There was the small-time actress who was one of the first to give her two-bit punditry on this. Others followed suit. There were personal insults hurled at lots of others. 

The ugly under-belly of Sri Lanka was all too clear on Facebook and to a lesser degree on Twitter. We seemed to have forgotten the cost we paid as a nation during a three-decade long war

The ugly under-belly of Sri Lanka was all too clear on Facebook and to a lesser degree on Twitter. We seemed to have forgotten the cost we paid as a nation during a three-decade long war. 
No one, however, seemed to be complaining to Facebook. 

Part of the reason stems from Facebook’s own inaction against most complaints on fake news during the election campaign. Most such posts remained; thankfully none became viral beyond the circles of those posting them. We still have no idea how many posts and pages Facebook took down during the election campaign. The grapevine has it that several hundred pages have been taken down, but no one knows! 

The few who did complain on hate speech faced the same run around we got during election – Facebook simply did not or could not care. 

If Facebook had been at least a wee bit more transparent with what it was doing on the election, then more would have complained and we would have known clearly what the company could do. 

There were macabre remarks on Negombo. There was the small-time actress who was one of the first to give her two-bit punditry on this. Others followed suit. There were personal insults hurled at lots of others

This inaction and selective transparency on the part of Facebook is nothing new. It has always been like this. It is primarily a company that thrives on those who open accounts with it. Each Facebook account holder makes up the over 2b headcount product mass that Facebook markets to its advertisers. It has always been reticent to give out details about that product. 

Unlike fake news which could have been targeted at the election, hate speech can have a longer incubation period. We saw this before last year’s racial riots in the Central Province when hate speech created an echo chamber of toxic sludge. 

We need to figure out a mean to stop this sludge from spreading and sticking to every nook and corner like some kind of dirty goo. Otherwise, who knows what could happen. 

The writer is currently pursuing a Masters by Research at CQ University, Melbourne on online journalism and trauma Twitter - @amanthap

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