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Will free expression become a casualty of 2020 dystopia?

30 December 2020 04:04 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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No one could have imagined the dystopian extremes 2020 took us to. A 112-day lockdown in Victoria, Australia pales compared to what others have experienced in other parts of the world. 
Victoria came out of the lockdown in late October. In early October, Sri Lanka recorded a sudden, sharp spike in numbers when, what is now referred to as the Brandix cluster came to light. 
There appears to be no effective arrest in the surge in the past two and half months neither is it clear as to what triggered this wave. 


We enter 2021 with apprehensions and fraught nerves like never before. There is the fear of the pandemic, when will we feel safe, ever again? A question neither authoritarian administrations nor democratic ones have failed to answer. One has tried to deal with fears by mercilessly controlling the information while the other has tried to allay fears by way of being as transparent as the circumstances warrant. 

"We already see the powerful role that social media plays in all this. This is the reason why we are talking about controlling the Facebook posts of fake profiles desk warriors rather than talking of a competent authority for the media. The latter was the option a decade back. Not anymore"

Controlling information has become one of the key by-products of the pandemic. Even before the world came face to face with the true width and girth of the pandemic, WHO had already declared it an infodemic. 
In the past few months I have been talking to media professionals all over the world on the impact of COVID-19 on their work and personal lives. The unanimous consensus is that fake news has evolved into a major work-life concern not only for journalists but to the world at large. 


The digital rabbit holes and echo chambers that have made social media platforms so popular and rich were also the same conduits that sucked millions into believing quack theories on the pandemic. 
The rabbit holes thrive on appealing to the senses, not to rationality. Fear is a big motivator. It drives people to unexpected extremes. It is fear that is driving the information black holes. 
How do we deal with mass fear? More importantly how do we understand how this fear is manipulated to gain financial and political ends? 

"We enter 2021 with apprehensions and fraught nerves like never before. There is the fear of the pandemic, when will we feel safe, ever again? A question neither authoritarian administrations nor democratic ones have failed to answer"

Among journalists, especially in countries with track records of administrations keen to take over the message and the messenger and populations more than primed to acquiesce, there is real fear that the current global climate would be used for the same purpose. In Sri Lanka whispers in the Byzantine digital world of efforts to collar the web have been increasing. Now it is clear that the intention has moved well beyond bullet points. Several government high rankers have confirmed this. 
We are not so sure of where this is heading to. 


Since the 2018 race riots, social media platforms, especially Facebook has had communication channels open with Colombo. The consultations have been on how to limit the spread of hate at least that has been the focus that interlocutors from the platforms want to keep. Reality seems to be a bit more spun on political survival. Taking full on control of social media has been hinted but denied. 
There is always the Chinese model – the Great Firewall – that has been talked about. The lattice work of dealing with the infodemic could be the best disguise for a full court press on dissent. 

"In Sri Lanka whispers in the Byzantine digital world of efforts to collar the web have been increasing. Now it is clear that the intention has moved well beyond bullet points. Several government high rankers have confirmed this"

Where is all this leading to? The year 2021 will bring us to the crossroads of people deciding whether the free flow of information, is ideal. Whether the chaos of free expression is the worth the mayhem it leads to or whether the inherently contradictory notion of a benevolent dictatorship is best suited? 
We already see the powerful role that social media plays in all this. This is the reason why we are talking about controlling the Facebook posts of fake profiles desk warriors rather than talking of a competent authority for the media. The latter was the option a decade back. Not anymore. 


Because the once feisty media has been brought in line years of erosion of media professionalism on top of politically laced commercialisation of the news industry has done the job. The occasional violent attack, the few unsolved assassinations have snuffed out any pretence of a fight. 

The writer is an academic and journalist. He can be contacted on amantha.perera@cqumail.com 

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