GAAMAC partner maps out misinformation patterns in Sri Lanka

9 May 2022
The Covid pandemic may have dominated misinformation in the country, but the economic crisis and political opposition and dissent were also marred with false rumours.

The Sentinel Project is a partner of GAAMAC whose mandate is to make prevention possible through the creation of an early warning system and cooperation with threatened communities and other anti-genocide organizations.

Its pilot misinformation management project ran in Sri Lanka from July to December 2021. Here are the trends and patterns it observed, and suggested ways forward.

Main trends of 2021

Misinformation was observed across a wide array of topics. Covid vaccines and cures were especially prevalent, possibly as a result of government-sponsored media campaigns promoting local cures until late 2020. Many false information accused vaccination of causing reproductive issues– perhaps indicating the need for comprehensive sexuality education in Sri Lanka. Ethnic and religiously motivated misinformation about the pandemic was also observed, a continuation of the trend seen in 2020 when the Muslim community was vilified as “super-spreaders.”

Misinformation about the economic crisis was almost as prevalent. Common sub-themes included the foreign exchange crisis, national debt, taxes, rising living costs, prices of essential goods, and import restrictions.

False rumours about incidents that occurred in other countries gained traction in when they were relevant to local economic issues, and were used to justify the scarcity in Sri Lanka.

Politically motivated false information about the government and the opposition was also widespread. False information targeting alternative political parties was a distinct sub-theme, as well as false information directed at actors questioning the government and the status quo by and large. Governance-related misinformation was also prevalent, from alleged extravagant lifestyles of politicians to political appointments and corruption.

Throughout the monitoring period, ethnically, racially, or religiously motivated false information (especially anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic) almost always linked to some current incident or another.

Finally, rumours about the environment, particularly deforestation, were widely circulated.

Lessons learned and recommendations

Against the backdrop of a national economic and political crisis, new themes of misinformation have emerged. Misinformation about the roots of the economic crisis are especially prevalent, followed by misinformation about the implications of protests and government’s responses. Misinformation about fundamental rights and freedoms, such as the right to speech and the right to dissent, is also on the rise.

The Sentinel Project recommends increasing the use of information technology and artificial intelligence-based systems, in order to get an accurate picture of misinformation in Sri Lanka. Increased use of IT and AI-based systems should be accompanied by increased social media presence across multiple platforms. Bespoke social media handles can also be used to proactively disseminate verified information to the public.

The pilot’s primary limitation was the lack of public engagement, making it impossible to track rumours at the local grassroots. Secondly, because the majority of the rumours recorded came from the internet and social media, it was difficult to track the origin of a given rumour and gather meaningful geographic implications, which would be useful in preventing violence. Moving forward, community volunteers who report local rumours should be recruited from all over the country.

Finally, it is evident that fact-checking after false information have spread is not enough to counter them. To combat this, The Sentinel Project recommends that organisations fighting misinformation form and strengthen synergies among themselves and social media platforms.

Sri Lankan organisations should also link their efforts with proactive disclosure of correct, quality information, through partnerships with think tanks and other credible information generators that are already in operation. This aspect has been woefully lacking and addressing that gap is critical, as ill-informed and frustrated Sri Lankans can easily be misled and be incited to violence.

This is a summary of an original article published on the website of the Sentinel Project. Read the full article here.

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