By Kaif Sally –
Every day, we are barraged with information. From articles, videos, and adverts to social media – we seldom stop to think, why am I reading this? Why am I watching this? Why am ‘I’ hearing this? The truth is, all the media you and I consume was placed there by someone with some agenda. In advertising, it’s to get you to buy their product. But in most cases, it’s not as clear cut or innocent. Fake news, misinformation, and the overall weaponization of information are staples of any troubled nation. Today, more so than ever, this weaponization threatens to upset the delicate balance of our society.
Sri Lankans place a great importance on being educated and well informed. More important to them is that the rest of their community is aware of how well informed they are. This attitude, coupled with a literacy rate of 96.3% and a tendency to accept all information at face value leaves the general populous extremely susceptible to misinformation campaigns . You might ask who is responsible for weaponizing information? And why?. The general trend is for these campaigns to target minorities, political parties & foreign governments whilst most frequently appearing closer to general or local elections. Essentially, they promote the creation of an “us vs. them” narrative. Considering this narrative has consistently enabled politicians to garner support from a national majority come election time (think of Donald Trumps’ anti-immigrant and islamophobia fueled 2016 election platform or Narendra Modis’ hyper Nationalist and subtle anti – Muslim 2019 re-election campaign), you may reasonably conclude that in Sri Lanka too, the bulk of misinformation reaching the public is politically motivated.
Traditionally, misinformation is propagated through print and electronic media. For example, after the government was met with minor criticism on its initial response to the COVID 19 pandemic – the media was soon flooded with blatantly incorrect headlines about Sri Lanka being “ranked 9th in the Global Response to Infectious Diseases” and misrepresented graphs (underplaying the spread of the disease within the country) were sprawled across television channels . You might also recall mid last year, one of the best examples of misinformation by the media can be found in the case of Dr. Shafi, a surgeon who was accused of illegally sterilizing his patients . The media was quick to verify the allegations as true and pinned it as evidence for a long – time conspiracy that the local Muslim community was secretly trying to decrease the majority population; this was done, despite having no proven evidence. Months later, it was found that evidence had been fabricated against the doctor, who was then found innocent. A fact that did not gain even a fraction of the sensationalized media coverage that the accused doctor had previously received. Thankfully, the public has caught on to the mainstream medias’ efforts to divide them. Knowledge about the agendas, affiliations, biases, and ownership of mainstream media has allowed the general populous to be more and more critical towards it.
Today the danger lies on a different front. Misinformation campaigns that have found a new home on the internet use astroturfing, social media, and firehosing to mislead the public at even more alarming rates. A paper by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) in 2016 titled ‘perceptions around and consumption of media in the Western Province’ found that Social media was the main source of news information for those in the 18 – 24 age demographic . The study found that 56.9% of people were likely to forward messages received by email. Whatsapp, Twitter, and Facebook showed similar numbers. In another study by the CPA in April of 2018, it was found that over 200,000 tweets by 4,000 fake accounts were being used to spread misinformation at the time . The Sri Lanka police cites that in 2012, 20% of Sri Lankan Facebook accounts were fake . These statistics set the backdrop to understand a relatively new and locally unreported aspect of local misinformation campaigns – astroturfing.
Astroturfing is the term used to describe misinformation campaigns that are designed to create the illusion of being supported and spread by the general public. Usually financed by a single entity, astroturfing campaigns prove especially dangerous due to the rate at which it spreads across the grassroots level. Imagine you read in the papers about a misappropriation of funds by a businessman. Now imagine the same allegations appear time and time again on your Facebook feed, are sent repeatedly by friends and family on WhatsApp, and is a trending topic on twitter. Which is more likely to convince you the allegations are real?
A Dance with the devil – A few days ago, I was fortunate enough to find the following message on a local deep web message board “We will get your YouTube video or FB/ Twitter post trending”. I expressed my interest and was replied to with a link two hours later. Redirected to another message site, the following exchange ensued:
R: Please send the link for what you want trending. We will send prices.
K: I want the posts on this page to be viral on WhatsApp. Can you do it?
*I send a link to a Facebook page popular for extremist content
R: Yes. We will use accounts to make it trending online. This is an easy audience. We have people to spread it on WhatsApp also.
K: What is the most amount of people you have reached through this?
R: 900,000 youtube. Others it’s hard to tell.
K: Have you done this for similar pages before? What is the charge?
At this point, I received no reply. Perhaps for being a little too eager in my rate of questioning. Although I cannot verify how genuine this person’s claims are, they do (if true) give us insight into enablers of these misinformation campaigns. This is a well-structured service that has a significant demand in the market. And if the tools to conduct small scale misinformation campaigns are so easily found by an amateur journalist researching for an article. One cannot begin to imagine the capabilities of entities with more wealth, power, and connections at their disposal.
By their very nature, these types of campaigns are difficult to spot. Spread across an extended period and conducted over multiple social media, it is virtually impossible to identify this sort of campaign without collecting a considerable amount of data. One of the few events that undoubtedly showed features of an astroturfing campaign was the social media landscape surrounding the 2018 anti – Muslim riots. The New York Times report on the incident dated 21st April 2018 relates “A reconstruction of Sri Lanka’s descent into violence…. found that Facebook’s newsfeed played a central role in nearly every step from rumour to killing” .
Even on twitter, it was this period that saw an influx of bots and fake accounts publishing fake videos, images, and posts promoting hate speech on the platform . The trouble was, the sentiments spread by these fake accounts did not end. Soon, a sizable organic following of real people had succumbed to the propaganda. Ultimately, these campaigns contribute considerably to real-world events. In the case of the 2018 anti – Muslim riots, forty-five incidents of damage to houses and businesses, attacks on four places of worship, fifteen injured, two dead, and the harmony of our nation left bruised and vulnerable .
It doesn’t end there. Astroturfing extends to entities paying think tanks and media companies to publish or withhold information to suit political or corporate agendas. The manipulation of web search results to fit a particular demographics confirmation bias or to push a particular piece of content to the public is common practice under astroturfing. Other practices, like firehosing (the practice of deliberately flooding the landscape with so much contradicting information on a topic that you don’t know what to believe), are yet to catch on in Sri Lanka. At the current rate, it’s only a matter of time.
On the 13th of April 2020, sixteen people were arrested under the previous government’s vague and draconian ‘false news bill’ . Mainstream media and social media have always been hailed as protectors of the public. Today it is the tool used by the rich and powerful to undermine these very people. Whilst there is plenty of literature available on how governments and people can fight the good fight against misinformation campaigns. The simplest solution lies in the questions – who wanted this information in front of me? And why am I reading this?.