Nikhil Pahwa is an Indian journalist, digital rights activist, and founder of MediaNama, a mobile and digital news portal. He has been a key commentator on stories and debates around Indian digital media companies, censorship and Internet and mobile regulation in India.
On the even of India’s general election 2019, Nalaka Gunawardene spoke to him in an email interview to find out how disinformation spread on social media and chat app platforms figures in election campaigning. Excerpts of this interview were quoted in Nalaka’s #OnlineOffline column in the Sunday Morning newspaper of Sri Lanka on 7 April 2019.
Nalaka: What social media and chat app platforms are most widely used for spreading mis and disinformation in the current election campaign in India?
Nikhil: In India, it’s as if we’ve been in campaigning mode ever since the 2014 elections got over: the political party in power, the BJP, which leveraged social media extensively in 2014 to get elected has continued to build its base on various platforms and has been campaigning either directly or, allegedly, through affiliates, ever since. They’re using online advertising, chat apps, videos, live streaming, and Twitter and Facebook to campaign. Much of the campaigning happens on WhatsApp in India, and messages move from person to person and group to group. Last elections we saw a fair about of humour: jokes were used as a campaigning tool, but there was a fair amount of misinformation then, as there has been ever since.
Are platforms sufficiently aware of these many misuses — and are they doing enough (besides issuing lofty statements) to tackle the problem?
Platforms are aware of the misuse: a WhatsApp video was used to incite a riot as far back as 2013. India has the highest number of internet shutdowns in the world: 134 last year, as per sflc.in. much of this is attributable to internet shutdowns, and the inability of local administration to deal with the spread of misinformation.
Platforms are trying to do what they can. WhatsApp has, so far, reduced the ability to forward messages to more than 5 people at a time. Earlier it was 256 people. Now people are able to control whether they can be added to a group without consent or not. Forwarded messages are marked as forwarded, so people know that the sender hasn’t created the message. Facebook has taken down groups for inauthentic behavior, robbing some parties of a reach of over 240,000 fans, for some pages. Google and Facebook are monitoring election advertising and reporting expenditure to the Election Commission. They are also supporting training of journalists in fact checking, and funding fact checking and research on fake news. These are all steps in the right direction, but given the scale of the usage of these platforms and how organised parties are, they can only mitigate some of the impact.
Does the Elections Commission have powers and capacity to effectively address this problem?
Incorrect speech isn’t illegal. The Election Commission has a series of measures announced, including a code of conduct from platforms, approvals for political advertising, take down of inauthentic content. I’m not sure of what else they can do, because they also have to prevent misinformation without censoring legitimate campaigning and legitimate political speech.
What more can and must be done to minimise the misleading of voters through online content?
I wish I knew! There’s no silver bullet here, and it will always be an arms race versus misinformation. There is great political incentive for political parties to create misinformation, and very little from platforms to control it.
Keynote speech delivered by science writer and digital media analyst Nalaka Gunawardene at the Sri Lanka National IT Conference held in Colombo from 2 to 4 October 2018.
Here is a summary of what I covered (PPT embedded below):
With around a third of Sri Lanka’s 21 million people using at least one type of social media, the phenomenon is no longer limited to cities or English speakers. But as social media users increase and diversify, so do various excesses and abuses on these platforms: hate speech, fake news, identity theft, cyber bullying/harassment, and privacy violations among them.
Public discourse in Sri Lanka has been focused heavily on social media abuses by a relatively small number of users. In a balanced stock taking of the overall phenomenon, the multitude of substantial benefits should also be counted. Social media has allowed ordinary Lankans to share information, collaborate around common goals, pursue entrepreneurship and mobilise communities in times of elections or disasters. In a country where the mainstream media has been captured by political and business interests, social media remains the ‘last frontier’ for citizens to discuss issues of public interest. The economic, educational, cultural benefits of social media for the Lankan society have not been scientifically quantified as yet but they are significant – and keep growing by the year.
Whether or not Sri Lanka needs to regulate social media, and if so in what manner, requires the widest possible public debate involving all stakeholders. The executive branch of government and the defence establishment should NOT be deciding unilaterally on this – as was done in March 2018, when Facebook and Instagram were blocked for 8 days and WhatsApp and Viber were restricted (to text only) owing to concerns that a few individuals had used these services to instigate violence against Muslims in the Eastern and Central Provinces.
In this talk, I caution that social media regulation in the name of curbing excesses could easily be extended to crack down on political criticism and minority views that do not conform to majority orthodoxy. An increasingly insular and unpopular government – now in its last 18 months of its 5-year term – probably fears citizen expressions on social media.
Yet the current Lankan government’s democratic claims and credentials will be tested in how they respond to social media challenges: will that be done in ways that are entirely consistent with the country’s obligations under international human rights laws that have safeguards for the right to Freedom of Expression (FOE)? This is the crucial question.
Already, calls for social media regulation (in unspecified ways) are being made by certain religious groups as well as the military. At a recent closed-door symposium convened by the Lankan defence ministry’s think tank, the military was reported to have said “Misinformation directed at the military is a national security concern” and urged: “Regulation is needed on misinformation in the public domain.”
How will the usually opaque and unpredictable public policy making process in Sri Lanka respond to such partisan and strident advocacy? Might the democratic, societal and economic benefits of social media be sacrificed for political expediency and claims of national security?
To keep overbearing state regulation at bay, social media users and global platforms can step up arrangements for self-regulation, i.e. where the community of users and the platform administrators work together to monitor, determine and remove content that violates pre-agreed norms or standards. However, the presentation acknowledges that this approach is fraught with practical difficulties given the hundreds of languages involved and the tens of millions of new content items being published every day.
What is to be done to balance the competing interests within a democratic framework?
I quote the views of David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression from his June 2018 report to the UN Human Rights Council about online content regulation. He cautioned against the criminalising of online criticism of governments, religion or other public institutions. He also expressed concerns about some recent national laws making global social media companies responsible, at the risk of steep financial penalties, to assess what is illegal online, without the kind of public accountability that such decisions require (e.g. judicial oversight).
Kaye recommends that States ensure an enabling environment for online freedom of expression and that companies apply human rights standards at all stages of their operations. Human rights law gives companies the tools to articulate their positions in ways that respect democratic norms and
counter authoritarian demands. At a minimum, he says, global SM companies and States should pursue radically improved transparency, from rule-making to enforcement of the rules, to ensure user autonomy as individuals increasingly exercise fundamental rights online.
We can shape the new cyber frontier to be safer and more inclusive. But a safer web experience would lose its meaning if the heavy hand of government tries to make it a sanitized, lame or sycophantic environment. Sri Lanka has suffered for decades from having a nanny state, and in the twenty first century it does not need to evolve into a cyber nanny state.
When I spoke out on social media recently for the rights of sexual minorities in Sri Lanka, some wanted to know why I cared for these ‘deviants’ – one even asked if I was ‘also one of them’.
I didn’t want to dignify such questions with an immediate answer. However, in my mind, it is quite clear why I stand for the rights of the LGBTQ community and other minorities – who are marginalised, in some cases persecuted, for simply being different.
I stand with all left-handed persons, or ‘lefties’, not because I am one of them but because I support their right to be the way they were born.
I share the cause of the disabled, not because I am currently living with a disability, but because I support their right to accessibility and full productive lives.
I call for governmental and societal protection of all displaced persons – from wars, disasters or other causes – not because I am currently displaced, but because I believe in their right to such support with dignity.
I march with women from all walks of life not because I am a woman, but because I fully share their cause for equality and justice. In their case, they are not a minority but the majority – and yet, very often, oppressed.
Similarly, I raise my voice for all sexual minorities in the LGBTQ community not because I am one of them, but because I am outraged by the institutionalised discrimination against them in Sri Lanka. I uphold their right to equality and to lead normal lives with their own sexual orientations and identities.
How much longer do we have to wait for a Lankan state that treats ALL its citizens as equal?
How much further must we wait for a Lankan society that does not discriminate against some of its own members who just happen to be differently inclined or differently-abled?
In this Ravaya column (published on 29 July 2018), I further explore the contours of fake news in Sri Lanka. I point out, with examples, that certain politicians (including national leaders) and senior journalists are actively engaged in creating and/or disseminating myths, misconceptions and fallacies that give rise to fake news.
I debunk, with official (police) data, that contrary to popular perception and reckless media claims, there is no ‘crime wave’ sweeping across Sri Lanka. In fact, the opposite is true: incidence of serious crimes are showing a gradual decline, even though the current levels are still too high.
Similarly, when some ill-informed academics and social activists engage in loose talk about ‘Sri Lanka’s rising suicide rate’. This could be due to mainstream media and social media’s coverage of various suicide incidents. Sections of the media have begun calling Sri Lanka ‘suicide capital’ of the world. Others are quick to blame new technologies such as social media as a ‘cause’ for some recent youth suicides, without any research to back such claims.
Police data (which is the most reliable on this subject) shows otherwise. Sri Lanka has made major advances in reducing its suicide rate from the peak in the mid 1990s (when there were 8,514 reported suicide deaths in 1995), to 3,025 suicide deaths reported in 2016. Compared to neighbouring South Asian countries, where there has been little change in suicide rates, Sri Lanka has managed to reduce its crude suicide rate by 70% during the last two decades.
Even though it is widely practised in most human societies, gossip is much maligned. At best it is seen as frivolous and a waste of time, and at worst, as malicious and anti-social.
But not all gossip is bad, and, a growing body of research shows that gossip can be useful in maintaining social norms and keeping people in line. In my latest Ravaya column (in Sinhala language, published on 22 July 2018), I look at the evolutionary, sociological and anthropological insights offered by gossip related research in recent years.
Exploring the Lankan gossip-sphere, I note how certain mainstream media companies have started explicitly gossip news websites that now attract large visitor numbers. To sustain this traffic, they publish increasingly sensational, click-bait kind of content. Such manufacturing and marketing of gossip, I argue, is an inevitable by-product of online freedom of expression.
Finally, I ask why Lankan mass communications researchers dismiss gossip with such contempt, and wonder what findings could be made about our collective psyche if only our researchers adopt a more open-minded approach to this topic…
‘Crowdfunding’ is the practice of funding a project or venture by raising small amounts of money from a large number of people. The idea has been around for a long time, in one way or another, but modern day crowdfunding using digital and web technologies has a history of just two decades. As the Internet use began to spread in the 1990s, some creative artistes soon realised the potential of appealing – and receiving – donations online.
The first dedicated web-based crowdfunding platform called ArtistShare in 2000. Since then, dozens of such platforms have emerged. These are being used to raise public support for many entrepreneurial ventures, artistic and creative projects, medical expenses, travel, or social enterprises.
In this week’s Ravaya column, published in the newspaper edition of 15 July 2018, I explore the potential for online #crowdfunding for charitable and artistic needs work in Sri Lanka. I also draw on Dr Tom Widger’s 2011-12 research on philanthropic trends in Sri Lanka to ask the question: how can we diversify local fund raising for good causes (besides large amounts of money already being donated to religious and humanitarian causes)?
Rodney Jonklaas (1925-1989) was a Lankan marine biologist, free diver, SCUBA diver, spearfisherman and underwater photographer. He was one of the pioneer divers in Ceylon, starting soon after the aqualung was invented in the 1940s. He was founder in 1946/7 of the “Reefcombers of Ceylon”, one of the world’s earliest diving clubs.
I have written about Rodney as my latest Ravaya newspaper column (published on 8 July 2018).
Rodney was one of two persons that author and diver Arthur C Clarke (1917-2008) met on his very first visit to Colombo when the latter’s ship SS Himalaya – taking him from London to Sydney, to explore the Great Barrier Reef – paused at Colombo Harbour for a few hours in December 1954. Rodney suggested that Clarke should come back to explore the Indian Ocean around Ceylon. Acting on this suggestion, Clarke returned in 1956 with fellow Englishman Mike Wilson to explore the island’s marine, cultural and natural heritage for several months. At the end of that expedition, both men decided to settle down in Ceylon. The rest is history.
In the ensuing years, Rodney continued to work as a professional diver, taking on commercial assignments while also engaging in recreational diving and going in search of shipwrecks. I quote Rex I de Silva, a senior diver who was mentored by Rodney, who says Rodney was a keen marine conservationist and also a leading spearfisherman with several international records. Rex remembers Rodney as a Renaissance Man who was versatile and accomplished in a wide range of pursuits both on land and underwater.
I also draw on my interview with Rodney Jonklaas done in late 1984, when I met him in connection with a series of articles on humans and the ocean that I researched and wrote for the (now defunct) Kalpana Sinhala monthly magazine (February 1985 issue).
Trends like ultra-nationalistic media, hate speech and fake news have all been around for decades — certainly well before the web emerged in the 1990s. What digital tools and the web have done is to ‘turbo-charge’ these trends.
I was among the 2,000+ media professionals and experts from over 100 countries who participated in the event. Across many plenaries and parallel sessions, we discussed a whole range of issues related to politics and human rights, media development and innovative journalism concepts.
Today, I was interviewed on video for BBC Sinhala service for my views on hate speech and fake news. Given below is my remarks in Sinhala, excerpts from which are to be used.
In summary, I said these phenomena predate social media and the web itself, but cyber space has enabled easier and faster dissemination of falsehoods and hatred. Additionally, anonymity and pseudonymity — fundamental qualities of the web – seem to embolden some to behave badly without revealing their identities.
The societal and state responses must be measured, proportionate and cautious, so as not to restrict everybody’s freedom of expression for the misdeeds of a numerical minority of web users. I urged a multi-pronged response including:
– adopting clear legal definitions of hate speech and fake news;
– enforcing the existing laws, without fear or favour, against those peddling hatred and falsehoods;
– mobilising the community of web users to voluntarily monitor and report misuses online; and
– promoting digital literacy at all levels in society, to nurture responsible web use and social media use.