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.
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.
Fake News is not new. The phenomenon has been around, in one form or another, for decades! Many of us in the global South have grown up amidst intentionally fake news stories in our media, some of it coming from governments, no less.
Fake News is merely a symptom of a wider and deeper crisis.It is a crisis of public trust in journalism and media that has been building up over the years in many countries. Fake News fills a vacuum of credibility.
In my latest Ravaya column (in Sinhala), published on 24 June 2018, I revisit the topic of Fake News to discuss if and how legal regulation can help counter Fake News. I argue that any new laws should be introduced very carefully, so as not to allow governments to restrict freedom of expression. I look at the botched Indian attempt to penalise journalists over Fake News, and the new Anti-Fake News Law in Malaysia (April 2018) that has been widely criticised for overbroad definitions and regulatory overreach.
In the end, I conclude: even the best laws can be a partial solution to the Fake News crisis. A healthy dose of scepticism can filter out a good deal of disinformation surrounding us. We also have to build media literacy as a modern-day survival skill, and nurture independent fact checking services.
Around 2,000 media professionals and experts from over 100 countries gathered at the World Conference Centre Bonn (WCCB) for the event, themed on ‘Global Inequalities’. 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.
On 13 June 2018, I moderated a session on “Digitalization and polarization of the media: How to overcome growing inequalities and a divided public” which was organised by the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (ifa) or Institute for Foreign Relations, a century old entity located in Stuttgart.
Here are my opening remarks for the panel, setting it in context:
Our topic resonates deeply with my personal experiences. I come from Sri Lanka, where a brutal civil war lasted for 26 years and ended nearly a decade ago. But even today, my society remains highly polarised along ethnic, religious and political lines. This is very worrying, especially as we are a multicultural society.
Our media, for the most part, reflect this division in society — and many sections of the media actually keep dividing us even further! Reconciliation is the last thing some of our tribal media owners and editors seem to want…
This situation is by no means unique to Sri Lanka. Well into the 21st century’s second decade, tribalistic media seems to be proliferating both in analog and digital realms! We can find examples from the East and the West, and from the global North and the South.
But let’s be clear: these trends predate the digitalisation of (what is still called) mainstream media and the emergence of entirely digital media. 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. The ease with which content can now be created and the speed at which it can be globally shared is unprecedented. As is the intensity of misuse of social media platforms, and the spreading of deliberate falsehoods, or disinformation. Conspiracy theorists, spin doctors and other assorted charlatans never had it so good!
What is all this doing to our politics and societies, especially in democracies?
In today’s discussion, we will consider both the established media – television, radio and newspapers – as well as the newer media that are digitally produced and distributed online. (Demarcations are blurred because many ‘old media’ content is also now digitally available.)
In today’s panel, we want to recognise a few key questions, all of them at ‘big picture’ level:
How are old media and new media so much better at polarising societies than in uniting or unifying societies? Do they tape into a fundamental tribal instinct among us?
Is the free and open internet, especially in the form of social media, undermining free and open societies?
Around the world, digital media have been a powerful force for the good, promoting human rights, democracy and social empowerment. But is that era of idealism coming to an end? What next?
How is the role of news journalism changing in an age of foreign policy making that is increasingly impulsive and driven by social media?
What policies, regulations and actions are needed to avoid undesirable outcomes and to harness all media for the public good?
We may not find all the answers today, but it is very important that we ask these questions and collectively search for answers.
Here is the panel description written by the organisers:
Populism and nationalism are on the rise in many democracies. Recent elections, especially Trump’s victory in the US, are proof of deep social cleavages and the polarization of the media. The media system itself seems to be both the problem and the solution. It reveals the inequality of access to media, to a range of opinions, and to a true exchange that takes place outside of everyone’s echo chamber, and it highlights unequal levels of media literacy.
How can the media itself contribute to overcoming this polarization and disrupt these echo chambers? What does this fragmentation mean for political debates in democracies? How is the role of news journalism changing in an age of foreign policy making that is increasingly impulsive and driven by social media? How important is net neutrality? And what media policies are needed?
In June 2016, Sri Lanka became the 108th country in the world to pass a law allowing citizens to demand information from the government. After a preparatory period of six months, citizens were allowed to exercise their newly granted Right to Information (RTI) by filing information applications from February 2017 onward.
Just over a year later, the results are a mixed bag of successes, challenges and frustrations. There have been formidable teething problems – some sorted out by now, while others continue to slow down the new law’s smooth operation.
On the ‘supply side’ of RTI, several thousand ‘public authorities’ at central, provincial and local government level had to get ready to practise the notion of ‘open government’. This includes the all government ministries, departments, state corporations, other stator bodies and companies that are wholly or majority state owned. Despite training programmes and administrative circulars, there remain some gaps in officials’ attitudes, capacity and readiness to process citizens’ RTI applications.
To be sure, we should not expect miracles in one year after we have had 25 centuries of closed government under all the Lankan monarchs, colonial rulers and post-independence governments. RTI is a major conceptual and operational ‘leap’ for some public authorities and officials who have hidden or denied information rather than disclosed or shared it with the public.
Owing to this mindset, some officials have been trying to play hide-and-seek with RTI applications. Others are grudgingly abiding by the letter of the law — but not its spirit. These challenges place a greater responsibility on active citizens to pursue their RTI applications indefatigably.
During the first year of operation, the independent RTI Commission had received a little over 400 appeals from persistent citizens who refused to take ‘No’ for an answer. In a clear majority of cases heard so far, the Commission has ordered disclosure of information that was initially declined. These rulings are sending a clear message to all public authorities: RTI is not a choice, but a legal imperative. Fall in line, or else…
To ensure all public authorities comply with this law, it is vital to sustain citizen pressure. This is where the ‘demand side’ of RTI needs a lot more work. Unlike most other laws of the land that government uses, RTI is a rare law that citizens have to exercise – government only responds. Experience across Asia and elsewhere shows that the more RTI is used by people, the sharper and stronger it becomes.
It is hard to assess current public awareness levels on RTI without doing a large sample survey (one is being planned). However, there is growing anecdotal evidence to indicate that more Lankans have heard about RTI even if they are not yet clear on specifics.
But we still have plenty to do on the demand side: citizens need to see RTI as a tool for solving their local level problems – both private and public grievances – and be motivated to file more RTI applications. For this, they must overcome a historical deference towards government, and start demanding answers more vociferously.
Citizens who have been denied clear or any answers to their pressing problems – on missing persons, land rights, subsidies or public spending – are using RTI as an additional tool. We need to sustain momentum. RTI is a marathon, not a sprint.
Even though some journalists and editors were at the forefront in advocating for RTI in Sri Lanka for over two decades, the Lankan media as a whole is yet to grasp RTI’s potential.
Promisingly, some younger journalists have been producing impressive public interest stories – on topics as varied as disaster responses, waste management and human rights abuses – based on what they uncovered with their RTI applications. One of them, working for a Sinhala language daily, has filed over 40 RTI applications and experienced a success rate of around 70 per cent.
Meanwhile, some civil society groups are helping ordinary citizens to file RTI applications. A good example is the Vavuniya-based youth group, the Association for Friendship and Love (AFRIEL), that spearheads a campaign to submit RTI applications across Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, seeking information on private land that has been occupied by the military during the civil war and beyond. Sarvodaya, Sri Lanka’s largest development organisation, is running RTI clinics in different parts of the country with Transparency International Sri Lanka to equip citizens to exercise this new right.
The road to open government is a bumpy one, but there is no turning back on this journey. RTI in Sri Lanka may not yet have opened the floodgates of public information, but the dams are slowly but surely breached. Watch this space.
Disclosure: The writer works with both government and civil society groups intraining and promoting RTI. These views are his own.
I discuss Facebook’s Community Standards and the complaints mechanism currently in place, and the difficulties that non-English language content poses for Facebook’s designated monitors looking out for violations of these standards. Hate speech and other objectionable content produced in local languages like Sinhala sometimes pass through FB’s scrutiny. This indicates more needs to be done both by the platform’s administrators, as well as by concerned FB users who spot such content.
But I sound a caution about introducing new Sri Lankan laws to regulate social media, as that can easily stifle citizens’ right to freedom of expression to question, challenge and criticise politicians and officials. Of course, FoE can have reasonable and proportionate limits, and our challenge is to have a public dialogue on what these limits are for online speech and self-expression that social media enables.
Sri Lanka’s first ever social media blocking lasted from 7 to 15 March 2018. During that time, Facebook and Instagram were completely blocked while chat apps WhatsApp and Viber were restricted (no images, audio or video, but text allowed).
On 7 March 2018, the country’s telecom regulator, Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRCSL), ordered all telecom operators to impose this blocking across the country for three days, Reuters reported. This was “to prevent the spread of communal violence”, the news agency quoted an unnamed government official as saying. In the end, the blocking lasted 8 days.
Both actions are unprecedented. In the 23 years Sri Lanka has had commercial Internet services, it has never imposed complete network shutdowns (although during the last phase of the civil war between 2005 and 2009, the government periodically shut down telephone services in the Northern and Eastern Provinces). Nor has any social media or messaging platforms been blocked before.
I protested this course of action from the very outset. Restricting public communications networks is ill-advised at any time — and especially bad during an emergency when people are frantically seeking reliable situation updates and/or sharing information about the safety of loved ones.
Blocking selected websites or platforms is a self-defeating exercise in any case, since those who are more digitally savvy – many hate peddlers among them –can and will use proxy servers to get around. It is the average web user who will be deprived of news, views and updates.
While the blocking was on, I gave many media interviews to local and international media. I urged the government “to Police the streets, not the web!”.
At the same time, I acknowledged and explained how a few political and religious extremist groups have systematically ‘weaponised’ social media in Sri Lanka during recent years. These groups have been peddling racially charged hate speech online and offline. A law to deal with hate speech has been in the country’s law books for over a decade. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act No 56 of 2007 prohibits the advocacy of ‘religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence’. This law, fully compliant with international human rights standards, has not been enforced.
On 14 March 2018, I took part in the ‘Aluth Parlimenthuwa’ TV talk show of TV Derana on this topic, where I articulated the above and related views. The other panelists were Deputy Minister Karu Paranawithana, presidential advisor Shiral Lakthilaka, Bar Association of Sri Lanka chairman U R de Silva, and media commentator Mohan Samaranayake.
The German “Forum on Media and Development” (Forum Medien und Entwicklung, FOME) is a network of institutions and individuals active in the field of media development cooperation. I was invited to participate in, and moderate a panel at FoME Symposium 2017 held in Berlin on 16 – 17 November 2017.
This year’s symposium theme was Power Shifts – Media Freedom and the Internet. It explored how Internet governance issues are becoming more and more important for those who want to develop media (both mainstream media and social media) as democratic platforms.
On 17 November 2017, I moderated an international panel on Fake News: Tackling the phenomena respecting freedom of expression. It brought together representatives from government, civil society and a global media platform to discuss their roles and how they can interact to tackle the issue – all within the framework of Freedom of Expression (FOE).
Miriam Estrin, Public Policy Manager for Europe, Middle East and Africa, Google
Here are my opening remarks that set the context for our discussion:
Just as there are many definitions of Fake News, there can also be many perspectives on the topic. We all recognise Fake News as a problem, so let’s focus on how it can be countered. What are the local, national and global level strategies? What alliances, tools and resources are needed for such countering? What cautions and alarms can we raise?
To respond to any problem, we need to understand its contours.
Fake News is not new. The phenomenon has been around, in one form or another, for decades! Many of us in the global South have grown up amidst intentionally fake news stories in our media, some of it coming from governments, no less. And the developing world governments don’t have a monopoly over Fake News either: for over half a century, the erstwhile Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries manufactured a vast amount of disinformation (i.e. deliberately wrong information) that was fed to their own citizens and spread overseas in sustained propaganda efforts.
Sitting here, within a few kilometres from where the Berlin Wall once stood, we need to acknowledge that veritable factory of lies that operated on the other side!
So what’s new? During the past decade, as broadband Internet spread worldwide, fake news peddlers found an easy and fast medium online. From websites to social media accounts (many hiding behind pseudonyms), the web has provided a globalised playing field where dubious content could go ‘viral’.
Yesterday at this Symposium, Mark Nelson from CIMA said “We live in a world where lies are very cheap, and much easier to disseminate than the truth.”
Which reminded me of one of my favourite quotes: ““A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes!”
Variations of this quote have been attributed to several persons including Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain. Whoever said it first, these words neatly sum up a long standing challenge to modern societies: how to cope with the spread of deliberate falsehoods.
As Mark Nelson asked us yesterday, how can we “make the Internet a place where truth is valued and spread – instead of disinformation?” This is the crux of our challenge.
So what is to be done? Among the options available, which ones are most desirable?
In searching for solutions to the Fake News crisis, we must recognise it is a nuanced, complex and variable phenomenon. There cannot be one global solution or quick fix.
Indeed, any ‘medicine’ prescribed for the malady of Fake News should not be worse than the ailment itself! We must proceed with caution, safeguarding the principles of Freedom of Expression and applying its reasonable limitations.
As human rights defenders caution, there is a danger that governments in their zeal to counter fake news could impose direct or indirect censorships, suppress critical thinking, or take other steps that violate international human rights law. This is NOT the way to deal with Fake News.
In my view, Fake News is a symptom of a wider and deeper crisis. It is a crisis of public trust in journalism and the media that has been building up over the years in many countries. Some call this a ‘Journalism Deficit’, or a gulf between what journalism ought be, and what it has (mostly) become today.
In my view, a free press is not an automatic guarantee against Fake News. In other words, media freedom is necessary — but not sufficient — to ensure that media content is trusted by the public. We need to better measure public trust in media and what the current trust levels mean for those producing media content professionally.
I would argue that the medium to long term response to Fake News is to narrow and bridge the Journalism Deficit by nurturing quality journalism and critical consumption of media. If you agree with this premise, what specific measures can we recommend and advocate?
Let us explore how media development can counter Fake News by exposing it, undermining it, and equipping media consumers with the knowledge and skills to spot it – and not spread it inadvertently.
For this, we need everyone’s cooperation.
We need global social media platforms and digital gatekeepers like Google to join with all their might (and what might!).
We need governments to be thoughtfully, carefully evaluate the optimum responses.
We need civil society to go beyond mere hand waving and finger pointing to help enhance media and information literacy.
We need researchers to keep studying and discerning trends that can influence policy and regulation (where appropriate).
We are not going to solve the problem in an hour. But we can at least ask the right questions, and clarify the issues in our minds. Onward!
In this unusual Ravaya column, published on 24 September 2017, I salute my father W D Kasturiratne Gunawardene who passed away on September 13 aged 84.
His was a very ordinary life, mostly dedicated to education. But it was punctuated at various points by key events of his country and people. Tracing his life thus offers us some glimpses of his nation’s turbulent times for the past few decades – of our collective hopes, mistakes, tragedies and resilience.
Kasturi was born in another century in what now feels like an entirely different country. It was called Ceylon, a British colony, and the year was 1933.
Kasturi’s was a very ordinary life, which was mostly dedicated to education. But it was punctuated at various points by key events of his country and people. Tracing his life thus offers us some glimpses of his nation’s turbulent times.
At 15, as a schoolboy he walked to Colombo’s Torrington square to personally bear witness to Ceylon becoming independent (1948). The following day, he wrote the best essay in class in which he outlined high hopes and dreams for his now self-governing nation.
At 20, he entered the University of Ceylon and was among the first students to experience the newly established Peradeniya campus where he studied history and Sinhala language. From the scenic hills, he would see the political transformation of 1956, as well as the cultural revival heralded by Maname (landmark Sinhala drama) and Rekava (landmark Sinhala movie).
At 25, as a fresh graduate entering the world, he witnessed the 1958 ethnic riots that foreshadowed the Sinhala-Tamil ethnic conflict that consumed his nation for the next half century. Among much else, it evaporated young Kasturi’s dreams of an inter-racial marriage.
At 50, as a teacher and father, he saw the far worse anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983. For the next quarter century, he would watch in horror — and guilt — as his generation’s collective blunders consumed the next generation’s future.
At 76, as a senior citizen still active in social work and literacy circles, he saw Sri Lanka’s civil war being ended brutally (2009). He had the audacity to hope once more, even if only cautiously. And yet again, his and many others’ hopes were dashed as political opportunism and corruption soon trumped over true healing and nation building. The nation was polarised beyond recognition.
At 82, he voted for a common opposition candidate (January 2015) and for political parties (Aug 2015) who pledged good governance (yaha-palanaya). That was his last public gesture, after having voted at all national elections during his time, and having spent 25 years as a public servant. He played by all the rules, but was let down by the system.
At 84, as he coped with a corroding cancer, Kasturi watched in dismay the much-touted promise of yaha-palana being squandered and betrayed. On 13 September 2017, he departed as a deeply disappointed man who remained highly apologetic for many wrong-turns taken by his generation.
Kasturi isn’t a figment of my imagination. Neither is he a composite character. Until yesterday, Kasturi was all too real. He was my father, whom we returned to the Earth today at a simple funeral. – Nalaka Gunawardene