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.
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.
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.
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.
Some say that blogging is in decline and claim that the days are numbered for this art of web-based writing and sharing of all kinds of content. But not (yet?) in Sri Lanka’s local languages of Sinhala and Tamil, where vibrant blogospheres exist, sustaining their own subcultures and dynamics.
In this article (in Sinhala) written in April 2017 and published in Desathiya magazine of November 2017, I I look around the Sinhala language blogosphere in Sri Lanka, and offer a few glimpses on how the myriad conversations are unfolding. In that process, I also try to demystify blogs — about which popular myths and misconceptions persist in Lankan society (some of them peddled by the mainstream media or uninformed mass media academics).
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 my Ravaya column published in the printed edition of 6 May 2018, I look back at the long and illustrious career of Sri Lanka’s grand old man of the cinema, Lester James Peries (1919-2018) who died last week. As others assess his major contributions to the Sinhala cinema and in evolving an Asian cinema, I focus on his role as a public intellectual — one who wrote widely on matters of culture and society.
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.