By Kelum Bandara/Daily Mirror
Thanks to the advent of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, there is an over-abundance of information available at the touch of a mouse or a button. However, there are merits and demerits in counting on social media platforms for information. The main disadvantage is the strong possibility of one being flooded with misinformation or disinformation.
This is dangerous in a crisis situation such as communal violence. Misinformation and even correct information can fan tension and the situation might spin out of control. So much so that the government had to block access to social media when communal violence broke out recently. That was to disrupt rumors.
In this context, the role of the traditional media becomes more and more relevant as a counter to false propaganda by vested interest through the social media. The traditional media being better organized and manned can ferret out truth from falsehood and disseminate information in the correct perspective for public consumption.
Countering disinformation and misinformation is a challenge not only for Sri Lanka but also for a host of countries.
Senior behavioral scientist from the United States Todd C. Helmus was in Sri Lanka to share his views on countering misinformation. He has specialized in terrorism, strategic communications and social media. His research also focuses on countering violent extremism with specific studies examining the networks of ISIS supporters and opponents on Twitter, identifying ways to enlist key influencers in support of US strategic communications and developing approaches to assess the impact of propaganda campaigns.
He had served as a deployed advisor to US commanders in Iraq (2008) and Afghanistan (2010-2011) and led studies on US efforts to train Afghan special operations forces.
In an interactive session with a select group of journalists during his recent stay in Sri Lanka, Helmus said countering misinformation is a challenge because people are sharing ‘false and vague’ content on social media. According to him, people sometimes do it with a purpose to advance their cause. Or else, they do it because content is really interesting and shareable.
As such he said journalists have a role to play in identifying factually correct information. According to him, it is an area where journalists are required to employ investigative journalism practices. Dissemination of truthful information should not be made a task to be fulfilled by journalists in the mainstream media only. Social media platforms should also play a role in this respect.
Asserting that Facebook is investing a lot of resources for content moderation, he said other social networks should also do it.
“It is important for Twitter and Social media to remove content that violate their own policies. They should provide tools for people to identify the truth,” he said.
Alongside, he cited the improvement of people’s media literacy and building fact-checking tools relevant to Sri Lanka as an effective means of countering misinformation and disinformation. He briefed journalists about how extremists are countered in the US.
“It is a localized approach. The US government does not conduct counter violence programs. They do not conduct messaging programmes. At the government level, they support community level organizations, nonprofit organizations, civil society and state and local governments to conduct programs in their own backyards.”
“But there have been several challenges in executing these program,” he said.
Responding to questions on countering Islamic terrorism in his country, he said it is a relatively small issue in the US.
“Civil society sometimes has stereotypes about the Muslim community. They may see it as a security threat. But Islamic terrorism is a relatively small issue in the US. 550 individuals have been arrested under terrorism charges. It is important for the US to communicate that it is not a Muslim problem,” Helmus said.
In countering extremist ideologies of any sort, he stressed the importance of securing the support of civil society within the community concerned.
“It is important to have civil society within the Muslim community speaking out against Islamic terrorism. The best messengers to counter such terrorism will be people from that community,” he said.
Responding to the allegation that the US is behind ISIS terrorism, Helmus said that he has only heard such an accusation, but has not come across credible evidence to prove it. He said the US is spending billions of dollars to fight the ISIS.
“There is only spending, no profit,” he quipped.
Asked about regulating social media, Helmus opined that social media should be regulated. The Sri Lankan authorities are also contemplating to enact legislation to regulate the activities of social media. Freedom of communication has become an essential requirement for people who need to share information, network, advertise and so on.
On the one hand, there is the right to freedom of speech. On the other hand, there is the need to disrupt the spread of misinformation and disinformation. In working out legislation to control social media, both aspects have to be considered and reconciled.