‘Controlling media through law outdated’ | Sunday Observer

‘Controlling media through law outdated’

Learning from past experience, the Elections Commission is now gearing to explore possible avenues of combating violations of election law through the use of social media, especially during the upcoming election season.

Chairman Elections Commission Mahinda Deshapriya firmly believes that there is no rationale to block social media platforms during an election with the hope of preventing misinformation or hate speech.

“Current society is of the view that voting is an extension of the right to express. But, it’s important to curb the use of social media to share misinformation and making hateful statements against candidates during the campaign period,” he said.

According to him, voting is an extension of the freedom of expression also achieved through social media. It is because of this that the Commission intends to hold discussions early next month with party representatives, civic groups and individuals to see how best this challenge can be met. The Commission will also seek the assistance of Sri Lankan observation organizations, social network operators, IT specialists and foreign resource persons involved in the election process to assist it. The Commission is hopeful that it can issue guidelines where parties and other relevant groups such as private media organizations and independent journalists, can abide by.

Deshapriya said that in formulating a program they will look to lessons learnt by other countries and go for the best option.

He is of the view that controlling media or social media through law is outdated.

“There are laws set in place to control state media. The Elections Commission will extend a request to other private media entities and journalists to uphold guidelines and exercise self-censoring or campaigning more responsibly. The Commission also believes that private media will fall in line with the said guidelines,” he said.

The Chairman said that the Commission does not have the power to control other social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook and that no country in the world has been able to prevent misuse of social media during elections.

Drawing attention to the most recent examples of India and Indonesia he said that the approach taken by Indonesia was not a complete success while India’s was a complete failure.

According to the Chairman of the Commission, India at certain instances opted to completely block social media which did not result in any positive curbing and was considered to be disastrous.

Postings on Facebook is not only done by locals but also Sri Lankans around the world, who are engaged on the topic of elections. This includes persons from countries such as South Korea, the Middle East, Italy, Australia, England, US and Canada, where past experiences show they were involved in unethical campaigning.

Attempts to block Facebook have been futile. It should be pointed out that blocking should not be considered an option, as users still manage to circumvent the embargo through the use of VPNs. Deshapriya said that Facebook has also informed the Commission of a regulatory body for such activities.

According to social media analyst Nalaka Gunawardene what is important in controlling the menace is to rapidly identify such content and minimize it going viral.

He points out that merely getting political parties to ensure their supporters will exercise the use of social media in a responsible manner will not suffice, mainly due to its impracticality.

“It’s very difficult even if political parties and all the contesting parties were to commit to responsible social media use. There can still be the unattached individuals who could spread misinformation and hate speech and so on,” Gunawardene said.

While pointing out that the key platforms where Sri Lanka is concerned are Youtube, Facebook and Instagram, he said the best option is for the Commission to work with the platforms themselves.

According to Gunawardene it is essential to find out centrally from the platform’s administration site howthe Commission can corporate in terms of minimizing the spread of misinformation and hate speech.

Despite the administrators being equipped with necessary tools issue arise when the platforms lack the local knowledge, the local language and understanding to spot this problematic content rapidly enough.

This is where a kind of alliance between some civil society groups and platforms could help.

“Civil society, assuming it is politically independent and nonpartisan, could help in rapidly spotting hate speech and misinformation especially in Sinhala and Tamil to alert the platform administrators of trending and viral content that can cause problems and ask the platforms to play it down. Because once content is identified as problematic they can contain it going viral,” he said.

It is with this intention that meetings with the Elections Commission will take place with a view to ‘working out on some arrangement that allows full freedom of expression to citizens during election times that does not contain their freedoms but at the same time gets some sort of rapid response arrangement in place’.

Reflecting on the influence of social media on shaping the decision of voters National Coordinator, Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) Manjula Gajanayake said social media was a crucial factor that determined the outcome of the 2015 Presidential Elections. However, in 2015 although social media was used as a positive tool that situation has drastically changed in the present time and day.

“Now we see more misinformation and hate speech being spread through social media platforms,” he said.

As a result, the CMEV has built a plan to tackle three-key issues they are foreseeing during the upcoming elections.

This includes tracking of election expenditure by candidates, violence against women in elections, and tackling misinformation and hate speech on social media.

The last, Gajanayake said, is the tricky area. This is because there is no proper mechanism to stop misinformation or hate speech from spreading on social media platforms.

CMEV hopes to work closely with the Election Commission to monitor and flag any misconduct online.

“We won’t be able to set up a comprehensive social media monitoring program for this Presidential Election. We can monitor pages used by key political figures and take necessary action if there are violations,” Gajanayake said.

He also added that the CMEV has received information that Sri Lanka politicians are already working with Russian technologists to promote their political campaigns.

Meanwhile, Information and Communication Technology Agency of Sri Lanka (ICTA)’s Chairman Prof. Rohan Samarajiva said there needs to be a strategy where private parties such as the platform operators take individual action to take down a certain post if it violates laws than having the government to react.

“The government will have to go through legal procedures whereas the platform operators can act quickly,” Prof. Samarajiva added. He explained the two ways in which countries monitor misinformation. One way is for the government to proactively monitor all sites and the other is to wait for complaints and then take action.

“A proper mechanism needs to be in place to make the complaints,” he said.

While understanding that the challenges are enormous because so many people could be producing content in not just Sinhala and Tamil but in images in memes in a mix of emojies and texts, so spotting it all in real time or near real times is quite a challenging task.

Just like in the past there had been election monitors looking out for violations of election laws in the physical world to see if public property is being misused, is there election violence, are there other violations of election clauses in terms of meetings rallies, house to house visits and so on.

Now the same concept needs to be extended to cyber space where human volunteer monitors can monitor and rapidly report and work with the Election Commission and the platforms to do something about it.

Prof. Samarajiva although optimistic of facing the challenge at hand still feels that “It needs to be tied up and consolidated.”