Fake news rampant during cooling-period | Sunday Observer

Fake news rampant during cooling-period

Polls officials carry sealed ballot boxes at the conclusion of yesterday’s Presidential election to the counting centre at Royal College, Colombo.     Pix: Sulochana Gamage
Polls officials carry sealed ballot boxes at the conclusion of yesterday’s Presidential election to the counting centre at Royal College, Colombo. Pix: Sulochana Gamage

Despite presidential candidates and their parties ending their campaigns on Wednesday, the volume of fake news that is seen circulating on social media and, more worryingly, aired on national television channels and spread on their official news alert systems saw a strategic hike.

Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) debunked a news release stating a hike in flour prices, the Embassy of the United States in Colombo made a statement that a video depicting an American official speaking about presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa was doctored, and a minister flagged a ‘fake letter’ that was circulating regarding a survey conducted on elections, as authorities tried in vain to tackle misinformation and disinformation from spreading during the election ‘cooling-period’.

The impact of fake news has already settled in. When Sunday Observer spoke to potential voters on Friday (15), they expressed their concern about the flour price increase - a falsehood spread by media outlets that are known for their alignment with a key presidential candidate.

First the news outlets claimed that flour prices will increase by midnight on Friday and later quoted Bakery Owners’ Association that said there was no such plan.

Minister of Finance Mangala Samaraweera said that the government did not take such a decision. He said the Cost-of-Living Committee appointed by the Cabinet and the CAA have to approve an increase of this sort.

The minister added that action will be taken against anyone who sells flour higher than the current price. He has also asked the National Election Commission (NEC) to take action against the two television channels for spreading disinformation.

Meanwhile, Spokesperson of the Embassy of the United States in Colombo Nancy VanHorn said that the video that was circulating on social media - where an American official appears to be addressing issues pertaining to Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’s presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s citizenship issue - was doctored.

Chairman of the NEC said, during a press conference on Wednesday (13), that this was the most partisan media behavior he has seen thus far. He said the objective of these media outlets was to ensure the victory of the presidential candidate they are partial towards.

Social media platforms were tainted with fake news, some users spreading them and others flagging them as false, during the cooling period.

Sri Lanka Police headquarters announced that a report allegedly issued by State Intelligence Service, that was going viral, was false.

The debunked report was dated November 2, and addressed to President Maithripala Sirisena, regarding a survey said to be conducted by State Intelligence Service on the presidential elections. The Criminal Investigations Department (CID) will conduct an investigation into the issue.

Minister of Mass Media Ruwan Wijewardene took to Twitter regarding the report stating, “Fake letter of Intelligence survey to be investigated.”

Sri Lanka Young Journalists’ Association (SLYJA) has also written to the NEC Chairman and Inspector General of Police regarding the state intelligence report. The Association’s committee member Tharindu Jayawardhana states it “impacts free and fair poll to be conducted tomorrow (16)”.

Reflecting on the matter, Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) National Coordinator Manjula Gajanayaka said hate speech targeting some politicians was shared widely on social media sites. Content of some of these posts revolved around the erroneous page one articles that appeared on an English newspaper, and its sister Sinhala newspapers, regarding a statement made by Tamil National Alliance parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran.

Despite Sumanthiran refuting the news articles and urging the NEC and Inspector General of Police to investigate them under the ICCPR Act, posts about the newspapers’ claims are still widely circulating.

Gajanayake said this was problematic. “The Chairman of the Election Commission is doing everything he can to stop fake news from spreading, but it is still a huge problem,” he said, adding that action can be sought against such fake news spreaders even after the election is over.

Meanwhile, Chief Executive Officer of Verité Research, Dr. Nishan de Mel stressed that this was not just an election issue but a ‘deeper problem’ and people have lost the ability to trust the news.

SLYJA and Youth for Democracy have lodged over 6,000 complaints with the NEC against social media posts that publicize fake news, hate speech and instances where state workers have promoted political candidates.

The European Union (EU) Election Observation Mission (EOM) that is in the country to monitor the election will also pay attention to the spread of fake news.