Corona pandemic

Urgent shift from election debunking to Covid-19 for Sri Lanka fact checkers

Originally set up to fact check election stories, a Sri Lankan network of stakeholders against disinformation quickly re-grouped to take on the task of debunking false claims about COVID-19

By Kshama Ranawana, NAD Documentalist

The Network Against Disinformation (NAD) was all set and ready to go. Trial runs were being carried out by fact-checkers in readiness for the parliamentary election campaign set to kick off on March 12th.  That was the first day, would-be parliamentarians were scheduled to start handing in their nominations to the Election Commission.

The Network Against Disinformation is a loose network of stakeholders working to curb election related disinformation. The structure is new; in fact its only about a month ago since IMS initiated a multi stakeholder consultation where politicians, members of the Election Commission and the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, top government officials, media and civil society activists discussed the need to counter disinformation during election campaigns. During discussions the Chairman of the Election Commission made a special request for help in identifying and debunking disinformation during elections. No time was lost; by the time the meeting closed the IMS Sri Lanka team had mobilised fact checkers, media monitors, young politicians across party lines and experts to help the Election Commission – in fact, NAD was formed within 24 hours.

Within days, a parallel process was put into action to brief potential donors and several embassies came on board. Meanwhile the Election Chief officially recognised the Network as his official channel on identifying and debunking disinformation. 

And then, COVID-19 raised its ugly head in Sri Lanka. Granted, the first COVID-19 patient was detected in late January; but that was a Chinese tourist, who was released from hospital after recovery mid-February.  Since then for all intents and purposes, Sri Lanka seemed to be free of the virus.

Even though the possibility of catching the virus was ever-present, Sri Lanka’s political parties went about their preparations for the election scheduled for April 25th.

Then, a tour guide who had been working with a group of Italians was struck down by the virus.  That was March 10th and COVID-19 became the main topic in mainstream and social media. And with it came the rumors and disinformation.

The Network Against Disinformation lost no time in taking on this added responsibility.  The team moved in seamlessly to fact check and clarify stories aboutCOVID-19 and for the first several days, stories on both COVID-19 and the impending election were being monitored.

But now the election has been postponed indefinitely as the country fights the spread of COVID-19.  With that, NAD, too, took a collective decision to postpone monitoring of election related disinformation until a new election date is announced. But the team volunteered to work on, fighting against COVID-19 related disinformation.

So, for the present NAD is busy checking out stories related to the virus.  Though no reports are presented to mainstream media or to the health authorities, messages appearing on WhatsApp, Twitter, FB etc. which seem suspicious are forwarded by team members to the fact-checkers for clarification and corrections shared with all contacts so that any disinformation about COVID-19, is, as far as possible debunked. As well, NAD is working closely with government information mechanisms and law enforcement agencies to assist their debunking efforts on a case by case basis.

The consultations on election disinformation were supported by the Canadian High Commission in Sri Lanka.