The Truth Square – Trapping Disinformation

Sri Lanka’s emerging politicians are bucking a trend and uniting in a campaign to fight disinformation in the lead-up to parliamentary elections.

Parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka are around the corner and in a significant development a few young politicians have crossed party lines and come together to fight fake news during the campaign. The politicians are a part of NextGenSL, and are supported in this endeavour by the Network Against Disinformation (NAD), a loose collective of media professionals and civil activists.

Misinformation, disinformation and mal-information are very much part of any political campaign around the world these days. In Sri Lanka, internet penetration is just above 30 per cent and television is at 96%.  Most TV and radio stations are owned by private entities.

In the recently concluded presidential election, social media and privately owned popular TV stations played a major role in spreading disinformation and disrupting the messages of the candidates. In fact, in a country where past elections were fought amidst physical violence and ballot stuffing, recent electoral reforms have helped change that culture. That has been replaced by violence of a different kind; character assassination and fake news that boggles the minds of media consumers.  

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa won by a landslide.  This is not to say that government controlled State media did not contribute towards spreading disinformation, but private and social media favouring the President, outdid State media by far.

In Colombo, on February 27th,  young politicians of the three main political parties,  the United National Party (UNP),  Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, (JVP) launched ‘The Truth Square – Trap Disinformation’, through their alliance ‘NextGenSL’.

The initiative has the blessings of the Election Commission, which complained during the Presidential election in November last year, that it does not have the legislative teeth to fight the disinformation spread particularly by private media organisations. While State media came under fire by the EC on occasion, private media simply got away with whatever fake news they put out.

The urgent need to fight this trend and ensure voters are able to make their decision on fact based information was discussed at a multi-stakeholder consultation titled ‘Stakeholder Dialogue on Countering Disinformation during Election Times”.   Held mid-February and facilitated by International Media Support (IMS), the fact that the NAD was formed and that NextGenSL launched ‘The Truth Square – Trap Disinformation’ in just under ten days of the meeting, is indicative of how crucial both groups consider the need to ‘trap disinformation’ in Sri Lanka.

Parliamentary elections are expected to be held by late April this year, and NAD is currently working out the nitty-gritty of monitoring fake information.  News, Talk Shows, and the breakfast shows which discuss the day’s newspapers will be monitored as will social media, with assistance from the ‘#generation’, and a host of volunteers. All reports will be vetted by experts drawn from the media and academic fields and presented weekly to the Election Commission for appropriate action as well as to the public. 

Kick-off is nominations day of the parliamentary election.