A few days back, I received an email with a couple of pictures attached. At first glance it was clear this was a concocted ‘news’ item supposedly from the BBC. It had the BBC’s signature masthead. In almost six decades in journalism, I am quite used to receiving false and even unverifiable information. But this [...]


Dirty tricks that debase media


A few days back, I received an email with a couple of pictures attached. At first glance it was clear this was a concocted ‘news’ item supposedly from the BBC. It had the BBC’s signature masthead.

In almost six decades in journalism, I am quite used to receiving false and even unverifiable information. But this so-called ‘news’ item was not only blatantly false but its content was truly distasteful and disturbing. It left a foul taste in the mouth.

It was despicable because it claimed that the prime minister of Sri Lanka was in intensive care in a private hospital with “worsening” symptoms of coronavirus. It showed a person lying on a bed with tubes from medical equipment attached to the person whose face at first glance, had a faint resemblance to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.

He was said to be in a private hospital and it quoted an unnamed spokesman as saying that Prime Minister Rajapaksa was moved there on the advice of his medical team. One did not have to be a journalist acquainted with the BBC, some of its leading media figures from way back and its operational style to figure that what was passed off as a BBC news report was a crude piece of work of a novice that would not have got past the first ‘gate keeper’ with such rubbish.

Even Mr Rajapaksa’s name was spelt as Rajapakshe, a mistake that the BBC would never have made, particularly over the spelling of a name that has been familiar to journalists for many decades.

Some might remember that some days before former foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera passed away of Covid there was an item that circulated in social media that he had died of the infection and it had to be denied.

What kind of depraved minds would resort to concocting such obviously fake news that plays with life and death using a raging pandemic to sow anxiety and concern among people? It was a nauseating misuse of a means of modern communication that could and should be employed for productive social purposes than spreading the falsities contained in this message.

One could understand if the person or persons responsible for this crass falsification detest politics and politicians or the particular politics that Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family represent. There might be justification if people’s animus and even wrath are directed at what is perceived to be questionable policies, nepotism and an assault on democratic rights and freedoms.

But that is not what is under attack here. Rather it is a deliberate act of misinformation. To use the spread of a dangerous virus in which hundreds of people have died and are dying, where families are grieving at the loss of their dear ones, when differences of opinion on how to contend with and control the pandemic lie at the heart of an on-going debate raising more anxieties and fears, is surely condemnable and should be rejected vehemently.

One of the reasons for the spread of social media worldwide is the growing disaffection and even disgust, with politics. Many people around the world have had little say in the shaping of politics in their respective countries because their views are shunned by the ruling classes or their voices have been stilled by illegitimate or dubious means.

There are several examples to illustrate how social media contributed to fuelling popular uprisings that led to regime change. Governments are keen to curb the spread and use of social media as it helps dissenting voices to be heard not only at home but beyond a country’s frontiers and in real time.

Space limitations do not permit an elaboration. Suffice to say that what was interpersonal communication decades earlier have now turned into ever-widening circles of communication as the recipient of a message or a purported item of news transmits it to his or her circles of friends, colleagues and acquaintances within seconds or minutes.

Such spontaneous amplification of messages gives social media an advantage that traditional media including TV do not have even with interruptions to regular programmes with “breaking news”. It is the enormous national and global reach of social media that can alert millions in seconds that worries governments, especially authoritarian regimes, keen to put a lid on dissent.

We know that social media takes different forms — satirizing news, fabrication, manipulation, parodying of news and personalities, advertising and propaganda. But what we have encountered here is much worse.

By misusing a valuable means of communication and a voice that needs to be heard above the suppressive and repressive acts of authoritarianism, some manipulators of social media are doing more damage to the entire gamut of watchdog journalism.

Those who would wish to control the media and neutralise its critical voices find the abuse of social media by the spread of misinformation and disinformation highly useful weapons to conflate these abuses with the traditional media.

What motivates some to manipulate the online public sphere, as the creator of that piece of disgusting fake news concerning Mahinda Rajapaksa has done, is hard to say. But the danger in such despicable ventures is that traditional journalism is tarnished with the same brush reserved for those cranky minds who abuse social media that could serve as strong tool in ensuring that governments fulfill their social contract with the people.

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard before working in London for Gemini News Service. Later he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London).


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