As the call for the resignation of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa becomes stronger as a result of rising food and gasoline costs, so too do internet influence operations that aim to tamper with the legitimacy of the demonstrations. Numerous Facebook sites and proxy accounts connected to the Rajapaksa family are disseminating memes to undermine the massive protests.
These pages are creating meme-based counter-narratives that blame the opposition party leaders for the current situation.
The #GoHomeGota demonstrations are being reframed in Sinhala-language memes as an effort to destabilise the nation by “foreign” forces. (On April 3, after widespread protests, the government decided to impose a 15-hour ban on WhatsApp and other social media platforms.)
Dr. Sanjana Hattotuwa, a disinformation researcher, has been examining 2,800 pages, groups, and websites since 2018 to learn how Sri Lanka’s First Family uses social media for propaganda purposes. The majority of the information published on Facebook, the most widely used social media site, was hate speech directed towards Tamils and Muslims, two minority groups.
Hattotuwa said that this time around, there has been a change in the nature of communications. If I had to sum it up in a single line, Hattotuwa remarked, “the emphasis of the pages is to redirect attention and fury away from the First Family, whereas in the past it was to provoke hate, hurt, and harm towards a specific population.”
A video uploaded by Sri Lankan actress Yureni Noshika that purportedly urges #GoHomeGotta demonstrators to be cautious while cautioning them about a planned effort to fracture the demonstration stands out as an emblem of this “narrative manipulation.” The article criticises a former army commander for setting up phoney accounts and using money to stifle demonstrations.
|Prime actors: The Rajapaksa familySecondary actors: anonymous social media users, fake accounts.||Intent: suggests aspersive intent||Hundreds of proxy accounts and Facebook pages associated with the Rajapaksa family publishing memes to discredit the mass protests over economic crisis.Truthfulness:The content was faked.Narrative: It is aligned with the disinformation narrative.||Target audience: Sri-Lankan populationPlatforms: Social media – Facebook & Twitter||Human rights:right to information freedom of expression, right of religious & ethnic minorities.|
ABCDE Framework Analysis:
Actor: Fake accounts and fake users in Social Media platforms were involved in producing and engaging with the suspected disinformation. It was the Rajapaksa family attempting to discredit the ongoing protest that has been engineered by a cluster of pages linked to the family,” Hattotuwa told me.
Behaviour: Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa family wants to weaponize social media to its benefit. On Facebook, the most popular social platform, much of the shared content was hateful speech targeting minority Muslims and Tamils. Many fake users were involved on their behalf.
Content: The accounts and pages carried element of harm against Muslims and Tamils as well as against mass people protesting the economic crisis. The accounts were deceptive and false. It also fit into the disinformation narrative.
Degree: The content was targeted against people protesting, Muslims and Tamils Social media platforms were used to distribute the content.
Effect: The content violates right to information freedom of expression, right of religious & ethnic minorities.
Diagnosis: The Case has been identified as incident of disinformation.
Sri Lanka expects to run out of fuel in days, prompting the government to close schools in Colombo and order government employees to work from home, while troops handed tokens to people lining up for petrol to keep their places in the queue.
Sri Lanka is suffering its worst economic crisis in seven decades, with foreign exchange reserves at a record low and the island of 22 million struggling to pay for essential imports of food, medicine and, most critically, fuel.
Amongst the economic crisis, there is significant use of social media by Rajapaksa family. The said family disseminated disinformation to target a particularly Muslim and Tamil community and at the same time, downplay the protest against their incompetence.