The last presidential election took place in November 2019. According to a survey conducted by ‘Democracy Reporting International’:
Based on the 3,362 postings examined, activity on Facebook pages and groups surged between September and November 2019 by 310 percent and 226 percent, respectively, starting from when the dates for candidate nomination and election were revealed.
A lot of gossip was included into group and page messages, and it frequently included political information that was inaccurate or misleading.
Pages and groups that were active during the pre-election silent period included those that posted political information supporting or criticising candidates, as well as those that occasionally broke election laws.
In addition, posts containing unfavourable feelings directed against protected characteristics, such as ethnicity, religion, and race, were correlated with subjects relevant to religious and ethnic concerns, reconciliation, and government.
Both in favour of and against religious communities, primarily in favour of the Buddhist community and against the Hindu and Muslim communities, racist language and attitudes were utilised.
According to EU election observation mission 2019, even though the election was largely violence free, it was contrasted by a few accidents relating to divisive rhetoric, hate speed and disinformation in traditional and social media. Furthermore, the abuse of state resources and media bias affected the level playing field. The highest profile candidates, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa used cross platform electioneering tactics online, with official party pages adjoining third party sites that frequently served to discredit the opposing parties.
During the last presidential elections, Dr. Shafi Shihabdeen, who was the subject of several false comments and sterilising Sinhalese women, went viral that he was contesting through the People’s Force under number 18. In a short period of time, many Facebook users shared a post saying, “The cynical Hangman (Alugosua in Sinhala) who ”took away Sinhalese children of the country, is going ahead with Sajith Premadasa.”
Photo: False posts about Dr. Shafi going to contest in presidential election.
Furthermore, multiple Facebook posts claimed that Sri Lanka’s Elections Commission has announced a three-day social media ban around the country’s November 16, 2019 election. After the posts many people, including local politicians, expressed concern online over the purported ban. But the Facebook posts are misleading; the Election Commission chairman stated that reports of a social media ban were a “lie”; all major social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, were freely available in Sri Lanka on election day.
Photo: This November 12, 2019, Facebook post has an image of the logos of various social networks including WhatsApp and Facebook with a ‘BLOCKED’ stamp across the top.
The Sinhala-language caption says: “The Elections Commissioner has said that all social media platforms will be blocked on the three days of the election, and he furthermore advises users to download a VPN app.”
Despite the low number of shares per Facebook post, the misleading claim gained traction online, causing social media users — including local politicians — to express fears over the purported social media block.
|Prime actors: The presidential candidatesSecondary actors: third party social media users||Intent: suggests aspersive intent||The presidential candidates misused social media to manipulate voters access to factual information hence hindering them from making well informed voting decision.Truthfulness:The contents on social media was faked and misleading.Narrative: It is aligned with the disinformation narrative.||Target audience: Sri-Lankan populationPlatforms: Social media – Facebook & Twitter||Human rights:right to information, right to vote, freedom of expression, right of religious & ethnic minorities.|
ABCDE Framework Analysis:
Actor: It was the presidential candidates, mostly Gotabaya Rajapaksa that misused social media to spread disinformation during the 2019 election.
Behaviour: The actors were hiding and disguising their identity or actions through third party users in social media. Their act was manipulative. Along with their official pages, other pages were carrying out the disinformation campaign on their behalf.
Content: The content carried element of harm towards voters by manipulating them into making voting decision in favour of the actors. The content shared was deceptive. It can be aligned with the disinformation narrative.
Degree: The target audience was Sri Lankan population who were targeted through tailored content on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms.
Effect: The content violates right to information, right to vote, freedom of expression, right of religious & ethnic minorities.
Diagnosis: The Case has been identified as incident of disinformation.
Facebook is the most popular social media platform in Sri Lanka. Considering the widespread use of social media in the country, more and more public debates are taking place in these online forums. One negative consequence of this trend is the spread of misleading information and hate speech via social media, which puts strains on democracy and can result in tensions and violations of electoral regulations.
The condition of civil liberties and the room for civil society has always been precarious in Sri Lanka, as it is in many other nations. The efforts to enact new, severe legislation to restrict civil society and undermine fundamental freedoms in the guise of counterterrorism proceeded even under the previous administration, which was meant to be more supportive of civil society and the human rights agenda.
With the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the next president in November 2019, the situation deteriorated further. The majority of people, especially those in the Sinhala Buddhist community, backed his election campaign, which was based on the principles of Sinhala Buddhist dominance, a disciplined society, and improved national security. This outcome was seen as giving the government permission to curtail fundamental liberties and public space in the name of development and national security.