Fighting misinformation

Upon a Sleepless Isle’, the astonishingly good new book by Andrew Fidel Fernando has a vital lesson for new and generally excitable students of misinformation in Sri Lanka. Countering the spread of rumour, from the risible to the inflammable, is all the rage. The focus and framing are largely on Facebook as well as WhatsApp, but the general debate is fuelled by vague concepts like social media, which covers all manner of political, partisan and personal agendas. The net result is misinformation framing debates on misinformation, which the reader will agree isn’t entirely helpful. Fernando’s book, better than most, captures the essence of the problem in our country. Early on, there is a hilarious but deeply incisive description of a corner shop in Dehiwela the author grew up with and hasn’t changed over the years. I know of and still frequent its equivalent in Ratmalana. We all have this corner shop, wherever in the country we live. As Fernando notes,

“What the shop genuinely does a booming trade in is gossip… News spreads at incredible speeds through this network. If an affair has been discovered anywhere within a 50-kilometre radius, the tantalising details, within hours, will have been served up, digested, and regurgitated at the store.”

The village well. The Sunday pola. Temple grounds on a Poya day, under shade of Bo tree or in shadow of stupa. Galle Face grounds. From bath-kade to buffet, bus to Benz, Cargills to Church, mendicant to millionaire, Sri Lanka’s great glue is gossip. The marketplace of gossip, filled with imagined scandal and salacious, is on the front page of daily newspapers, in the Hansard, often defines a politician’s dais and increasingly, reflected in saffron sermon. Gossip transcends class, caste, community and city. Fernando’s corner shop and all similar corner shops dotted across the country are key nodes in what some call ‘hyper-local news’ – the stuff that’s important to a neighbourhood. The news is highly decentralised, but on occasion – if the scandal is sufficiently gory, deviant or high-profile – binding across geography. Fernando finely details the great theatre of partaking in gossip without actively acknowledging that it was the central reason to visit corner shop. And this is precisely gossip’s enduring lure, for which the German’s have a word – schadenfreude. The pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune. Is this not why so many visits to the corner shop are required, and why even as we decry its publication, the gossip on front page is read and then with nudge, wink or prefaced by a conspiratorial ‘here?’, passed on to others?

To focus on Facebook and social media alone as sources of misinformation is bound to fail. Since March 2018, when Digana was still burning, I have studied close to 400 of Sri Lanka’s most popular gossip pages on Facebook. There are hundreds more – too much to keep track of and an overkill for my doctoral research, which is anchored to understanding how this tsunami of truly terrible content finds ready reception. One obvious reason is that the country has a high adult literacy, without a comparably high media literacy, which is measured by the degree to which the media consumed is questioned or engaged with critically. Very often, what one reads online – whether from known or unknown, trusted or new, individual or institutional, domestic or foreign source – is immediately liked and shared, as a reflex reaction. This is the digital equivalent of the corner shop’s capture of customer imagination by tall tale, told with enough lunu and miris to make it entirely fascinating to engage with. Readers will know exactly what I mean because we have all heard it. I confess that I love it – there is nothing quite like a good gossip session when buying something entirely unnecessary. And herein lies the rub researchers in the West are only now discovering the complexity of – gossip is inherently interesting. It sticks. It is engaging in ways facts often are – in the way they are captured and told – not. The digital dynamics of gossip, from the benign to malevolent by design – are founded on centuries of rumour-mongering in society. Modern neuroscience attests to how much we are conditioned, unconsciously and from womb, to stimuli and society around us. The weaponisation of misinformation – by mainstream media in Sri Lanka to political campaigns – feeds off this, and pervasive vectors of content dissemination unavailable a few years ago.

Which brings me to why I’m deeply sceptical about the purely technocratic approaches to fighting the worst misinformation, intended to inflame or exacerbate violence, promote hate or slowly, but methodically, undermine trust in institutions and democratic processes. All this is already present in Sri Lanka and will get worse. The burden of pushing back however, relies on the producers of this content, as well as those who engorge it. There is no data, from anywhere in the world, which suggests that by the numbers, misinformation when corrected, or debunked, is even remotely as successful at spreading or seeding the imagination. The data I have from Sri Lanka over the past 7 days alone – a relatively slow news week where President Sirisena didn’t say or do something uncharacteristically democratic, intelligent or progressive to fuel gossip above normal levels – 400 odd gossip pages on Facebook had close to 4.3 million interactions. In comparison, 27 pages of major political party pages managed 29,000 interactions and the cluster of 177 politicians I track, around 452,000 interactions. An interaction on Facebook is a like, share or comment. The way so many on Facebook see and engage with society or politics is defined by what gossip they consume, and I suspect, believe in. No amount of poster, infographic or purely digital fact-checking and debunking stands a chance in denting this market of imagined event and fiction, framed as fact.

Fundamentally, we now ask those who have not grown up with learning to question what they hear in the corner shop, to now become invested in ascertaining veracity online. We expect them to do reverse image searches, consult multiple sources, look into the provenance of news and look at metadata. If you don’t know what any of this even means, much less how to do it, you’re not alone. The burden of editorial framing has shifted, and now lies in part with the agenda and interests of producer and also with consumer, and their points of reference, technical competence, and interest in facts. Gossip to date operates on the basis of story-telling, with the story-teller’s prowess in large part responsible for how much something sticks in memory and mind. Consumers and readers used to this and a news landscape where TV, radio or newspaper – in tactile or broadcast formats – were trusted to deliver the news, are now asked to actively act as agents of truth-seeking. The change is akin to asking someone who doesn’t cook, and has only ever eaten pre-prepared meals, to go into the kitchen and make lunch or dinner. One is used to savouring what another has prepared. It isn’t easy to suddenly become a chef.

Misinformation isn’t about the data one has, which is relatively easy to horde and crow about. The data will tell you things about dynamics and drivers, but nothing about why themes and topics are originally viral. Who the producers are. How stories that start offline in a corner shop find their way to front page, prime time broadcast, or spread across hundreds of pages on Facebook, dozens of videos on YouTube, hundreds of tweets and invisible to everyone save for those in them, innumerable private groups on Viber. Academics call this complex media eco-systems. Complex, because they are dynamics impossible to grasp fully. Eco-systems because disparate apps and platforms, within and between language groups, fertilise each other’s rumours.

As we head into the campaigns anchored to the Presidential elections, corner shops of Fernando’s description will sell more gossip and rumour than toothpaste or Milo packets. Understanding gossip’s revered role and relevance in our society can help better engineer ways that misinformation online can be, at the very least, stemmed, in ways that don’t rely on the interest of or investments in time and effort by consumers to discover fact. Gossip works because there’s little to no friction in accessing and sharing it. Countering misinformation is, as a transaction, too much of an effort for most. Until that changes, what I see on social media will grow, and married with rich cultures of rumour offline, define how Sri Lanka’s see their country.

But here? You won’t believe the data I’m seeing around a particular politician in the UNP ah.


First published in The Sunday Island, 21 July 2019.

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