Editor’s Note: This discussion note was prepared in the run up to the Digital Disinformation Forum, held on June 26 and 27. Excerpts of this were used in a moderated discussion on the media’s efforts to build resilience to disinformation.
Fake news became a buzzword around the 2016 US Presidential election campaign. However, it’s something we have been grappling with in Sri Lanka for years. Fake news, is news created with the intent to deceive. However, the term has also been distorted over the years. Not only has it been used by people to dismiss news they don’t like, but it has also become confused with reporting that requires correction, as the Washington Post pointed out. In fact, saying something is ‘fake news’ doesn’t necessarily make it so – Trump himself often accuses entire publication houses as being fake.
To understand how and why fake news has been such a persistent problem in Sri Lanka, it’s necessary to understand a little about the political context. Sri Lanka is still recovering from nearly three decades of civil war that, among other issues along lines of language, land, ethnic politics, education and employment, has sowed deep and enduring divisions between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamil communities.
For decades, politicians have deliberately pandered to the Sinhala majority community and their needs in order to gain political mileage- from as back as 1956, when Prime Minister S W R D Bandaranaike passed the Sinhala Only Act, which made Sinhalese the official language of administrative service. In the run up to elections, politicians, news outlets and social media have all put out information designed deliberately to mislead.