The word is Russian, and comes from its intelligence services. The meaning isn’t hard to guess in English – disinformation. The phenomenon is global in scope and reach. There are now new, cutting-edge companies in the West, whose clients are powerful politicians across the world, employing disinformation campaigns to malign opponents, misdirect public attention, quell dissent, overwhelm critique, shut down social media accounts of critics, game elections and ultimately, gain or retain power. The causal link between sophisticated disinformation campaigns and the retention of political authority is murky only because the money trails and the technologies remain shrouded in secrecy. This is no longer a dark art – it is close to an exact science involving algorithms and other means that target individuals, marketing campaigns that focus on key constituencies and the use of psychological devices online, including sophisticated propaganda campaigns, to shift votes. We are used to war being kinetic – the use of weapons, singed tree-tops, soiled bodies and scarred landscapes. There are other wars today – for our attention, over what we hold true, believe in and indeed, choose to vote for. The main theatre for these wars is the media, sometimes as a pawn, sometimes as an active, willing participant. Newspapers, TV and radio stations in Sri Lanka, bought and owned by individuals linked to dubious financial deals or businessmen close to, or want to be close to government, are the easy examples. More insidious are campaigns over social media, which fewer understand the reach and impact of. For example, a website you are encouraged to connect to using your Facebook credentials that tells you how you will look like as you age, which Hollywood or Game of Thrones star you resemble the most, your key psychological traits or your most ideal partner amongst your friends could in fact be harvesting over a much longer period, without your knowledge, personal information in vast databases, outside of Facebook, that capture your likes, age, location, sex, political preferences, shopping habits, reading choices and other metrics. In the hands of a political campaign, this is a goldmine of information. Keen readers will know how this sort of information – called psychometric profiling – has already been used in the US, UK, France, Colombia and other countries, in key elections or referenda, to swing votes in favour for or opposed to candidates and ideas. This is coming to Sri Lanka as well, and we need to be prepared for it. A country with high adult literacy but very poor media and information literacy is ripe for the colonisation of the mind. As we move towards 2020, those who want to regain power, perhaps more than those who may want to retain power, will use these technologies and tactics to create noise, spectacle and confusion. Rarely if ever will they be used to inform, alert and truly engage. Civil society, which hardly ever demonstrates any meaningful understanding of new technologies and is imaginatively stuck in a mind-set anchored to placard holding street level activism and mainstream media based advocacy, will be hostage to sophisticated propaganda campaigns they don’t know even exist.
These are real challenges and they aren’t going away. I regularly engage with a number of individuals and institutions, largely outside of Sri Lanka, attempting to use new and social media to promote conflict transformation, democracy and human rights, who are keenly aware that even with the potential pitfalls and dangers, there are also real opportunities to non-violently accommodate difference, connect the unlike-minded and expose bias. In Kuching last week, at the inaugural Junior Chamber International (JCI) International Summit on Peace, discussions I led were anchored to communications, peacebuilding and governance. The focus was around how the technologies in the hands of so many today could be used to promote peace, rights and strengthen democratic governance. There were over one hundred countries represented at the conference. The participants were, at most, in their mid-thirties. They came with very different experiences of confronting or using media, politics, governance, activism and advocacy at national and local levels. Two points they all agreed on – social media played a central role in shaping public opinion today, and they all needed to catch up with those in power who used increasingly sophisticated means to capture public attention.
But catching up is the problem. A study of the manner in which content is published and disseminated over social media in Sri Lanka alone, by the BBS and groups aligned to it, is instructive. The worst dregs of our society, seem to be the best in promoting their ideology. The best ideas we have are lost in the resulting cacophony. The noise and violence deters many from participating. The viral nature of the content, produced by a few, suggests a wider appreciation. Moderate voices, who many well be in the majority, are silent or silenced. This in turn makes extremism more mainstream, and over time, fighting it harder. The means through which to identify and intervene in a timely, effective and sustained manner around content inciting hate produced in Sinhala is beyond the technical capabilities of leading social media platforms. For any company based in Silicon Valley, Sinhala is not a language of any consequence. All this is advantageous to disinformation campaigns in Sri Lanka, which can rely on around five million users on Facebook and millions more on WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook Messenger and Viber to often mindlessly share and promote sensational or even satirical content far removed from truth or fact. This is why media and information literacy programmes are essential, instead of what will be, I have no doubt, a mad rush towards investments in avant-garde marketing campaigns that try to outdo political rivals in their inability to snag the attention of voters, any way possible.
Teach a citizen to ask why, and you have a strong democracy. Compel a voter which way to vote, and you have a weak state.
Civil society needs to do more. There are no shortcuts. Recognising the danger of disinformation to colour the outcome of policymaking, electoral results and public opinion in general, urgent investments are needed to capture and retain young, driven staff who can engage creatively, effectively and proactively using social media. Management styles need to change too – centralised, bureaucratic organisations are anathema for iterative, adaptive and responsive advocacy campaigns. They will fail miserably.
Disinformation is a cancer, and it is growing. At home, disinformation can be curtailed by pausing, reflecting and before retelling or sharing in any way, asking if what one consumed is really credible, not just because it appeals to you, or sounds, looks or feels right. Search. Ask around. Even if to disagree, look out for differing opinions. Recognise that those who hold different values treat you with the same suspicion, and perhaps even hate, as you would hold them – and that they are also loving parents, doting grandparents, respectable leaders, pay their taxes, live in the same neighbourhoods, share the same country, and ultimately, are fellow citizens. Disinformation works best when deep socio-political divisions are present – by expanding them, seeding doubt, creating fear and othering. Completely relying on public and private institutions to save us from dezinformatsiya glosses over so much individual citizens can do to not be taken in by highly-developed propaganda. We all need to join this fight, because it is our future at stake.
First published in The Sunday Island, 10 September 2017.