The election of the new President of the United States will result in a new dawn for investigative, independent journalism, globally. As fake news and alternatives facts command the attention of the West, and around up-coming elections for political office in Germany, France and elsewhere, the challenge of countering pervasive and sophisticated propaganda is not new. In Sri Lanka, the Presidential Election of 2015 brought to the fore how a sophisticated re-election campaign by the Rajapaksas was trumped (no pun intended) by a more chaotic, loosely knit yet responsive, guerrilla, adaptive communications campaign in support of the incumbent Sirisena. According to mainstream media reports early 2015, the Rajapaksa campaign spent well in excess of two billion rupees on the campaign, coming from various ministries and the President’s Office. This included billboards reminded voters of LTTE atrocities littered across Colombo and the country, posters, banners, clocks, mugs, TV spots, jingles, mass SMS’s, social media campaigns, radio spots, basically the whole programming line-up and news programming of State media, full page, full colour advertisements and inserts, stickers and other means. The sheer volume and velocity of production, combined with the vectors citizens were bombarded with this propaganda was unprecedented. But it is wasn’t entirely novel.
It was the BBS in Sri Lanka that led the way with fake news and alternative facts. Their mastery of whipping up public emotion through viral content blossomed under the previous regime. As with the US today, the result of fake news – and very likely the intent of those who produce it – is twofold. One, to convince those who have an uncritical appreciation of content they consume. The lack of media literacy helps. Sri Lankans, and as it turns out, the majority of voters anywhere, believe what they read, hear and see without hesitation or questioning. The interest in a fact-based election is often touted, but lacks empirical evidence – voters are swayed by emotion, not by appeals to reason and intellect. This brings us to the second more insidious intent of those who produce news and content that inflames, angers and misguides. It is to make voters lose faith in factual information, and that facts matters. Confronted with stories that are hard to determine the veracity of, with mainstream media that too often treats due diligence as optional, with the onslaught of information from social media, and the resulting chaos by way of a credible news agenda, voters are increasingly tuning out of debates on the importance of evidence based decision making, and instead becoming sceptical of all media and information, including that which is from established, reliable, professional and fact-checked sources and platforms. This in turn results in a reversion to more insular perspectives, derived from media sources that are followed by captive telegenics or content, habit or convenience. Entertainment and gossip remain the most engaged with media, while interest in progressive politics, combined with hopelessness and apathy, is low.
This is not the way it was supposed to be with the rise of social media, promising more open and accountable government, and governance that was more responsive to the needs of citizens. And yet, there is hope. In the US, the subscriptions of the New York Times, repeatedly attacked by the Trump administration, have soured. So-called hyperlocal media – media produced by and for local communities and neighbourhoods – is thriving. In Sri Lanka, new social and web media ventures like Staat, Roar and the just launched Blerd offer what mainstream media continues to marginalise – content that resonates with a demographic which doesn’t buy newspapers in print, watch TV at scheduled times, or listen to radio on airwaves. And aside from the vector, there is the difference in content. While the journalism models differ, all three offer prospective consumers, followers and fans content, from substance to presentation, that is not just appealing visually, but appealing to their interests and often too, to their intellect. There are new magazines being launched – from free print based ones dealing with lifestyle and travel, to others that will feature original writing and features on more serious issues. In the US, the media is openly fact-checking the Trump administration, admonishing it for nepotism, the lack of ethics, the lack of transparency, lack of basic competency, terrible policymaking, authoritarian strains and tellingly, terrible spelling. It is a remarkable departure from the previous eight years. It is also a revealing counterpoint to how media can and should react to political office and a government that cares little for the rule of law, separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary and democratic norms. In Sri Lanka, over the ten years of the Rajapaksa regime, we had a mainstream media largely supine and servile, pandering to the administration in order to secure and sustain ad revenue that kept all print media institutions afloat. There was no lampooning, no spoofs, no comedic critique, no real fact-checking. Stenography was promoted as journalism.
Despite well documented and researched promotion of inflammatory, racist content over social media in Sinhala, companies like Google and Facebook didn’t show the kind of interest they show now in the West, and for some years in countries like Burma, around curtailing hate speech, false news and also supporting counter-speech narratives. Those interested in critical commentary, bearing witness, fact-checking, and producing counter-narratives contesting the excesses of the regime were very alone, always over-worked, under-funded and under-attack.
The electoral result in the US changes the game. Just as in Sri Lanka a new generation of media is coming to life, authoritarianism and the rise of the right-wing exclusion in the West brings with it not just media that promotes divisiveness, but also (new) media ventures, technology collaborations, algorithmic improvements, better human curation and more generally, the greater availability of human resources and funding around innovation that supports a fiercely independent, creative, critical media. New journalism models will come about. More collaborative models around journalism will also blossom, that along with technological improvements around platforms and apps, will enable the flagging, curtailing and even removal of misleading, factually inaccurate, inflammatory content easier and closer to real time.
Can all these developments help with media literacy in Sri Lanka, which remains abysmal? Perhaps. Perhaps not. New media ventures continue to be commercial in nature and operations, opting mostly to continue to avoid, downplay or only in passing cover issues, persons and loci that can be seen as too ‘controversial’. Civic media initiatives are rare. Investigative reporting remains elusive. Funding around quality journalism also remains weak – journalism as a profession remains grossly underpaid, appealing only to the worst qualified or those, supported by other means, who intend to malign and mislead. Anchored to what roles the media will play in a post-factual world, we must plan for and invest in the future. Incubators for new journalism models, media literacy education from pre-school to University. New apps for collaborative storytelling on national issues, from local perspectives. The adaptation and adoption of new technologies for journalism, from drones to bots. A rise in the use of satire and humour to critique governance. Immersive virtual reality experiences, taking citizens to places where they wouldn’t go to or experience. New media ventures will prise open closed data despite government. RTI, still terribly paper and fax based, will in the months and years to come embrace more fully the potential of mobiles and the web. Supported by adequate funding, there will hopefully be new journalism hubs, bringing together statisticians, data evangelists, programmers, designers, urban planners, scientists, economists and researchers to support new models of journalism that question and cross traditional boundaries.
All this can be leveraged to spread harm and fear. All this can also be harnessed to capture resilience, facts, the lives of others and marginal narratives so important for justice, reconciliation and democracy. Signs of a rebellious, independent, innovative media culture already abound in the US, beyond just mainstream media. Since 2015 and a sea-change in the freedom of expression context, Sri Lankan media has yet to embrace the potential of what journalism can and should be. New media ventures are showing the way. One hopes others follow suit.
First published in The Sunday Island, 12 February 2017.