Calls mount to regulate social media during election period in SL

By Rifthi Ali

For the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya candidate and media spokesperson, Uma Chandra Prakash, election-time fake news, especially disinformation on social media, is a tightrope walk with victory on one side and defeat on the other.

“I was defeated in the last parliamentary elections due to fake propaganda directed at me on social media, including Facebook,” she said, still reeling over the injustice done to her.

Contesting from Jaffna District, Chandra Prakash obtained 13,000 votes in the parliamentary elections held in 2020.

“If I had received a few thousand more votes, I would have been a Parliamentarian today. All my chances were quashed because of the false campaign carried out against me on Facebook,” she said.

Chandra Prakash said she filed a complaint with the Police, but lamented they had not still acted on it.

The 2020 elections were held in accordance with Health Ministry guidelines aimed at controlling the spread of Covid-19.

“Due to the false propaganda on Facebook, I was prevented from campaigning for three crucial weeks. I was branded a Covid patient and quarantined without testing positive,” she said.

Her story bears a striking resemblance to the electoral blow suffered by Sri Lanka’s main Tamil party, the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi, in the Ampara District, where Tamils make up 17 per cent of the population and the Tamil-speaking Muslims 44 per cent.

The party, which won one seat in the 2015 General Elections, returned empty-handed in 2020 and this was largely because of a hate campaign carried out on Facebook, said T. Kalaiyarasn, the party’s National List Parliamentarian.

For the past two decades, the party had been winning a seat in the district to represent the Tamil community, but a Facebook hate campaign damaged the coexistence and friendship between the Tamil and Muslim communities in the district, costing the party the Muslim votes and the seat, the MP said.

These were not isolated incidents. During the last General Elections, social media-based disinformation campaigns were a major challenge for the Election Commission.

With Local Council Elections scheduled to be held in March, once again fake news and election law violations via social media have become a serious concern for election officials and poll monitors.

About 82,000 candidates contesting for 8,771 seats in 339 local councils have already begun their campaigns for the elections which are also being seen as a referendum of sorts to assess the support for the Government’s policies in handling the economic crisis.

In Sri Lanka, social media-based election campaigns began with the 2010 presidential election. The two main candidates, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka, used social media platforms Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr for their campaigns.

But analysts believe that the social media campaign did not have a major impact on the campaign of either candidate.

However, the destructive power of social media was visible during the anti-Muslim riots in Digana in the Kandy District in 2018 and in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday terror attacks in 2019. The incendiary content was toxic, so much so, the Government had to impose a social media blackout. A year later, Facebook offered a public apology for its failure to remove hate speech and disinformation that led to the 2018 riots.

The 2019 presidential election saw a massive leap forward in the use of social media for election campaigning. Even during the 48-hour cooling-off period before election day, election campaigns continued on social media along with advertisements.

The social media abuse prompted local and foreign election observers to recommend measures to regulate social media during election time.

Accordingly, the Election Commission (EC) introduced media guidelines prior to the parliamentary elections campaign in 2020, in keeping with powers vested in it by Article 104B(5)(a) of Sri Lanka’s Constitution.

Although the guidelines primary focus was on the print and electronic media, Paragraph 33 stated, “It shall also be the responsibility of the administrators of social media sites and owners of Cable Television channels to follow these guidelines as applicable to them, during the period of an election.”

Additional Election Commissioner B.P.C. Kularatne, who is in charge of legal and investigation matters, said media organisations could not be controlled or restricted through these guidelines. “But media organisations are obliged to follow these guidelines.”

He said the EC had observed that some electronic media organisations had violated the instructions in the guidelines, but the Commission had no authority to take legal action against them.

The main reason for this lapse is that no provision has yet been set out specifically on the potential action that can be taken for violating these guidelines.

Having observed this shortcoming, Cabinet has directed the Legal Draftsman’s Department to draft a Bill to make any violation of the media guidelines an election offence.

As an additional measure, the EC also tied up with Facebook in collaboration with PAFFREL (People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections) and Hashtag Generation in the 2020 parliamentary elections.

According to the EC, over 5,000 Facebook posts were identified as violating the election rules during the monitoring activity. Facebook was notified about these violations for necessary action, but it took several hours to remove the harmful content.

In the absence of a law to regulate social media during election time, no legal action could be taken against those who posted offensive posts on Facebook.

However, to deal with future violations, the EC continues its discussions with social media platforms, including Facebook, and other stakeholders such as the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC), the Media Ministry and the Police.

PAFFREL Executive Director Rohana Hettiarachchi said a mechanism to regulate election campaigns through social media was essential, but it should be done in such a way that it would not affect the freedom of expression.

“Our social media monitoring activity during the last parliamentary election did not yield results as we expected. However, it was successfully controlled during the cooling-off period,” he said.

“Facebook deleted only those posts that violated its policy. But, we feel Facebook should remove all posts that violate the election laws of a country immediately,” Hettiarachchi said.

Social media expert, Dr. Sanjana Hattotuwa said he believed regulating social media pertaining to election campaigns would not affect the freedom of speech.

“Violating the election law through social media is against the principles of democracy. Therefore, social media should be regulated in relation to election campaigns. This will ensure democracy,” he said.

The Free Media Movement (FMM), Sri Lanka’s largest media rights group, said social media must be regulated to conduct free and fair elections.

“But the biggest question is who is going to do this job? It cannot be entrusted to the Government alone,” FMM Convener Lasantha de Silva said.

Therefore, the FMM has recommended that a regulatory commission should be set up with the participation of the Government, the EC, the Police Department, media organisations, social media users and civil society groups, he said.

EC Chief Nimal Punchihewa said to conduct free and fair elections, “social media will have to be effectively regulated.”

He said the EC was making every effort to monitor social media platforms during the upcoming Local Council Elections.

Commenting on criticism levelled against social media platforms, a Facebook spokesperson said the company took election integrity seriously and had invested significantly to remove harmful content and bad actors from its platforms in Sri Lanka and around the world.

“We want people to be able to engage in political discourse online and talk about issues that are important to them. However, we will remove anything that violates our Community Standards as soon as we become aware of it through independent third-party fact-checkers such as AFP and Fact Crescendo,” he said.

The official said Facebook had appointed a dedicated team to cover the upcoming Local Council Elections in Sri Lanka and it will monitor and respond to emerging risks. The team includes Sri Lankans who speak local languages and are familiar with the local context.

“We’re combating abuse on several fronts, including tracking inauthentic behaviour, limiting the spread of misinformation, expanding our fact-checking capability and increasing transparency around the ads people see on Facebook,” the senior spokesman said.

While the EC is finding it extremely difficult to control offensive election campaigns carried out in the domestic print and electronic media, it has become much more difficult for it to control campaign activities on social media platforms with international reach.

Yet, democracy promoters insist that it is the prime responsibility of the EC to introduce and effectively enforce the necessary legislation to regulate fake news, hate speech, election campaigning and advertisements on social media during the election period.

First published on Ceylon Today, "Calls mount to regulate social media during election period in SL" is produced under the ANFREL Asian Media Fellowship on Election Reporting.

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