Managing Fake News and Misinformation: A Top National Security Concern!

“The importance in holding this discussion here today, lies, in upholding our collective responsibility, in narrating the truth, promoting the truth, and protecting audiences from dangers of fake news.  Misuse of various media to incite violence is a danger to democracy. Preventing proliferation of fake news requires productive efforts, open minds and coherent strategies” 

-  Defence Secretary Mr. Kapila Waidyaratne PC

On the 14th of June 2018, The Institute of National Security Studies in Sri Lanka (INSSSL) organised a symposium on ‘Media and Democracy: Misinformation, Fake News and its Impact on National Security’. This was held at the Ministry of Defence with most stakeholders present. INSSSL has so far developed 13 policy recommendations and briefs. We look at the long term and gather public opinion and expert thinking from discussions to develop policy briefs for the Government. The objective of this forum was to make an independent observation by gathering perspectives from government, private sector, media, and plural sector on reforms to current media practices. Summarized in this press release are the salient points of the discussion.

Spread of misinformation

Themed session moderated by Mr. Asanga Abeygoonasekara. Speakers Present were: Professor Gihan Dias from University of Moratuwa, Mr. Harindra Dissanayake, from President’s Media Unit, and  Dr. Harinda Vidanage from Bandaranaike Center for International Studies. The points of discussion were:

·         Discerning truth from fact in fake news.

·         ‘Attention Economics’ and ‘Information Overload’.

·         Developments in technology to create fake news such as video and audio synthesizing.

·         Wide circulation of poor versions of political engagements of citizens.

·         Declining trust in social media as a source of news.

·         Dangers of weaponised narratives leading to political polarization and highly partisan news sites.

How to regulate Social Media?

The Second Session on ‘managing misinformation’ was moderated by Mr. Yasas Abeywickrema from the Computer Society of Sri Lanka. Speakers included: Professor Rohan Samarajiva of ICTA, Group Captain MDAG Seneviratne, Mr. Roshan Chandragupta of CERT.

“There are 6 million Facebook users in Sri Lanka and Facebook doesn’t pay taxes here. Also lack of country specific data makes it difficult to analyze and get a comprehensive picture into Sri Lanka’s Facebook activity. Among the corpus of Facebook users Sinhala language is a minority community which makes content moderation an issue against Facebook community standards” – Harindra Dassanayake

Regulation can happen several ways:

·         Looking into international law, standards and best practices.

·         Domestic laws of countries.

·         Social norms to fight fake news which can be more resilient in the long term than just laws.

·         Administrative remedies such as ‘Norms of journalistic Conduct and Code of Ethics’ and ‘Broadcasting Standards’.                                                                                    

International regulatory efforts to draw lessons from:

·         Germany’s ‘Facebook law’.


·         Estonian Defence League’s Cyber Unit.


·         Chinese approach of governing its social media space.


·         Malaysian Anti-Fake News Act.



 “Regarding the option of criminalization: in the case of Sri Lanka, Article 14 (1) (a) grants every citizen the right to freedom of speech and the need to balance this right with regulating fake news, hate speech, and incitement to violence via media platforms” – Rohan Samarajiva

Who should be Arbiters of the truth?

·         Government - The possibilities of co-regulation of social media by an independent commission such as the constitutional council.

·         Self-regulation.

·         Fact checking mechanism on fake news is neither a difficulty nor time consuming. Fact checking can be done fast if a proper mechanism is set up.

Group Captain MDAG Seneviratne brought in the Military Perspective: “misinformation directed at the military is a national security concern… Regulation is needed on misinformation in the public domain. There has to be a long term solution to censorship. Inter-agency groups, Defence Ministry’s Cyber Security Unit, Filtering mechanisms on harmful content are options that should be explored” Mr. Roshan Chandragupta from CERT brought in the Technical Perspective: “It is difficult to identify  individuals behind certain accounts on social media, track IP addresses and obtain court orders to do so. We need to balance data privacy and privacy of users against the need for regulation”

Most of the discussion revolved around politicization of narratives on media; some narratives on ethnic, racial and religious frontlines can be dangerous to democracy. While accessibility and speed of information has increased, accuracy and objectivity has declined. In the event of unrest, there was a general agreement by participants that temporary social media blocks are not a permanent solution. It was concluded, long-term resilient solutions must be in place that balances regulation with the right to free speech and privacy of users.

Press Release of Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka- writer is Natasha Fernando (Research Assistant)