Just over a year ago, social media faced a shut down in Sri Lanka. The action, enforced by the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC), came in the wake of the violence that erupted in Digana, in the Kandy district between Sinhalese and Muslims. While the incident that sparked the violence was not caused by social media, it was seen as the prime culprit in helping to spread rumours and misinformation.
In less than a decade, social media has evolved to become the foremost communicator of information. In fact, at the Sri Lanka Broadcaster’s Symposium, titled Broadcasting for Social Change –Challenges and Opportunities, held in Colombo in January this year, the keynote speaker, Mr. Pipone Panitchpakdi, Deputy Director General of Thai Public Broadcasting Service (TPBS) claimed that Television has now dropped to third place as an information provider. He pointed out that today, social media has dislodged the screen to enjoy first place, with the lap top or tablet coming second.
Today, social media has become the instant provider of news and trending stories. Granted, in Sri Lanka, social media may not yet have the widest reach, and television may still be the preferred choice of many. However, with a majority of the people owning mobile phones, it will be a matter of time before, even in Sri Lanka, social media replaces electronic media. It is certainly the case with the urban and semi-urban society. In fact at a recent panel discussion on the behaviour of the media during the 52 day political crisis, one of the panelists stated that he had opted to get his information via his mobile phone rather than the TV during the period in question.
The Social Media Declaration unveiled in Colombo on Tuesday, March 19th, with nineteen signatories, therefore, could not have come at a better time. A few years in the making, the Declaration’s objective is to “foster a community that encourages the responsible use of social media and the strengthening of digital literacy, to allow for the right to access and an information-based society. While acknowledging the potential for social media to be misused, the Declaration ‘recognises digital rights as intrinsic to a society founded on principles of social justice, human dignity and prominent human and social ideals, based on a ’human rights’ framework.”
The nineteen signatories to the Declaration also undertake to “promote as often and as best they can this mutually agreed-upon framework to others, across all social media platforms and digital spaces as well as in non-digital domains, including mainstream print, broadcast and electronic media.”
While critics may argue that such declarations could curtail one’s freedom of expression, what needs to be remembered here is that more often than not, in an era of instant messaging, unless one acts with responsibility, misinformation or malicious messages with the intent of creating mischief could have lasting negative impact on communities. Freedom of expression is described as the ability to express oneself without legal or governmental interference except when such expression could be a direct and violent threat to another or a community.
As websites, internet-based apps and various other social media platforms proliferate, so does the scope for misinformation, and sharing of messages of a violent or abusive nature and fear mongering etc. As most social media users would testify, those with evil intent, even resort to sharing recorded messages containing derogatory or harmful material or messages that play on the fears of people. In times of conflict in particular, such messages are shared with few taking the responsibility to verify the contents. Misinformation fares no better; just as the Electricity Board began its power cuts, a WhatsApp message doing the rounds this week gave a breakdown of the schedule and the areas to be affected. Few checked, or even missed that the message stated that the power cuts were to begin “tomorrow (24)”, when that date is at least four days away. Used to sharing a message within minutes of receiving it, most people hardly ever look for evidence that could indicate the message is false.
Through its Code of Conduct the social media declaration sets out to “minimise/eventually eradicate the generation and spread of:
- Discrimination based on race, religion or caste.
- Gender-based violence (including sexism, sexual violence, misogyny and non-consensual dissemination of intimate images and videos) and other forms of discrimination against women.
- Sexual abuse
- Harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity
- Violation of child rights and child exploitation, including child abuse and trafficking
- Content inciting hate or violence, threats, intimidation, cyber-bullying and dangerous speech
- Harassing marginalised communities
- Illegal acts
- Data theft and unethical abuse of sources of information and media (such as using photographs without permission)
- False information, misinformation and disinformation
- Irresponsible sharing of explicit sexual content
The Declaration also outlines responsibilities of Social Media Platforms, Government and Media Organisations and Civil Society. Amongst the responsibilities for Social Media Platforms are the “increase language capacity for content moderation in local languages (Sinhala and Tamil), and to ‘make clear commitments to look into and resolve user-generated reports around Sri Lankan content within a specific time period, which during heightened violence, must be further reduced.
The Declaration’s list of responsibilities for the government include, ‘create an environment which upholds and protects human rights, including the freedom of expression in particular, and legal reforms are in keeping with international standards with regard to freedom of expression.” Media Organisations and civil society meanwhile are called upon to, amongst others, ‘expose and correct false information, misinformation and disinformation published on social media and to encourage governments to ‘create a healthy, favourable environment to protect and uphold the rights of at-risk and marginalised communities, including across digital domains.’
The Declaration is self-regulatory in nature and its success would depend on how well users of social media platforms adhere to it. Though self-regulation is expected to be practiced by mainstream media, print, broadcast and electronic, it is no secret that violations of the code of ethics occur all the time, with the news at times interpreted differently according to the language it is reported. Given that social media is not confined to a few organizations, where monitoring and even naming and shaming would be easier to get those who err to fall in line, with every citizen taking on the persona of a journalist, curbing misinformation or hate speech may become an extremely difficult exercise. Therefore,+ the onus of behaving with responsibility falls squarely on every social media user and consumer.
The nineteen signatories to the Declaration are: Hashtag Generation, Centre for Policy Alternatives, Internet Media Action, Eastern Province Journalist Forum, Groundsview.org, Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform, Internet Media Action, Jaffna Press Club, Lanka News Web, Law and Society Trust, Maatram.org, Rights Now Collective for Democracy, Nelum Yaya Foundation, Outbound Today, PEaCE ECPAT Sri Lanka, Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum, Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association, Transparency International Sri Lanka and Vikalpa.org.