Share the right information

  • Unnecessary chaos and pandemonium amidst a global pandemic is the last thing we need

By Dimithri Wijesinghe

With the most recent incident in Minuwangoda where a Covid-19 cluster was detected, and with the numbers rising each day, Sri Lankans who have taken things quite lightly since the curfew was lifted are facing the looming uncertainty of a possible lockdown and the subsequent effects on our economy, livelihood, and mental health. 

With fear and uncertainty ever present, we have also come to experience in the recent past the spread of misinformation and the power of influence and what those with “influence” can do to curb the spread of what we have come to call “fake news”. 

We reached out to a number of individuals with such influence, and here’s what they had to say about the responsibility that befalls those with a “following”, those of who have “influence”, and how you should go about sharing the right information. 

Support organisations rather than an individual: Sharanya Sekaram 

Sekaram shared: “What you should do is understand why you have a following and why your followers subscribe to you, and you must reinforce that understanding. For me, I make sure that those who follow me are aware that I am not a journalist and am not in the media; I am an activist with the focus on the specific subject of gender. Essentially, we must ‘stay in our lane’; just because I am knowledgeable in one area and have amassed a following based on that, does not make me an expert in everything else. 

“Secondly, you must be responsible with the information you share; you must cross check your sources and be transparent with your mistakes. If you make a mistake, you must issue a correction or retract your tweet. There is no expectation to be absolutely perfect, but you mustn’t make efforts to defend mistakes, and if you are to apologise, then you must make sure that you do not make the same mistake again,” she stated.

Sekaram also shared that audiences must be made aware that when it comes to an individual they follow, if they at some point appeared unbiased, that can change. She said that people tend to pander to their audiences; they worry that if they do not, they would lose the following they built.

She encouraged the public to support organisations rather than an individual who would otherwise not have the resources, ability, and infrastructure of the organisation they are representing which is dedicated to a task, and to detach oneself from this celebrity culture. 

Be responsible for what you share: Indeewari Amuwatte

Amuwatte shared: “You simply need to be responsible in the digital space. Be responsible for what you share, what you write, or say. Be accountable for the information you share.

“Influencers are playing an important role in the current context, but it could soon turn out to be a dangerous one. One has to handle the situation with care. Take time to verify information. You don’t have to blurt out everything you hear or blindly share whatever pops up in your social media feed.

“Disseminate information – not misinformation and disinformation. Creating panic has never gotten us anywhere; it will do more damage to society and have even worse effects on our economy and country.

“It is imperative at this time to not poison the well of social media with inaccurate, raw data. The intention may not be to deceive, but we must understand the dangers of democratically dysfunctional misinformation and disinformation behaviour.

“Verify what you hear. You don’t have to be the first to give what you believe is new information to the people. What’s important is to share facts and verified information so that we do not confuse the public and create panic among society, which could have greater repercussions.

“We are in a state of flux, and we live in an era of misinformation and fake news. Once it’s out, it’s out. There’s no taking it back,” she stated.

Don’t cause unnecessary panic: Sheshadri Kottearachchi

Kottearachchi stated: “There is only one other element which has spread just as quickly as Covid-19, and that is pandemic-related information (and misinformation) via social media channels. With over 6.40 million social media users (Kemp, 2020), it is vital that accountability is prioritised in the dissemination of updates online, especially in the wake of the recent uproar around new cases in the island. We should note how there was a period where fewer updates were available and thereby, less precaution was exercised; a nod towards how the availability (or the lack) of information can gravely influence our actions. The key action, and perhaps the most difficult of all, is not to cause unnecessary panic. I say this knowing far too well that dry rations are already disappearing off the shelves. However, if we don’t collectively remain calm, our paranoia and fear will reflect in our social media participation. Speculations about lockdowns, unverified ‘tips and tricks’ on how to mitigate the virus, and scapegoating individuals and communities do more harm than good. 

“While we are still learning about the virus and its effects, we have been told how we can prevent its spread – wear a mask, wash your hands, and maintain physical distance. If there is one thing that responsible social media users can do, it would be to amplify this mantra for the benefit of everyone. Take for example the Czech Republic’s #Masks4All campaign, which started as a four-minute video promoting the use of masks. This caught the Government’s attention and led to mask-wearing becoming mandatory (Bloomberg, 2020). There is no doubt that Sri Lanka’s social media communities can do the same. To paraphrase Dr. Fauci in a recent interview, ‘beating the virus means that everyone works together’, whether it be restricting social interaction or fact-checking a WhatsApp update about the virus before pressing send,” she stated.

Think before you share something: Dasuni Athauda, journalist 

Athauda shared: “The thing with fake news is, with today’s technology, it’s so easy to make even fake news look real – be it adding a credible news website as the source at the bottom of a mass text message or even adding logos of certain news channels and websites. 

“Especially in an emergency or crisis situation, people’s interest to know the ‘latest’ news in the ‘fastest’ possible time grows tenfold. So dispelling fake news, although time consuming, is now part and parcel of all media institutions. 

“I urge everyone, especially social media users, to think before you share something and not hesitate to check the accuracy of anything and everything; if a text has a website mentioned as a source, go check if the website had posted this story. 

“If you are unsure or if you feel that certain news items are more ‘hearsay’ than actual facts, it’s best not to share it, because, often, this leads to unnecessary fear and panic. 

“Sharing of false information is a punishable offense by law, so always be mindful about what you share and don’t forget to check the source each time,” she stated.

Make sure that it is verified: Jessica Ferrari 

Ferrari shared: “Personally, I have made it a point not to share anything on social media that is not verified by an official news or information source. Whenever I receive something even on WhatsApp or other messenger apps, I tend to double check before forwarding. However, not everyone will have the presence of mind to do that. So I urge everyone to double check their sources – no matter how close to a relevant official your source may be – and make sure that it is verified before you forward. Our responsibility as citizens extends to practising caution so that we are not creating or adding to unnecessary panic. Before you hit that forward or share button, make sure you know this piece of information is verified,” she stated. 

Rumours spread fast and it does not help: Shafiya Nawzer Musheen 

Musheen shared: “During a situation like this, it is normal for us to be worried about the outcome. None of us want to go through another lockdown. I think someone with a large follower base should take some responsibility in educating their followers on the right precautionary methods. They should completely refrain from sharing inaccurate or false information, because rumours spread fast, and it does not help the situation. 

“I would encourage people to follow reliable sources; people sharing legit news. Do not believe any of the viral fake messages and do not share anything that is from an unverified source. Some important things that people with a following can do are educate their followers to wear a mask, practice physical distancing, avoid unnecessary travel, and stay at home! They can also emphasise the importance of following guidelines and protocols. 

“Just because we controlled the situation very well in the past does not mean it is over and we can stop following safety measures! We must educate one another and not take it for granted! Following the right measures will ensure everyone is safe. Also, keep in mind that the virus spreads fast; it affects multiple people through fast transmission. Be safe, sanitise, and wear a mask!” she concluded.