The agony of #Aluthgama virtually speaking…

‘If you were to reconstruct history based on the articles that have been published in the State-run newspapers, some of us who lived through the major incidents, would not even be able to recognize it,’ Nalaka Gunawardena jocularly opined.
Nalaka was referring to stoic radio silence of Main Stream Media (MSM) during the height of the recent communal clashes and the morning after in Aluthgama and Beruwala. A rally by the Buddhist extremist group Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) escalated into a rampage leaving three people dead, hundreds homeless and a bloody shooting spree in its wake.

“It was only 48 hours after the initial flare-up in Aluthgama did television channels and publications flounder to find verified information to relay,” added Nalaka, an Information Society Watcher by day. “In the absence of credible, accurate and real time updates of the situation on ground zero, Social Media (SM) and Twitter in particular filled an insatiable gap for news.”

Vacuum for rumors paucity of information he cites created a vacuum for rumors to swirl. As the clashes ensued, a curfew was put in place in an attempt to contain the riots. Twitter posts went as far as suggesting that telephone communications were disrupted or would be cut off. Other tweets implied that several Muslims were killed in the onslaught.  Adding fuel to the fire was an act of vandalism by the BBS at a well-known Pharmacy in Dehiwala which was rife with speculation.
Tweets by default are limited to 140 characters, but when read between the lines; a nightmare was starting to unfold for the seemingly unassuming civilians in both places. Did tweets such as that contribute to fear mongering and heighten simmering tensions?

“The way I see it, posts on Twitter and other networking platforms served as a mirror of the societies’ sentiments frayed with fears and anxiety,” Nalaka summed it. “People were anyways exchanging information and word was getting out. I don’t see how SM could have made the situation bad because it was a bad situation to begin with.”
Nalaka didn’t stop short of lauding the tasks a faction of journalists who took up the task of relaying corroborated and credible bits of information. “Twitter also witnessed professionally trained journalists posting updates responsibly and in a restrained manner.”

In the absence of any news on MSM, opinion and analysis of the news took place on SM and on the blogsphere. It wasn’t long before the hashtag #Aluthgama started to trend on Twitter. Two links that made rounds on local Social Media Channels included the blog post poignantly titled “The war never ended, we just took some time off” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and ‘Aluthgama’ needs to be arrested forthwith” by the editor of this paper, Malinda Seneviratne.
Journalists who were witty enough to think on their feet were able to corroborate the information which appeared on Twitter and Facebook for their respective publications.


One such tool used by MSM scribes and citizen journalists was a simple reverse image search on Google. A photograph supposed to be that of women housed in a shelter turned out to be taken years ago while another image which went viral happened to be from Burma. Meanwhile the use of metadata (a tool which describes how, when and by whom a particular set of data was collected and formatted) helped ascertain if the image was actually taken from the scene. Journalists who were active on Twitter also referred to sources at the ground for clarity or confirmation.
“It was natural that people were looking for avenues of information, at a time when the MSM abdicated to track the events as it unfolded,” explained Amantha Perera. “SM gave people a sense of what was happening in real time, just like it did during the Thai Coup or the Tahrir Square revolution.”

Amantha, a correspondent of TIME magazine cites the news cycle and its distribution channel is ever changing, as such MSM and SM were not antithetical to each other. “There’s a disconnect here where media outlets view both as separate entities, when in fact SM can provide information which when verified can be used.”
Amantha admits though that there were ’situational mess-ups’ in a space where copious amount of information was surfacing by the minute. The rumor that a monk had been killed in the clashes went viral until officials were forced to hold press conference to dispel them, is one such example.

“Anyone can be a pundit, a commentator and anyone can become a citizen journalist on SM,” he declared. “But there is a difference between a professional journalist and novice who tweets what they know or see.”
Explaining the perils of gleaning knowledge or truth from a glut of information, Amantha added a trained journalist who is taught to fact check, verify, authenticate and seep our reliable sources are considered trustworthy even on SM. “When more and more journalists engage in SM and have the capacity to disseminate news, information that’s verified will be considered valuable and eventually stand out.”
That ‘digital identity’ of a few trusted sources was unmistakable on Sunday night he conferred. Too much information can be counter-productive and impact decision making sensibilities but preposterous claims and wild extrapolations were shot down eventually. jests that he is no social media evangelist, but insists that media outlets pay more attention to their online presence regardless of the format (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram) and sources (internet fora, blogs, webcasts news aggregator websites) because “once they establish themselves online, they have a brand. Eventually what it does is that it makes those publications easily accessible.”
“For instance the twitter feed of the President and his posts has news value,” he adds. “If the President were to issue an official statement while in Bolivia regarding the incident, it would have taken yonks. He tweeted to let people know he was aware of what was happening.”

For Ajitha Kadirgamar, a Media and Communications consultant, SM is an empowering space and the immediacy of it makes it all the more convenient. “SM has given the power and ability to every individual to create, consumer and share content of all sizes and formats,” she adds. “But there are pitfalls which can be corrected in a timely and respectful manner.”
Ajitha recalls when she found links to the CCTV footage of the vandalism at the pharmacy in Dehiwala being tweeted and re-tweeted without the users giving much thought to the repercussions of sharing such information. “I politely requested that it be taken off or not shared because of the inflammatory nature of the video and it was pleasing to see people agree. You need to teach people a little bit about self-censorship,” she suggests.
“SM quenched a thirst for information that evening, but my concern is that it does not reach the common man,” she voiced. “I like to think of SM as a component of Citizen Journalism because it works better in our context; regrettably it’s a small minority of us who actively use it.”

Amidst noise about the happenings at the ground in Aluthgama and Beruwala were exchanges of the many plausible reasons why MSM turned a blind eye to the ongoing. What was it that triggered MSM to black-out reportage of the incidents might never  be known.
Twitter posts suggested that media outlets imposed self-censorships; others inferred that publications were officially instructed to. The result was a glaring omission of facts, with only reports of the curfew appearing sparsely in the papers on Monday (16).

Incorrect information

“It was not the people who were tweeting incorrect information that may have fanned the flames, but the alleged censorship on the part government which alluded to the above,” cautioned Ajitha. “Governments today cannot overrule or overlook the impact on SM even on a small group of people.”

She adds that despite the State’s best efforts, SM simply cannot be controlled. “If you want to read Colombo Telegraph, you can,” she points out. “It’s as simple as that.”
Ajitha frowns upon the measures taken by the various governments across the world to clamp down on SM, citing it to be a narrow political objective that can also be detrimental. Drawing parallel lines, the blocking of the websites such as Colombo Telegraph has been widely thought of as an ill-advised move.
While the government began to engineer its discourse over the riots that took place, an official statement released swiftly called on all media organizations ‘to act responsibly when reporting incidents that could harm religious coexistence in the country.’

Secretary to the Ministry of Mass Media and Information, Charitha Herath went on record to state that a minor incident which had taken place yesterday was being released to the public with incorrect information.
“To suggest that SM stoked furor, inflamed, exaggerated or added to the raging violence in Aluthgama and Beruwala is preposterous,” said Sanjana Hottotuwa, editor of the award winning Citizen Journalism website Groundviews.
Sanjana asserted that while officials within the government were quick to point out that the situation was under control in the riot-ravaged areas, people began hearing credible news of further tensions leaving them no option but to seek updates, even if it were through SM.

Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka, General Secretary of the JHU addressing a press briefing on Monday urged people not to be misled by false rumors. “He does have a point, but that’s a very banal one,” Sanjana asserted. “One should exercise a sense of sobriety over articles that are published in MSM or state media more than SM. Extensive reportage of hate speech or reports which have inflamed public in the past has been more evident through the MSM.”
The State needs to take its own advice, Sanjana thinks. He referred to instances where many scribes were tweeting through their personal accounts when their own media outlets were completely blank on.

Frustration“It is clear that there exists a disconnect between what institutions were told, what they feared while their own journalists were keeping everyone else updated,” he stressed. “It reflects the frustration of a journalist over the inability to report what should ordinarily be reported and reflects the complete inability of the government to do what it set out through this institutional blanket of zero coverage.”
According to Sanjana, that is one digital divide which won’t easily close.  “The whole framework extends beyond a government’s perspective. Our approach to SM within the institutions has been pelagic. MSM think SM belongs to people like me and that is farcical.”

Sanjana adds that there is a clear distinction between journalists who use SM, citizen who use SM and Citizen Journalists who curate the grey matter. “These are three different groups who are complementary in the sense that they contribute to each other’s strengths since they operate within the same time frame.”
“The violence was in detail and close to real time covered extensively over social media, leading to documentation many times greater and more detailed than what the government would have liked,” Sanjana imparted in an entry on Groundviews. It is significant to note that the first (and for a long time) the only response the government gave was via Twitter.
In retrospect, that itself speaks volumes.

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