WASTING TIME AND SPREADING DISINFORMATION
Smartphones’ ability to empower people with information, make transactions more efficient, compensate for poor infrastructure and boost growth are well established. However, people also waste an enormous amount of time on them and, dangerously, use them to spread disinformation. In the weeks following the Easter Sunday bombings, mob attacks at various towns outside the capital were organised on social media. Only 12% of Sri Lanka’s population say they own a computer; however, 78% of them own a mobile phone, according to findings of a survey by ICT think tank LIRNEAsia. So the likelihood that mobs used smartphones to organise and coordinate attacks is high.
At the launch event of LIRNEAsia’s ICT access survey results, leaders from various areas discussed some of the challenges. Edited excerpts from the discussion are as follows…
Chairman, ICT Agency
“Import duties impact costs of smartphones. So the question is, do we have prohibitive duty structures like in Kenya and other African countries? No, we don’t.
People are interested in the small screen. I think we should let people make a choice between screen sizes. What we can do is to make it available. If people don’t want phones, we are not going to foist it on them.
What I want is for people to have access to use e-government services on a smartphone. The minister in charge of ICT has been advocating an all-in-one emergency app. Can someone having a heart attack use the functionality? What are the preconditions for that? We need signals, we need a smartphone, we need the app downloaded and the person with the knowledge to say ‘I need to press these two buttons to inform emergency services’. How do we get to that? I think that’s our challenge.”
Chief Operating Officer, Dialog Axiata
“The question of coverage is an important one. First, with 4G, we have a coverage of 91% of the population, which is hugely important. Second is home connectivity. Of Sri Lanka’s 5.5 million homes, almost 70% are connected to the internet through fibre, copper cables or mobile broadband. The majority are connected on wireless broadband. The third factor is smartphone availability. This is a matter of price. We are working as a company to make 4G smartphones available for costs less than Rs10,000. In fact, our cheapest 4G smartphone now costs less than Rs7,000. So price and affordability aren’t major concerns anymore.
A recent UK study covering 231 countries ranked Sri Lanka the seventh cheapest in the world for the cost of 1GB of mobile data. Who is number one (the cheapest), you wonder? It’s India. I think in India there has been too much of a price decrease. Future investments are compromised if prices fall too low. As the seventh cheapest in the world, prices in Sri Lanka shouldn’t be an inhibitor for mobile internet use here.”
Chief Executive, LIRNEasia
“What competition has given us in the retail sector are lower prices, and these benefits have been passed on to consumers. One would assume that, with the next wave of technology, prices will fall further. But do we have the same kind of competition in the wholesale sector, and should we worry about it? Some time ago, there was just Sri Lanka Telecom. Dialog Axiata is a new entrant to providing backbone fibre.
We are happy about people getting online, even if it’s on a smartphone, but should we also not think about our incredibly-low internet access on computers. We have a history. The ICTA was established years ago and various related services including Nanasalas (rural centers with free internet access), free wifi initiatives and telecom sector reforms were done.
We can’t easily change the culture. However, if we compare ourselves to Myanmar, smartphone penetration there is over 80%. Another thing to note here is that internet access for females and marginalised groups are lower.”
Head – Media Research, Verité Research
“There are a few things that struck me about internet use in Sri Lanka. One is the majority view that social media restrictions were the right solution to contain violence on the street. It’s a little disturbing if the majority thinks that restricting social media is the right solution in a time of crisis. From a freedom of expression point of view.
The second is the lack of trust in media. This is a reinforcement of the perceptions we had of media. Why people are reluctant to trust media is due to the quality of information being channeled by some media and the absence of facts.
The third point is about cyberbullying. We undertook a study to understand to what extent female political actors were subject to cyberbullying around the local government elections last year. This is after the mandatory 25% quota for women was introduced. What we found was that online violence was not just prevalent, but it is growing. This could be one hindrance or reason why women are unwilling to comment on social media or give their opinion.”
Head of Research, President’s Office
“Our economic activity on the internet is low compared to other countries. A large screen to access the internet is important to get into productive economic activity. You are now a consumer of someone else’s content. It’s a border question of what you need the internet for?
Social media blocking is a bad thing, but the worst thing is a government watching every step you take on social media. That social media blocks take place means that the government has been allowing you to do what you are doing and has not been watching. What does a government try to achieve by blocking access to social media? It wanted to prevent an exponential outburst of extremist ideas in a short period of time. This is what happened in Digana in 2018. There is evidence from the Minuwangoda attacks of May 2019 too.
It was a preemptive measure by the government that prompted the social media block after the Easter Sunday bombings. However, what happened on the 13th of May was a reaction to developments. When a hotspot develops in a certain area because people start posting hate speech, inciting violence and calling people to action to the street, there is a directly proportional relationship between action on social media and actual action on the street.
You must stop mob attacks on the street, but at the same time, you must prevent it from happening on social media.
Blocking social media repeatedly is not going to help at all. One of the outcomes of blocking Facebook is that we have driven traffic to platforms we cannot control. Facebook is at least more open than Whatapp and Telegram. The second thing to consider is the context in which this happens. If social media is blocked in the US, I will be surprised.
This is my point of view. Sri Lanka is a state with weak institutions and is learning to come to terms with technology and a scattered society waiting to run into each other. A social media ban helps temporarily, but it’s not going to help in the long run. What we should be doing is to go behind people, look for hotspots and increase surveillance on potential extremists.
Zaharan Hashim’s profile has been identified from 2014 as an extremist. He has been reported by Singaporean parties to Sri Lanka on 21 March 2019. Facebook has indicated that something fishy is happening in Kathankudy as early as January 2019, and again on 3 April 2019.
This is what I call a ‘weak institution syndrome’. Not just a case for Sri Lanka, but common to many states. What worries me is that we don’t have the capability to identify these people and act. I get the sense that regulators instead will consider turning social media on and off. That is the wrong attitude.”