Sri Lanka seems to have become a post-truth society. It seems we no longer make decisions based on facts. Instead we feed on the emotionalized, propagandist, repetitive, false information. We choose to live inside echo-chambers which support our personal beliefs and prejudices. We are all culprits as much as victims of this post-truth era. Let me try to write about it without prejudice or provocation.
Mass Media Madness
The post-truth era was created by the media since the late 90s. As the state media became politicised, they constantly and continuously pushed government propaganda without having any sense of moral responsibility for balanced reporting.
A classic example is the “Vimasuma” programme which aired every day on ITN, the most viewed television channel. Right or wrong, it repeated the same one-sided rhetoric every single day. It was the predecessor for many similar programmes now on air on state and private channels.
Sirasa played a pioneering role in politicising news and all their discussions, by consistently attacking or promoting one or more politician of their choice. They were creating their own reality, at any cost to themselves and to the society.
Dumbing down the society
Swarnavahini took it to the next level by sensationalising every little piece of news. People don’t respect news as “factual” anymore. Because it’s now mere entertainment to them. It’s not an exaggeration to say that all channels have “false balance” in their reporting.
Through news, we no longer objectively learn “what’s really happening” widely around the country and in the world. In a battle to get the highest viewer ratings to attract the highest ad-spenders, news is now really “anything that sells”.
We tune into news to listen to what politicians have to say. Politicians and their hacks use news to do their politics, or vent out their hatred, or say something supposedly funny. In the absence of rich information, knowledge, critical discussion and debate, complemented by mediocre entertainment; we are increasingly becoming a dumb society.
Social Media Clickbaits
Post-truth era was advanced by the social media in the 2000s. In an age where anybody can create and disseminate true or false information to a large audience, who will then share it with their networks can quickly multiplicate mass hysteria without anyone stopping for a moment to think about it rationally.
It was the 2015 presidential election where “false information” or the popular “Fake News” was widely used as a political campaign strategy. Combined with targeted advertising on Facebook, Fake News became the ultimate weapon of mass manipulation. People no longer bother to verify the numbers or validate the claims. The more unbelievable it is, the more people “Like” it and accept it as the truth without questioning it.
Most popular online news sites and YouTube channels openly label them as “gossip” sites; which they really are. In Facebook advertising the most searched keywords for Sri Lanka contain the term “Hiru gossip” in multiple search terms. The top trending YouTube videos for Sri Lanka are all clickbait gossip content. The meme culture has softened the seriousness of social, environmental, economic and political problems. They simply make us laugh and move on to the next meme.
Sunday Times to NY Times
Print and electronic newspapers are equally responsible for this debacle. Today we hardly see good investigative journalists who can craft a well-balanced report, leaving the decision to the reader. Even the online aggregators such as Ground Views curate content which only supports their agenda, leaving no room for opposition views and facts.
The Central Bank bond scandal is a good example of post-truth politics. It doesn’t matter what the truth is, it will always be attributed to Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe by the Ranil haters; and it will always be denied by the Ranil supporters. As a result, neither camp has any real interest in the truth.
It doesn’t matter whether the recent New York Times article is evidence-based or not. Because all what it does now is reinstating the post-2015 rhetoric that the Rajapaksas are corrupt and the Chinese are taking over the world. By doing so we, the people lose the opportunity to really analyse and understand the Hambantota Port project with all its pluses and minuses. And if there are real evidence that Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa had indeed accepted bribes from the Chinese, or whoever for that matter, then it should be taken in a court of law before creating another post-truth political play.
Where do we go from post-truth?
The new leaders of media channels should reflect on their actions. Is this what free media is supposed to do? I believe you have a sense of moral obligation more than your predecessors, to the people of this land and its future generations. You need to stop fuelling the post-truth politics. And the new business leaders who have a better sense of social responsibility than their older generation, should advertise with the channels that uphold basic principles of journalism.
They say there are three versions of the truth, namely: 1) Your Truth; 2) My Truth; and 3) The Truth. As millennials living in the 21st century with access to information at our fingertips, it’s a shame if we fall prey to these political and media tactics. Whenever we see or hear something, we now have the tools to verify the information to great extent.
But I think the most important skill we all must “learn” is to doubt everything that is being pushed to us by the media, by the government, by the non-government agencies, by the private sector, and especially by the politicians. The default position we must all start from is that it’s false information. And then try to prove it otherwise. It’s the standard scientific research methodology which we need to adopt.
So, consider this very article as possibly false. See if you can disprove the logic here. Check if the examples and comparisons I’ve used are reasonable. Do your own research about post-truth. Discuss and debate with your friends. But please do so with an open mind and be ready to challenge your own biases. For an advanced democracy, we need a generation of people who will question everything and be willing to accept the truth, and nothing but the truth.
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