Just as the demand for the ouster of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa grows louder due to rising food and fuel prices, online influence operations attempting to undermine the integrity of the protests are growing too.
Disinformation researcher Dr. Sanjana Hattotuwa has identified hundreds of proxy accounts and Facebook pages associated with the Rajapaksa family publishing memes to discredit the mass protests. “There’s an attempt that is ongoing [to discredit the protests] that has been engineered by a cluster of pages linked to the family,” Hattotuwa told me.
These pages are crafting meme-based counternarratives that pin the blame for the state of affairs on opposition party leaders. “It’s what I call ‘narrative corruption,’” Hattotuwa said. The Sinhala-language memes attempt to reframe the #GoHomeGota protests as a movement funded by “external” forces trying to destabilize the country. (On April 3, public demonstrations prompted the government to ban social media services, including WhatsApp, for 15 hours.)
Since 2018, Hattotuwa has been studying a total of 2,800 pages, groups, and websites documenting the strategies used by Sri Lanka’s First Family to weaponize social media to its benefit. On Facebook, the most popular social platform, much of the shared content was hateful speech targeting minority Muslims and Tamils.
What’s unique this time around, Hattotuwa said, is the shift in the nature of messaging. “If I were to put it in one sentence, the thrust of the pages is to deflect attention and anger away from the First Family, whereas in the past it was to generate hate, hurt, and harm against a specific community,” Hattotuwa said.
A prominent example of this “narrative corruption” is a post shared by Sri Lankan actress Yureni Noshika that ostensibly asks #GoHomeGotta protesters to stay vigilant, warning them about a coordinated campaign to splinter the protest. The post casts aspersions on a retired army general creating fake profiles and channeling money to disrupt the protests.
Hattotuwa’s analysis found that while actress Noshika shared the post on April 7, it was featured over 550 times in the previous days by a network of Facebook accounts. “These pages are doing something quite sinister and insidious, which was to try to hide the fact that they were acting in concert,” Hattotuwa said. Such campaigns are a reminder that what might appear as authentic and aiming to get the President and the Prime Minister to resign are, in fact, “dark campaigns” to help keep them in power, Hattotuwa wrote on Twitter.
Incidentally, I reviewed many of these memes and pages for this story, and am not disclosing them to avoid amplification of disinformation.