Journalists describe how fake news sparked violence, suspicion in their countries: East-West Centre's International Media Conference

(From left) Mr Ramy Inocencio, Mr Khin Zaw Win, Ms Dilrukshi Handunnetti, Mr Bidhayak Das and Mr Graeme Wood at the second day of the International Media Conference, on June 26, 2018.
(From left) Mr Ramy Inocencio, Mr Khin Zaw Win, Ms Dilrukshi Handunnetti, Mr Bidhayak Das and Mr Graeme Wood at the second day of the International Media Conference, on June 26, 2018.ST PHOTO: LEE JIA WEN

SINGAPORE - When rumours spread in the Sri Lankan district of Ampara earlier this year that Muslim eateries were mixing pills into the food of their Sinhalese patrons to make them impotent, communal riots broke out.

Muslim-owned shops were gutted and rocks were hurled at mosques in the country.

Ms Dilrukshi Handunnetti, consultant editor of the country's Express newspaper, said the whispers tapped the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community's anxieties that they were becoming a minority in Sri Lanka.

Referring to the way rumours were spread, she said: "It was really organised and I think it was happening for a little while to create that fear psychosis."

Ms Handunnetti was one of four panellists speaking on Tuesday (June 26) during the East-West Centre's International Media Conference.

With fake news being used to fuel discord and extremism around the world, the speakers described how disinformation has been used to turn communities against one another in Myanmar, India and Sri Lanka.

Mr Bidhayak Das, a contributing editor for news website The Irrawaddy, which focuses on developments in Myanmar, recalled news in the Indian media about two Rohingya men being arrested for trafficking a Rohingya woman - all of them with links to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - into Manipur, a north-east Indian state that shares a border with Myanmar.

Mr Das said he called the police in Manipur for more information and discovered that the trio knew each other and had entered the country together illegally.

None of them had links to ISIS. But the story played on fears and stereotypes of Muslims as terrorists.

Social media has helped the spread of disinformation and become fertile ground for hate-mongering, noted speakers on the the panel, which was moderated by Bloomberg anchor Ramy Inocencio.

For instance, hardline Sinhalese groups took to Facebook accusing Muslims in Sri Lanka of forcing people to convert to Islam.

And Ms Handunnetti recalled how the false stories of Muslim eateries drugging their Buddhist customers actually circulated on messaging platforms including Viber and WhatsApp.

As anti-Muslim riots flared, the Sri Lankan government in March moved to ban social media networks to quell the communal violence. The ban was lifted about a week later.

Mr Khin Zaw Win, director of Tampadipa Institute, a think-tank in Myanmar, said social media should not be made a scapegoat.

"It is just a tool," he said, urging civil society, and the state in particular to do more.

"The public is working on it. I'd really like to see the state do more, and the state is not doing enough (to stop hate speech) precisely because they don't want to jeopardise the Buddhist majority vote."

Hundreds of media professionals have been attending the East-West Centre conference, which examines new-era trends and transformations in media, as well as the news itself.

The conference ends on June 27.