July 21, 2022

Factually is a newsletter about fact-checking and misinformation from Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network. Sign up here to receive it in your email every other Thursday.

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa absconded via military aircraft to Singapore last week following protracted countrywide protests by Sri Lankans frustrated with what they saw as years of rank corruption, government overreach and economic mismanagement by the country’s ruling family.

Rajapaksa’s resignation was the culmination of a financial crisis, mounting public criticism, hundreds of days of protests and an information war, in which state-sponsored media cast doubt on the legitimacy, viability and safety of the protests, at times under the guise of support.

“If you look at the way how disinformation, misinformation and malinformation have been circulated in Sri Lanka in the recent past, it was not just social media that was contributing to, producing and disseminating it,” said Deepanjalie Abeywardana, head of media research at Verité Research, a Sri Lankan law, politics and media research group. “It was also very much the domain of mainstream media.”

At the very beginning of the protests, Abeywardana said, there was a tendency to delegitimate the protesters by characterizing them as inexperienced or unserious.

“Some Sinhala media very loosely called the protesters a very naive group of youth who are not serious enough to really protest. And they are from this class that is out of touch with on-the-ground realities,” said Abeywardana. “More than disinformation, it was media framing.”

The protests were dubbed “aragayala” by both Sri Lankan and English-language foreign media, which means “struggle” in Sinhala, one of two official languages in Sri Lanka. The primary goal of the protests was to oust President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was seen as corrupt and incompetent, in addition to members of Rajapaksa’s family and other allies who held prominent roles in the government.

Ajith Nivard Cabraal, the Sri Lankan central bank governor, resigned in April after an economic crisis and shortage of foreign currency left Sri Lanka bereft of crucial resources, including fuel. And Mahinda Rajapaksa, the former prime minister, and Basil Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan foreign minister — both brothers to Gotabaya Rajapaksa — also were removed or resigned.

“In this sense, aragayala was able to achieve most of its aspirations,” said Abeywardana.

The motives of those advancing disinformation vary considerably, according to Abeywardana. While some stand to gain financially from fanning prejudices against minorities, others spread disinformation to serve political or state interests.

“Muslim-owned businesses are seen as competitors for most of the Sinhala-owned businesses,” Abeywardana said. “So whenever you have cultural festivals, we suddenly see some of these anti-Muslim campaigns popping up with the purpose of asking Sinhala Buddhist buyers to boycott Muslim-owned businesses.”

In 2020, Verité Research published a study suggesting that mainstream media is actually a greater purveyor of false information than social media in Sri Lanka.

“Mainstream media is often positioned as an inadvertent distributor of false and harmful content — not as a producer of such content. Therefore, limited attention is paid to the role of mainstream media as both a producer and distributor of information disorder,” the study reads.

Other outlets have written about the anti-protest disinformation campaigns on social media, in which hundreds of Rajapaksa-affiliated Facebook accounts deployed memes and infographics that called into question the feasibility of the protests.

“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,” disinformation researcher Dr. Sanjana Hattotuwa told Rest of World in April.

The government of Singapore has since asked Rajapaksa to leave and, on an interim day in the Maldives between leaving Sri Lanka and reaching Singapore, a Sri Lankan contingent in Malé, the Maldives’ capital city, promptly took to the streets in protest.

Interesting fact-checks


  • Factcheck.lk: Prime Minister Lost on Cost of Elections (English)
    • Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe gave two reasons why elections cannot be held right now: prohibitive costs and damage to the economy. He claimed the last election cost 10 billion Sri Lankan rupees, when in fact it cost about 5.7 billion. Additionally, he claimed this year’s election would cost at least 20 billion rupees, though as Factcheck.lk notes, the claim “is also without basis.”
  • Newschecker.in: US Comedian Sam Hyde’s Images Presented as Shinzo Abe’s Assassin (English)
    • As a running gag, internet users have continued to proliferate images of comedian Sam Hyde following shootings in the news. After the death by shooting of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, accounts on Twitter shared that the shooter was “Samzuki Hydaiko, a known political extremist and former yakuza.” Newschecker quickly judged the claim to be false using reverse image searches.
  • USA Today: Fact check: False claim that Supreme Court overturned 2020 election (English)
    • A claim is spreading on Facebook and Telegram that states that the Supreme Court overturned the results of the 2020 presidential election, along with its decisions on abortion and gun laws. As USA Today notes, the “election results, in which Biden beat Trump by over 7 million popular votes and 74 electoral votes, are still legitimate.”
  • PolitiFact: Photo shows woman who is wanted for impersonating a nurse and kidnapping an infant from a U.S. local hospital (English)
    • An image of a woman is circulating on social media along with text that claims she is wanted for kidnapping an infant from a hospital while impersonating a nurse. The image is old and from a different country and multiple police departments have “responded to these claims and reassured their communities that they aren’t credible

Quick Hits


From the news: 

  • Modeling and combating misinformation spread – Authors tested various interventions for false information spread including removing false posts, banning problem accounts and “nudging,” in which users are reminded to consider whether content is true before sharing. They ultimately concluded implementing all interventions led to a large reduction in the spread of false information. (Nature Computational Science, Ananya Rastogi)
  • ICC chamber invites victims, PHL government to submit ‘views, concerns’ on call to resume drug war probe – Prosecutor Karim Khan requested both the Philippine government and the victims of its “war on drugs” to submit comments for his drug war probe. The international criminal court recently formalized his request by issuing an order to both parties. “Family members who suffered from harm, such as emotional trauma or material loss, due to the killing of their relatives are also considered victims,” an ICC document reads. (VERA Files, Ivel John M. Santos)

From/for the community:

  • More than 80 fact-checking organizations from nearly 60 countries have united to condemn the sustained attempts to silence press coverage in the Philippines. Here is The International Fact-Checking Network’s statement on the Philippine government’s decision to shut down Rappler.

Thanks for reading. If you are a fact-checker and you’d like your work/projects/achievements highlighted in the next edition, send us an email at factually@poynter.org by next Tuesday.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Seth Smalley is a reporter at Poynter and the IFCN. Get in touch at seth@poynter.org or on Twitter @sethsalex.
Seth Smalley

More News

Back to News