Starting of April has seen a considerable increase in text based WhatsApp messages relating to the COVID-19 outbreak in Sri Lanka. With several key areas in the country continuing to be under curfew for a fortnight as of today, the number of posts circulating on the topic are at an all-time high as citizens remain in their homes with ample time for personal internet access and in turn to share such content.
Following are some of these posts:
A. This post, as seen below comprises of two parts. The first part claimed to be a message from Sri Lankan Police reads as such: “Tonight 12 (midnight) onwards Disaster Management Act has been implemented across the country. According to this update, apart from the Govt. department no other citizen is allowed to post any update or share any forward related to Coronavirus and it being punishable offence”
The second section states that Cyber Crime unit of SL Police stated that as “This announcement is to all members of WhatsApp groups; spreading videos and news which are illegal and against the law and forwarding without confirming the truthfulness are acts against the law. Thereby if such messages are received from any number they should not be forwarded and breaching this will result in punishment to the one who posted”
The message also highlights that “Group Admins are requested to post the above update and inform the groups”
We didn’t notice this message widely circulating among Sri Lankan Facebook users, yet a few users did post it as you can see below.
B. The second post, which again had circulated in WhatsApp during last week of March, claiming to be a message from Prof. Rohini Seneviratne (Senior Professor of Community Medicine, Sir. John Kotelawala Defence University) is shown below had requested public to stay indoor especially during March 23rd to April 3rd citing this as the critical period and encouraged further sharing as in the case of the previous post:
C. Yet another post which has been circulating for an entire week on WhatsApp, claims that the government will put the country under a complete lockdown during the Sinhala & Tamil New Year and Easter period to prevent social gatherings and that even the food deliveries will not be permitted during this period as seen below:
This message though was not widely shared by Facebook users as shown above.
With content of such a varied nature going viral on social media, it was necessary to get a clearer picture of the facts, so we investigated with the rightful authorities with relation to each post and here is what we found:
POST A: Message from Sri Lanka Police
We began investigations on this message, by studying the actual Disaster Management Act 13 of 2005 which contains no mention of information sharing or a citizen’s right to share information during a crisis, nor of any punishable offenses other than physical acts of violence which has no bearing on social media information shares.
We also contacted the Disaster Management Centre where Assistant Director of Disaster Management, Mr. Pradeep Kodipilli denied this claim entirely, that no amendments had been made to the 2005 Act and that it was not a message endorsed by the DMC.
However since Sri Lanka Police had been mentioned as the originator of this message, we spoke with Police Media Spokesman, Jaliya Senaratne on the police announcement section of the post. Senaratne confirmed that such a message had not been originated from Sri Lanka Police. However, they were continuously monitoring the spread of fake news, especially the ones that are detrimental to the Governments efforts in fight against COVID19 with the help of a dedicated unit and violators have been brought to justice. Further, the SDIG has continuously stressed the need to curb the spread of false and fake news hence this component of the message could have been alluding to the same.
POST B – Message circulating claimed to be of Prof. Rohini Seneviratne
The second post claiming to be from Prof. Rohini Seneviratne was immediately refuted by Health Promotions Bureau (HPB) and Dr. Ashan Pathirana, the registrar of HPB forwarded us the official email reply from the doctor. Here are the contents of her response
Further, the certainty and timing of the peak stage of the virus can be debated based on the available analytics and predictive models. While some suggest that the peak stage of the virus in fact passed prior to the lockdown in Sri Lanka, many suggest we have to be mindful that that many countries including USA & UK had recorded much fewer number of cases compared to Sri Lanka during the initial period (21 days since the identification of the first local COVID19 patient). Here is an extract of the interview with Dr. Naveen Soysa of GMOA
POST C – Complete Lockdown of entire country: April 10-15
Regarding the third message discussing the complete lockdown from 10th to 15th, any official communique has not been released confirming this information. The latest updates on the curfew released by the President’s Media Division (PMD) stated that curfew will continue in several districts including Colombo, Gampaha, Puttalam, Kandy, Kalutara and Jaffna until further notice.
Note the press release issued by the PMD on 1st April 2020 in this regard
We contacted the President’s Media Division and National Operations Center for prevention of COVID19 and officials confirmed that no such decision had been taken and to follow the curfew guidelines which are periodically published from official sources only.
Therefore from our investigation it’s clear that WhatsApp message forwards relating to Sri Lanka Police, Prof. Rohini Seneviratne and complete lockdown from April 10-15 are all from unverified sources and completely false. We urge public to refrain from sharing such messages.
Title:Investigation into WhatsApp messages circulating in Sri Lanka related to COVID19Fact Check By: Sathyajith Subasinghe