Combating Misinformation in the Aftermath of Tragedy: Sri Lanka’s Conspiracy Mayhem

Conspiracy theories often thrive on uncertainty, fear, and the human need for answers.

6 mins read
Police officers work at the scene at St. Sebastian Catholic Church, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. [Photo Credit: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha ]

by Jude Amory

As the dust settles in the aftermath of devastating terror attacks, one would naturally expect a nation to come together in grief, unite against extremism, and seek justice for the victims. However, a disconcerting trend has emerged in recent years: the proliferation of conspiracy theories that threaten not only the truth but also national security. These theories can take root in the most fragile moments of a nation’s history, as evidenced by the tragic Easter Sunday attack in Sri Lanka in 2019.

Conspiracy theories often thrive on uncertainty, fear, and the human need for answers. After the Easter Sunday attack that claimed the lives of over 270 innocent people, including children and families gathered in places of worship, many were left grappling for an explanation. It is in this void that conspiracy theories found fertile ground.

In Sri Lanka, the very real horrors of that day were eclipsed by a web of unfounded claims suggesting an ‘inside job’ or a grand political conspiracy. These theories, once relegated to the fringes of society, gained prominence among various groups, including opposition politicians, certain Islamic organisations, and even leaders within the Catholic Church. The impact of these narratives, fueled by misinformation and misunderstanding, has been profound.

Conspiracy theories, particularly those emerging in the wake of terror attacks, breed division within society. Instead of rallying together to combat extremism and support the victims, people find themselves torn along political, religious, and ideological fault lines. The Easter Sunday conspiracy theories exacerbated this divide in Sri Lanka.

Opposition politicians seized on the ‘inside job’ narrative as a political weapon, using it to discredit rivals and further their agendas. Even recently, former MP Mujibur Rahman claimed that the Easter Sunday attacks were conducted by the Sri Lankan security forces – even suggesting that India’s intelligence RAW played a part in it. It truly is a pity that the very political leaders voted in to secure the nation from division and hatred, continue to spew baseless theories to secure their own power and party politics, caring not for the smoldering ruins of truth left in their wake.

Religious organisations, in their attempt to dissociate the heinous attack from Islam, inadvertently propagated these theories. Nevertheless, there should be no doubt that the very tenets of Islam do not favor the perverted ideology of Zahran and his band of misfits. The attacks were a sinister manifestation of Islamist extremism – a twisted distortion of a faith that espouses peace and compassion. It is imperative to recognise that this malevolent act, orchestrated by misguided extremists, stands as a grotesque caricature of Islam, a faith whose core tenets champion harmony and empathy. In the face of such darkness, Islamic organisations, such as the DMRCA, ACJU and Wakfs Board must rise as beacons of enlightenment, relentlessly combating the forces of radicalisation, for it is they who can exorcise the demons of extremism poisoning the Islamic community.

Meanwhile, even the Catholic Church leadership, due to a lack of information and communication about the investigation, inadvertently fueled these conspiracies. The revered halls of the Catholic Church found themselves enshrouded in a fog of uncertainty and misinformation. Their predicament, however, was not one of malevolent intent but rather a lamentable consequence of the paucity of information and communication surrounding the investigation. As the faithful sought solace and answers in their spiritual leaders, the Church leadership, grappling with a dearth of clarity from the authorities, unintentionally added fuel to the already raging fires of conspiracy.

Conspiracy theories are not harmless stories relegated to the realm of the absurd. They have real-world consequences, particularly when they undermine the truth behind terror attacks. In the Sri Lankan context, the spread of these unfounded narratives has led to a dangerous erosion of trust in the government, security forces, and intelligence services.

As trust diminishes, skepticism grows. Like a storm brewing in an already troubled sea, some segments of the population no longer identify religious extremism as the primary driver, entertaining instead the notion that government intelligence was involved, further exacerbating confusion and mistrust.

Perhaps most troubling is the potential for conspiracy theories to sow the seeds of radicalisation among the Muslim community. The Easter Sunday conspiracy theories, especially those blaming the government or non-Muslim groups, can create a sense of victimhood among Muslims. These narratives may exacerbate existing grievances and push vulnerable individuals toward radicalisation and, ultimately, violence.

To safeguard national security and heal the wounds of terror attacks, it is imperative to address the issue of conspiracy theories. The government’s role should be one of proactive engagement, characterised by the provision of factual information and the thoughtful addressing of concerns. This commitment to clear communication, disseminated through government websites, social media channels, and public announcements, serves as a potent antidote against misconceptions and bolsters the trust between the government and its citizenry.

Likewise, the establishment of trust within affected communities becomes paramount. Initiatives like community outreach programs, collaboration with local religious institutions, and the promotion of interfaith dialogue serve as the bedrock for nurturing understanding and unity among diverse sections of society. To staunch the flow of misinformation, the government should entertain the possibility of enacting or strengthening legislation against hate speech, incitement, and the proliferation of extremist content. Implementing more stringent penalties for those propagating falsehoods or inciting violence can serve as a robust deterrent. Moreover, the enduring solution lies in addressing the root causes of radicalisation, including ideological exploitation and the vulnerabilities that render individuals susceptible to extremist ideologies. By confronting these underlying issues, the government can fortify society against the insidious influence of extremist beliefs.

However, the problem of conspiracy theories after terror attacks is not confined to Sri Lanka alone. Around the world, akin narratives have found fertile soil, frequently muddling attempts to grapple with the fundamental issues of extremism and terrorism. In the United States, for instance, conspiracy theories have flourished in the wake of catastrophic events like the 9/11 attacks and the Boston Marathon bombing, where false claims and disinformation of ‘inside job’ theories have occasionally spurred individuals toward violent acts or the dissemination of hatred, casting not only a long shadow over the nation’s journey towards healing and unity but also blatant disregard of empathy for the victims of such attacks.

The proliferation of conspiracy theories has far-reaching implications for national security. These narratives can undermine the very institutions tasked with protecting the public. When citizens lose trust in their government, security forces, and intelligence agencies, the foundations of a stable society begin to erode. Moreover, conspiracy theories can hinder the investigative process, diverting resources and attention away from critical leads and evidence. They can also deter witnesses and survivors from coming forward, fearing that their testimonies will be misconstrued and used to fuel further conspiracy theories, creating a vicious cycle of misinformation and mistrust.

National security agencies and law enforcement often face the daunting challenge of not only preventing future attacks but also combating the spread of false narratives that can radicalise individuals or incite violence. This diversion of resources and focus can have dire consequences, as it weakens the ability to detect and deter extremist threats effectively.

Furthermore, the international community can also be affected by the fallout from conspiracy theories surrounding terror attacks. When narratives spread across borders, they can strain diplomatic relations and hinder cooperation in counterterrorism efforts. Effective collaboration between nations, especially regionally, is vital to combating global terrorism, and the spread of misinformation can impede such cooperation.

As is the usual suspect, the media plays a pivotal role in both the dissemination and debunking of conspiracy theories. In this digital age, where information flows like a relentless river, news outlets and social media platforms wield considerable power, capable of either amplifying these narratives or debunking them through meticulous reporting and rigorous fact-checking. Nonetheless, the bedrock of countering conspiracy theories rests upon the tenets of responsible journalism. It is imperative that news organisations unfailingly uphold the rigorous standards of fact-checking and verification, ensuring the dissemination of accurate and dependable information to the public. In parallel, the cultivation of media literacy programs serves as a potent tool, that can support individuals and organisations to critically evaluate information sources and discern the telltale signs of conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy theories that emerge in the aftermath of terror attacks are a significant threat to national security. They erode trust in institutions, hinder investigations, and can even radicalise individuals. The global impact of these narratives underscores the urgency of addressing the issue. In a world grappling with terrorism and extremism, the call for truth and unity reverberates with undiminished urgency. It is an imperative that transcends borders and ideologies, compelling governments, religious communities, media groups, and civil society to unite in a resolute front against the corrosive influence of conspiracy theories. Only through this unwavering commitment to dispelling the shadows of falsehood can nations hope to mend the wounds left by the specter of terror and avert the harrowing tragedies that haunt the horizon. National security hinges upon this resolve, as does the enduring preservation of social cohesion and the cherished values that societies hold dear.

Jude Amory is a national security analyst [amoryjude@gmail.com]

SLG Syndication

SLG Syndication is committed to aggregating excerpts from news published by international news agencies and key insights on contemporary issues published by think tanks. Our aim is to facilitate the expansion of its reach while giving due credit to the original source.

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