By Rohan Jayasekera –
Sri Lanka’s ban on Facebook and other social media channels was not the way to end a sudden increase in communal violence on the island – but lifting the ban this week will not deliver a solution either.
Technology bans are meaningless. The men of violence will always find ways to share their hate, by paper if needed – police raiding a suspect’s office in Kandy reportedly found thousands of leaflets designed to incite anti-Muslim attacks.
Many of the extremists’ followers simply turned to censorship-busting technology like VPNs to bypass the TRC’s ban, or used different chat apps after some were banned alongside Facebook this month.
Facebook, which also owns the chat app WhatsApp, says it has rules against hate speech and incitement to violence, but observers list several cases where overt calls for attacks on Muslims had been missed by the social media giant.
In the meantime Sri Lankans have been denied access to a medium that often provides the only independent sources of news. It is also a vital means for families abroad or separated by violence, to check on their loved ones’ safety.
The uptick in violence, credited to postings on Facebook threatening fresh attacks on Muslims after two died in communal violence in Kandy, is a lasting threat that pre-dates the massive growth in Facebook usage on the island.
Never was the phrase ‘don’t blame the messenger’ more appropriate. It is the state’s failure to tackle incitement to violence by extremist so-called Buddhist monks that is at the root of the crisis – not their choice of communications.
Extremists like Amith Weerasinghe and his Mahason Balakaya group, the Bodu Bala Sena, hardline monk Ampitye Sumanarathana Thero, and among others, Dan Priyasad, held last November for attacking a safe house for Rohingya Muslim refugees, have several hundreds of thousands of Facebook and You Tube followers between them. Some have been banned, others have been left alone.
Facebook executives are flying to Colombo for an expected ear-bashing from the President’s Secretary Austin Fernando tomorrow (15th), but the social media giant’s problem runs deeper than just a lack of Sinhalese speaking monitors.
The giant’s business model has been recently re-tuned its distribution algorithms to concentrate on material that’s hastily shared between emotional friends, and discriminate against thoughtful news produced by independent publishers.
Sri Lanka was also one of a group of nations whose independent media was hit by this and other de facto ‘exclusion orders’ – leaving the space open to fake news and hate speech quickly shared by online ‘friends’ of more ‘friends’.
So-called ‘Fake News’ and hate speech peddlers sources routinely do overwhelmingly better than real news sources, as the system profits from number of shares – not from the quality or honesty of the content itself.
The Google owned YouTube’s operating algorithm has been similarly accused of feeding extremist videos as follow-ups to users who watch relatively mainstream material.
The forces of radicalisation and communal hate at work rousing the country’s youth to acts of ever more appalling violence must be tackled face-to-face. Trying to cut their communications with a censors’ axe is doomed to failure.
If social media really has to have a role in mitigating the violence that plagues post-war Sri Lanka, it is in sharing accurate information about the crisis and restoring trust in the messenger. Censorship is not the answer.
*Rohan Jayasekera is an English journalist and former deputy CEO of Index on Censorship in London.