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.
Ariyasena Gajanayake / March 14, 2018
This Gramasevaka SIRA is taking Sri Lanka for the stone age and this is the man who came into power using fake news in Facebook during Jan 2015.
Other than taking action against the criminals who was nabbed in CCTV., this ignorant and stupid govt is hiding from the masses by blocking the technology.
How many member of the SL diaspora use social media to contact loved ones ?
SIRA is going to be the dumbest politician we ever had., reminds me that serappu soup A.J. Ranasinghe in Premadasa regime.
Jim softy / March 14, 2018
What is the take on that Face book, and many similar web sites’ data are collected for various kinds of espionage purpose ssucch as collecting data for commercial purpsoes, besides military purposes, identifying terrorists. They can use those data to influence problems in countries. what do you say, you are from England, but you talk crap that you are not well aware of. Because, we know even some UN reports had lies. they just pick from news blogs and write those things as the truth. YOu people are writing reports from air conditioned rooms in a far away country and those things affect socieites in another country.
Fathima / March 15, 2018
You seem to know too many things. You should be CEO of TRC to put things on the right track.
Amila W / March 14, 2018
“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.”
Updated info on Facebook News Feed algorithm:
January 19, 2018: High-quality news
Facebook will be prioritizing news from trustworthy sources, news that is informative, and news that is relevant to one’s local community
Rohan Jayasekera / March 15, 2018
That’s the Facebook translation. The phrase: “Facebook will be prioritizing news from trustworthy sources, news that is informative, and news that is relevant to one’s local community,” actually means in practice: “Facebook will be re-tuning distribution algorithms to concentrate on material that’s hastily shared between emotional friends, and discriminate against thoughtful news produced by independent publishers.”
isharath / March 15, 2018
Garland in monkey’s hand is what Social Media in Sri Lanka is, most of the time. Temporary ban on social media has contributed to stop spreading the violence. Unavailability of these platforms has also created troubles for decent users, but compared to the negative impacts, had these been around during these days, is acceptable.
Even in European countries and the US, people are using social media with malicious intents, but their Law & Order makes sure things don’t go beyond keyboards often.
Jim softy / March 15, 2018
One news report says 100s of Porno sites are back becuse of briniging it back. So, there is no internal control.
Jim softy / March 15, 2018
I heard, that govt probably has over 230 million data points on humans. So, they abandoned the collecting data. that may be the reason. So, they are adjusting. they need time to scan all the data they collected. On the other hand, they had said, they are concentrating only on certain individuals and certain communities. Srilanka may not be that important.
garawi / March 15, 2018
Under the circumstances the ban was the right decision until the mechanism is set up to filter hate speech and punish the initiators of them. Otherwise we could go into a worse situation than the July 83 incidents. Those who want the ban removed do not guarantee that they will not be used for racial violence!.
K.Anaga / March 15, 2018
Face Book Ban may have been lifted but How can the PRESIDENT ‘FACE’ the world.?