Violence Going Viral
Perhaps the time has come for social media to put its act together. Instead of being misused by vested interests for the furtherance of their evil designs, these channels need to put a stop to their exploitation for increasing hatred.
In 2011, a wave of protests convulsed the Middle East. Amid the spate of social violence and major uprisings, social media platforms played a critical role in empowering a restive population across the Arab world that was driven to the brink by oppressive political regimes. Activists used Facebook and Twitter as a kindling for a revolution to restore democracy.
However, the allure of social media is now on the wane across the world. Many of these forums are now being used to propagate fake news and fuel communal hatred in a large number of countries. In recent months, Facebook has found itself at the heart of controversies as concerns over its data privacy have
come to the fore. Allegations have also been levelled against the website for frustrating the democratic process and spewing communal violence by fostering online echo chambers. At this critical juncture, a spiral of skepticism looms over Facebook. The company’s inability to protect data privacy has coloured people’s perceptions about its other activities. As a result, these echo chambers have drawn considerable criticism.
Facebook’s role in fuelling violence in Sri Lanka has recently found itself at the fulcrum of debate. If news reports are to be believed, analyst have started raising questions about the social media website’s role in perpetuating the ongoing tensions between Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhist population and the country’s Muslim minority.
For a large part of Sri Lanka’s population, Facebook is the primary source of news and information. It is, therefore, essential for the company to maintain checks and balances and ensure that this social medium is not used to incite violence and communal hatred. More often than not, people’s Facebook newsfeed is riddled with unsubstantiated information that is filtered through dubious sources. This is used to incite hate and has, in extreme circumstances, encouraged users to plot terror bids against marginalized sections of society.
According to a news report published in The New York Times, an incident in Ampara – a small town in Sri Lanka – serves as a testament to this dangerous trend. A family of Tamilspeaking Muslim restaurateurs found themselves embroiled in a dispute with a customer who alleged that his food had been spiked with sterilization pills. This was an outrageous claim that was fuelled by a meme that the customer has seen on a Facebook meme that had gone viral. As a result, an inflamed mob thrashed the man who was running the register at the restaurant. The mob subsequently destroyed the shop and set fire to a nearby mosque. The Muslim restaurateur has now been forced to go into hiding because a large segment of the population in Ampara genuinely believes that he had put sterilization pills in his customer’s food.
It would be absurd to assume that these memes and posts are a mere call-to-action. Even a crude sociological assessment of mass media models would reveal that people don’t instantly respond to what they read or view. To the contrary, information is often used to achieve to specific pre-defined goals. In this scenario, memes against Sri Lanka’s minority groups have incited communal hatred because there is an entrenched prejudice against them that drives the majority to respond with violence.
From a policy perspective, we must determine how the trend of producing increasingly divisive content that stirs violence has emerged in Sri Lanka and what can be done to quell its influence.
Conventional wisdom would have us believe that such content is closely aligned with the post-war narratives, which laud the military’s triumph over terrorism, lauded by the state. However, these memes and Facebook posts suggest that these narratives have been drastically repackaged to create a divide between the majority of the population and the minority segments. But this should be used as a pretext to absolve the government of Sri Lanka from blame. Although violence by majority groups against minority communities has been rampant in Sri Lanka’s history, it has always been the government’s failure to condemn these incidents that has allowed these attacks to gain currency. Any attempts by the government to deflect the responsibility to handle Sinhala-Buddhist ethnonationalism on Facebook should, therefore, be prevented. Sri Lanka’s decision to block social media sites like Facebook in March did little to discourage mob tendencies. Such measures will only result in tiny pockets of dissent that will fuel more violence.
At the same time, Facebook cannot be seen as just another scapegoat that finds itself trapped in this crisis. If the testimonies of Sri Lankan researchers and journalists are anything to go by, Facebook’s initial response to requests to moderate content wasn’t entirely favourable. The company was reluctant to hire moderators and set up points of contact in the event of any emergencies.
As the anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka intensified in March, Facebook representatives met government officials and pledged to tackle hate speech by increasing the number of Sinhalalanguage content-reviewers. In July 2018, they decided to start removing any content that misinforms the public. But these commitments require longterm initiatives and cohesive action. One-off attempts can do little to put an end to hate speech that is steeped in ingrained prejudices.
It is fundamentally easier to have Facebook take down a post that incites violence than to tackle these prejudices. This will require lawenforcement agencies to alter their strategies and governance structures to uphold policies that are devoid of discrimination.
The writer is a journalist and author. He analyses international issues.
For a large part of Sri Lanka’s population, Facebook is the primary source of news and information.