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.

Southasia - - FEATURE - By Taha Ke­har

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Pakistan

© PressReader. All rights reserved.