Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka) - - EDITORIAL - By Aman­tha Per­era

DUNUWILA is an In­sta­gramer’s par­adise. The tiny vil­lage in the

Cen­tral Prov­ince is nes­tled at 820m above

sea level. It took me a 90 min­utes to get here from Kandy through ut­terly beau­ti­ful wind­ing, nar­row moun­tain roads. There is hardly any 4G cov­er­age here. Most of vil­lagers still carry old ana­logue phones. I was here the day be­fore the ter­ri­ble Easter Sunday At­tack, at­tend­ing an Avu­rudhu Uth­swaya. There were no self­ies, Face­book up­dates or live feeds from here. It was as if time had re­wound a few years.

But there is a ter­ri­ble past in this vil­lage, one that is linked with all things to do with mo­bile ac­ces­si­bil­ity. This is the home vil­lage of the Sin­hala driver whose wan­ton mur­der after a traf­fic ac­ci­dent by sev­eral Mus­lim youth led to the racial vi­o­lence in the Cen­tral Prov­ince in March 2018. Look­ing back, those events were a dark fore­shadow of what lay ahead.

De­spite the lack of ac­ces­si­bil­ity and smart phones, Dunuwilla is not im­mune to so­cial me­dia. When I spoke with the fam­ily of the mur­der vic­tim and Mus­lim fam­i­lies who live close by they blamed so­cial me­dia as the root cause of the spread of hate and ig­nit­ing ri­ots.

On April 20 there was no sign of what lay ahead less than a day later, how racial har­mony as we knew it would be shred apart within a mat­ter of a few min­utes. What was clear though was, even in parts of the is­land where ac­ces­si­bil­ity still re­mained a few weak bars on the mo­bile phone, con­cerns over so­cial me­dia were very clear.

“Most peo­ple don’t use smart phones here, they don’t have the income to do that, but you ask them about so­cial me­dia, ev­ery one will tell you it is dan­ger­ous,” Shashika de Silva, a rare youth who was us­ing a smart phone said. Many don’t re­ally un­der­stand the in­tri­cate work­ings of so­cial me­dia. But what has been driven into them is the cho­rus of evil tales on so­cial me­dia. They be­lieve them.

Last week I was speak­ing to a group of Sri Lankan jour­nal­ists on the pos­si­ble trauma im­pact of cov­er­age like the post Easter Sunday At­tacks. Most in the room did not have any un­der­stand­ing about how trolling worked and what you should do not to give such ac­counts mo­men­tum. Nei­ther did they fully un­der­stand how fake ac­counts func­tion, es­pe­cially how they work like leeches to gain trac­tion through in­ter­ac­tion with the very ac­counts they at­tack.

Every­one is try­ing to fig­ure out how so­cial me­dia works on the fly. Its im­por­tance how­ever can­not be un­der­es­ti­mated. When par­lia­men­tar­ian Ven. Arthuriliy­e Rathana launched his hunger strike, his sup­port­ers used a Face­book page as the main in­for­ma­tion hub.

In that niche where I op­er­ate, me­dia, there seems to be ac­tion on de­bunk­ing fake news, one news agency has such an op­er­a­tion and sev­eral vol­un­teer ones as well. One big is­sue here, who­ever is run­ning these ef­forts needs to get a grasp of how the belly of the Sri Lankan news-beast works. Fake news was al­ways an is­sue, it is not a new phe­nom­e­non. The only dif­fer­ence is that it can now spread in­stan­ta­neously with so­cial me­dia.

If any­thing, gov­ern­ment ac­tion to block so­cial me­dia has set a prece­dent not only here but else­where as well. In­done­sia fol­lowed suit block­ing so­cial me­dia when protests turned vi­o­lent in Jakarta last month after the elec­tions. Malawi was an­other. With pub­lic au­thor­i­ties ei­ther in­ca­pable, un­en­thu­si­as­tic or both to fig­ure out how to de­tect fake and in­flam­ma­tory con­tent, the best op­tion seems to be to block.

Even so­cial me­dia sites ap­pear to have be­come over com­pen­sative in their ef­forts to do the same. Some­thing that at least Face­book seemed not to be in­ter­ested in at all be­fore the March 2018 ri­ots de­spite lo­cal re­searchers alert­ing it.

Two weeks back a Sri Lankan new web­site got black­listed on Face­book. No links from the site could be uploaded. The op­er­a­tors were not in­formed of the rea­sons that led to the ac­tion. The only thing they could think of was the last story they uploaded deal­ing with the use of Pres­i­dent Maithri­pala Sirisena’s Face­book ac­count’s live fea­ture.

There was no re­sponse from Face­book, other than ac­knowl­edg­ing that the operator’s com­plaint’s had been re­ceived. Sev­eral days later the site was cleared and Face­book told the operator – “it looks like the site was blocked from a false pos­i­tive. We are glad to ad­vise that the URL has now been un­blocked” – among other de­tails and in­vited him to take part in a sur­vey. In other words, an over en­thu­si­as­tic or hyper crit­i­cal Face­book mod­er­a­tion mea­sure, hu­man or oth­er­wise, made a mis­take.

The au­thor is the Asia-pa­cific Co­or­di­na­tor for the DART Cen­tre for Jour­nal­ism and Trauma, a pro­ject of the Columbia

Jour­nal­ism School Twit­ter - @aman­thap

So­cial me­dia was blamed as root cause for spread­ing ha­tred and ig­nit­ing vi­o­lence Fake news al­ways an is­sue, it is not a new phe­nom­e­non but spread in­stan­ta­neously with so­cial me­dia Many coun­tries block so­cial me­dia when protests turn vi­o­lent and un­con­trol­lable

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