June 17, 2019 Reading Time: 7 minutes
Sri Lanka deployed temporary blocks1 on several social media platforms, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, YouTube, Viber, IMO, Snapchat and Twitter.2 The move followed in the wake of attacks on mosques and Muslim-owned businesses3 in Chilaw, after residents perceived a threat to Christians in a social media post. Media reports, however, suggest that the social media blackout did little to curb communal violence and anti-Muslim riots in the North Western province, which resulted in damage to property including mosques, Muslim-owned businesses4 and homes, and claimed one life.5
The first social media block was implemented following a series of highly coordinated attacks on churches and hotels on Easter Sunday6 by local militants linked to the Islamic State, that left over 250 people dead. In March 2018,7 a similar block was implemented to curb a spate of Buddhist-led communal violence against the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka. However, officials noted that this block was circumvented8 as some users continued to access social media via Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). A VPN service allows users to establish a secure internet connection and encrypt data by routing the connection through a server. Some VPNs, including TunnelBear,9 were also blocked later.
In light of the events of April 2019, this article considers the effectiveness of social media blocks, and offers recommendations to curb the spread of misinformation and fake news that results in communal violence.
Social media shutdowns have faced scrutiny globally, with officials10 noting that such moves are essential to prevent violence from escalating. However, instigators continue to work around such blocks, negating arguments that the blocks prevent escalation of violence by curbing the spread of fake news and incitement. A recent working paper11 suggests that internet shutdowns could potentially increase the intensity of violent mobilisation.
While social media has been a tool for positive change, as in the case of Twitter during the Arab Spring,12 today, it has been weaponised to broadcast hate, and upset fragile communal balances, which is further amplified by fake accounts and automated bots. As inflammatory content overruns social media feeds—the primary source of information for many citizens13 especially, impressionable youth—misinformation becomes perceived as facts, prejudices are affirmed, creating an ‘us vs. them’ mentality, and in extreme cases, used to mobilise and justify violence. Online outrage has become very much part of the socio-political dialogue around the world. However, in Sri Lanka14 and other countries15 with a history of vigilantism, digital violence can escalate to mob violence on the ground,16 as seen in the case of Digana17 in 2018 and North Western Province this week.
Having considered the implications of a social media blackout in Sri Lanka, detailed below are four ways in which nations can overcome the weaponisation of social media.
Globally, there has been a decline in public trust in media and this was apparent in Sri Lanka following the terror attacks. Questions concerning the quality of the information available to the general public, and the role of post-terror attack coverage in inciting communal fear, have been raised.
Journalists must cover terrorist activities without falling prey to the manipulation of terrorists. The media has an obligation to inform the public so a blackout is not the solution. However, journalists must strive towards socially responsible, accurate reporting.18 Governments should consider investing in the training and development of journalists especially in state broadcasting institutions to ensure that constructive narratives that include messages of empathy and resilience are part of the news coverage.
To counteract divisive messaging, the government should take control of the narrative by being accessible to the media to ensure that an official version of events is broadcasted via regular press conferences. A robust and proactive crisis communications strategy with a strong unifying message can go a long way in curbing misinformation campaigns.
Following the 2015 terror attacks in France, the leadership acted decisively,19 making several media appearances, visiting victims, cancelling non-urgent engagements, convening the Defense and National Security Council, and taking significant measures to reassure and protect the public.
The government should develop standards around the identification and removal of harmful content, and hold companies accountable to them. Social media giants should also work to weaken financial incentives by making it difficult to monetise fake news. Following the violence in Digana last year, civil society groups in Sri Lanka called for stronger enforcement of Facebook’s community standards in the country.20 In response, Facebook took a number of measures, including recruiting Sinhalese language experts and expanding its automatic machine translation capabilities to strengthen its fight against fake news. Earlier this year, WhatsApp also rolled out limited group message forwarding in India.21
Sri Lanka already has laws22 that are compliant with international standards to deal with hate speech, however, non-enforcement has been an issue. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act No 56 of 2007 prohibits the advocacy of ‘religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.’23
Following the Christchurch attack, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern has called for a global coordinated approach24 to rein in extremism and violence on social media. The ‘Christchurch Call’ is an agreement that calls for technology companies to “to examine the software that directs people to violent content, and to share more data with government authorities and each other to help eradicate toxic online materials.” Several countries including Britain, Canada, Jordan, Senegal, Indonesia, Australia, Norway and Ireland are expected to sign the non-binding pledge, and this could be something that Sri Lanka could consider in the future. The pledge does not contain any enforcement or regulatory measures, and it would be up to each individual country and company to decide how it would honour its voluntary commitments.
Australia25 and Singapore26 have also recently passed legislation to crack down on fraudulent content, which includes hefty fines and even jail time for social media executives if they do not ensure the “expeditious” removal of inappropriate material. UK’s ‘Online Harms’ White Paper,27 published jointly by the UK government’s Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport; and the Home Office, outlines the government’s proposed new system for social network accountability and regulation for tech companies, and takes a similar stance to Australia.
Sri Lanka should consider investing in digital literacy by partnering with media organisations, educational institutions and the private sector. In addition to promoting journalism ethics, and encouraging professional reporting that focuses on well-balanced and diverse viewpoints, the government should also look at improving digital literacy, via changes to the school curriculum and a multilingual public information campaign.
Digital and news literacy programmes should teach students to think like fact-checkers, discern propaganda28 from reality, evaluate the reliability of news sources, and not accept the content they view online at face value.Sri Lanka could consider a model similar to that of the News Literacy Project,29 a national education nonprofit, based in Washington, DC, which works with educators and journalists to equip students in middle school and high school with the tools to discern fact from fiction in the digital age.
More importantly, policymakers must work to address the political, economic and social conditions that make citizens vulnerable to misinformation such as loss of confidence in democratic institutions, issues of institutional and structural racism, and longstanding communal fears need to be addressed.
In an age where global terror organisations are perceived to be winning the ‘social media war,’30 nations should work together to weaken harmful narratives by extremist elements.
In addition, to national and industry-level regulatory mechanisms, Sri Lanka should work together with media organisations, educational institutions and the private sector to enhance digital literacy, foster high-quality, professional journalism while respecting freedom of expression, and strengthen online accountability through enforcement of laws that prohibit hate speech.
1Reuters. (2019). Sri Lanka clashes kill one; imposes nationwide curfew after mosques attacked. [Online] Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-sri-lanka-blasts-socialmedia/sri-lanka-blocks-social-media-after-worst-anti-muslim-unrest-since-easter-bombings-idUSKCN1SJ02I
2NetBlocks. (2019). Sri Lanka blocks social media for third time in a month. [Online] Available at: https://netblocks.org/reports/sri-lanka-blocks-social-media-for-third-time-in-one-month-M8JRjg80
3Al Jazeera. (2019). Police impose curfew on Sri Lankan town after mosques attacked. [Online] Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/05/police-impose-curfew-sri-lankan-town-facebook-exchange-190512164947143.html
4Daily FT. (2019). Mobs destroy SL’s largest pasta factory. [Online] Available at: http://www.ft.lk/front-page/Mobs-destroy-SL-s-largest-pasta-factory/44-678218
5Channel News Asia. (2019). Escalating Sri Lankan anti-Muslim riots claim first life. [Online] Available at: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/escalating-sri-lankan-anti-muslim-riots-claim-first-life-11530190
6Financial Times. (2019). Sri Lanka Easter Sunday blasts kill more than 200. [Online] Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/49337f44-63fd-11e9-9adc-98bf1d
7Reuters. (2018). Sri Lanka blocks social media networks to stop sectarian violence. [Online] Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/sri-lanka-clashes-internet/sri-lanka-blocks-social-media-networks-to-stop-sectarian-violence-idUSL4N1QP39X
8The New York Times. (2018). Where Countries Are Tinderboxes and Facebook Is a Match. [Online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/21/world/asia/facebook-sri-lanka-riots.html?module=inline
9Net Blocks. (2019). VPN services blocked in Sri Lanka as information controls tighten. [Online] Available at: https://netblocks.org/reports/vpn-services-blocked-in-sri-lanka-as-information-controls-tighten-RAe2blBg
10The Guardian. (2019). Social media shut down in Sri Lanka in bid to stem misinformation. [Online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/apr/21/social-media-shut-down-in-sri-lanka-in-bid-to-stem-misinformation
11Rydzak, J. (2019). Of Blackouts and Bandhs: The Strategy and Structure of Disconnected Protest in India. [Online] Available at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3330413
12Kassim, S. (2012). Twitter Revolution: How the Arab Spring Was Helped By Social Media. [Online] Available at: https://www.mic.com/articles/10642/twitter-revolution-how-the-arab-spring-was-helped-by-social-media
13Shearer, E. (2018). Social media outpaces print newspapers in the U.S. as a news source. Pew Research Center. [Online] Available at: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/12/10/social-media-outpaces-print-newspapers-in-the-u-s-as-a-news-source/
14BBC. (2013). Remembering Sri Lanka’s Black July. [Online] Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-23402727
15CBC Radio. (2017). The rise of vigilantism in the Philippines and around the world. [Online] Available at: https://www.cbc.ca/radio/thesundayedition/air-strikes-in-syria-new-bq-leader-vigilantism-intergenerational-choir-1.4053578/the-rise-of-vigilantism-in-the-philippines-and-around-the-world-1.4058285
16Hattotuwa, S. (2018). Digital Blooms: Social Media and Violence in Sri Lanka. Toda Peace Institute. [Online] Available at: https://toda.org/assets/files/resources/policy-briefs/t-pb-28_sanjana-hattotuwa_digital-blooms-social-media-and-violence-in-sri-lanka.pdf
17Roar Media (2018). The Digana-Kandy Racial Riots: What You Need To Know. [Online] Available at:
18Beckett, C. (2016). Fanning the Flames: Reporting on Terror in a Networked World. Columbia Journalism Review. [Online] Available at: https://www.cjr.org/tow_center_reports/coverage_terrorism_social_media.php
19Faucher, F. and Boussaguet, L. (2018). The politics of symbols: the French government’s response to the 2015 terrorist attacks. SciencesPo. [Online] Available at: https://www.sciencespo.fr/research/cogito/home/the-politics-of-symbols-the-french-governments-response-to-the-2015-terrorist-attacks/?lang=en
20The Verge. (2019). Blocking social networks after terrorist attacks can do more harm than good. [Online] Available at: https://www.theverge.com/interface/2019/4/23/18511812/sri-lanka-facebook-ban-easter-bombings-social-networks
21The Verge. (2019). WhatsApp limits message forwarding in fight against misinformation. [Online] Available at: https://www.theverge.com/2019/1/21/18191455/whatsapp-forwarding-limit-five-messages-misinformation-battle
22Gunatilleke, G. (2016). Hate Speech in Sri Lanka: How a New Ban Could Perpetuate Impunity. Oxford Human Rights Hub [Online] Available at: http://ohrh.law.ox.ac.uk/hate-speech-in-sri-lanka-how-a-new-ban-could-perpetuate-impunity/
23Parliament of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (2006). International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).Act No. 56 of 2007. [Online]. Available at: http://citizenslanka.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/International-Covenant-on-Civil-Political-Rights-ICCPR-Act-No-56-of-2007E.pdf
24The New York Times. (2019). New Zealand Seeks Global Support for Tougher Measures on Online Violence. [Online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/12/technology/ardern-macron-social-media-extremism.html
25Time. (2019). Australia Has Passed a Sweeping Law to Punish Social Media Companies for Not Policing Violent Content. Here’s What to Know. [Online] Available at: http://time.com/5564851/australia-social-media-law-violence/
26The Guardian. (2019). Singapore fake news law a ‘disaster’ for freedom of speech, says rights group. [Online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/may/09/singapore-fake-news-law-a-disaster-for-freedom-of-speech-says-rights-group
27Goodman, E. (2019). The Online Harms White Paper: its approach to disinformation, and the challenges of regulation. London School of Economics and Political Science. [Online] Available at: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/mediapolicyproject/2019/04/10/the-online-harms-white-paper-its-approach-to-disinformation-and-the-challenges-of-regulation/
28Quartz. (2019).In the age of fake news, here’s how schools are teaching kids to think like fact-checkers. [Online] Available at: https://qz.com/1533747/in-the-age-of-fake-news-heres-how-schools-are-teaching-kids-to-think-like-fact-checkers/
29The Washington Post. (2018). The News Literacy Project takes on ‘fake’ news — and business is better than ever. [Online] Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2018/03/27/not-sure-whats-real-or-fake-anymore-the-news-literacy-project-teaches-kids-how-to-tell-the-difference-and-its-growing-faster-than-ever/?utm_term=.deba9d69c4b7
30Koerner, B. (2016). Why ISIS Is Winning the Social Media War. [Online] Available at: https://www.wired.com/2016/03/isis-winning-social-media-war-heres-beat/
*Nuzaifa Hussain is the Communications Manager at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKI) in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own and not the institutional views of LKI, and do not necessarily reflect the position of any other institution or individual with which the author is affiliated. This article was originally published in The Asia Dialogue.