Anti-Muslim hate online in post-war Sri Lanka

I was recently contacted by a journalist from one of the leading Sunday newspapers in Sri Lanka on the growing anti-Muslim hate campaigns in Sri Lanka. The journalist asked two questions (reproduced verbatim),

  1. Anti-Muslim/Anti-Buddhist sentiments are being spread around effectively by social media, how do you analyse this?
  2. How can social media be used to stop such conflicts between communities?

I responded in some detail. Since the article in question was never published, I thought of reproducing my email here.

###

There are a number of Facebook groups, operating completely in Sinhala, spreading rabid racism and intolerance.
The groups alone suggest that,
  • Even the most offensive anti-Muslim sentiments and statements have a growing audience and following in web based social media
  • That such content has a greater chance of going viral, and influencing real world action, when published in online fora as opposed to mainstream and traditional media
  • Content is largely visual in nature, appealing to a demographic as young as 18 (who are still in school)
  • Anti-Muslim hate speech is generally, qualitatively more vicious and venomous than anti-LTTE sentiments even at the height of war
  • Numbers of those joining these groups is on the rise, and the government is either unaware or unable to address this through counter-narratives and content in support of liberal values, tolerance and religious cohesion.
The same platforms and means can be used to address the growing rifts between the Sinhalese and Muslims in Sri Lanka. A cogent example is an initiative I curated last year, after the outrageous incidents in Dambulla, called Not In Our Name.
Not In Our Name (http://notinournamesl.wordpress.com) began as a blog, and received wide local and international coverage (see http://www.rnw.nl/english/article/religious-tensions-flare-sri-lanka) as a platform, during the time it was active, against Sinhala Buddhist religious fanaticism. What began as a blog was mirrored on Facebook too – https://www.facebook.com/NotInOurName.
On 4th July 2012, along with printed and bound copies of the over 1,400 comments in Tamil, Sinhala and English generated by Not In Our Name (coming to over 300 pages), a letter was penned and delivered to the Presidential Secretariat, with copies to relevant Government Departments and the Mahanayaka of the Rangiri Dambulu Chapter, Ven. Inamaluwe Sumangala Thero – http://groundviews.org/2012/07/09/letter-to-president-regarding-religious-extremism-in-sri-lanka/
On 25th July 2012, we received intimation from the Presidential Secretariat that the letter was received – http://notinournamesl.files.wordpress.com/2012/04/presidential-secretariant.jpg
Couple of points to note,
  • There are no Facebook groups that engage directly with the growing and extremely virulent anti-Muslim hate on social media
  • Groups that attempt to portray a more inclusive and tolerant country, by critiquing the positions of the extremists, often come under attack, are subject to hate speech, and fail to attract as many followers as the Facebook pages and groups with inflammatory content
Given that the President is now on Twitter – @PresRajapaka – and both moderate and extremist voices, in addition to mainstream and citizen journalists are also on the platform, it is ripe for use as a vehicle to promote tolerance, engage with difference non-violently, and stand up against extremism. Many on Twitter for example called for the President to tweet a photo of him buying something from No Limit after the racist demonstrations against one of its shops in Maharagama recently. And yet, the government and the President’s office – who are very new media savvy for propaganda – are unwilling and unable to quell the spread of hate via the very tools they use to promote partisan messages.
This then leaves the responsibility on civil society, which is itself under attack from the extremists as well as from sections in government. In sum, the potential to address growing hate, hurt and harm through online and web based media is there, yet is exercises only sporadically, and by a select few. Given that the extremists are web savvy, and escape the usual checks on the spread of racist content by virtue of publishing material in Sinhala, it is to be expected that unless serious, meaningful and urgent measures are taken by government, hate will overcome more moderate voices online, and risk spilling over to real world violence on the lines of Black July 1983, against Muslims.
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5 Comments on “Anti-Muslim hate online in post-war Sri Lanka”

  1. Jack Point
    01/02/2013 at 4:13 pm #

    Excellent post. Perhaps you could start another project like the Notinourname?

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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