The women, they said, were alone as the men would be at prayers. Some commented on the youth and beauty of the women, noting how attacking them would be somehow pleasing to the eye. In other groups, an assorted array of knives was an invitation to bring whatever weapon possible to join a mob in cleansing an area of Muslims. Defiling Islam was common, and in some cases it seemed like a competition amongst those participating in the discussion as to how best to come up with insults that were the most heinous or violent. In a widely shared message reported to Facebook, the invitation was to kill all Muslim infants without sparing even one, as they were no different to dogs. And therein lies the rub. After six days, Facebook got back to the person who reported the post noting that it did not violate their community guidelines and policies against hate speech.
Social media platforms as we know them today are broken, badly. Facebook last week was called out by the United Nations in Myanmar as having a central role in fanning the flames of Islamophobia and hate. The situation is more complex. Governments, including those in Mynamar, the Philippines, India and most notably, Russia, are weaponising social media in various ways, using platforms, apps and services used the most daily as a means of communication and engagement against the very sections of society that trust in large part information received or shared on these platforms. This is akin to poisoning on an unprecedented scale, with the target not the body, but mind. And there are many actors competing to wrest control of public perception, with a view to informing their reactions and responses. In the middle of this melee are the social media companies themselves, notably, Facebook, which owns and controls in addition to the eponymous and almost ubiquitous platform, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram. Twitter, YouTube and a comparably smaller family of instant messaging apps like Viber or Telegram, which still have users in the hundreds of millions and are growing apace, and you have what the father of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee called ‘platform power’, which is crushing the nature of the web as he conceived it, and wanted it to grow as. His concern is twofold – that Silicon Valley companies today are invisible yet ever-present interlocutors through their technology in how we all interact with the rest of society, and the world. Secondly, that given the sheer numbers online and on these privately controlled platforms, designed to maximise profit over all else, it is a challenge – to say the least – for companies to control their technology against being used for terrorism, the spread of hate or incitement to violence. Money, ethics, jurisdiction, monopoly, privacy, surveillance, oversight, control – there are many wars being fought simultaneously on and around these platforms, around the world.
Sri Lanka is now in the spotlight for just this reason. During the violence in Digana two weeks ago, the government decided to block social media they claimed was fanning the violence, including Facebook, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Viber and Instagram. An immediate consequence of the block was the use of VPNs – apps or sites that easily by-passed the blocks. On Google, searches for popular VPNs over just the course of a week saw an astronomic rise, and VPNs entered popular, social discourse as a way to access what for many was their primary means of communication and engaging with their friends, peers and indeed, customers. Small businesses that rely on social media were badly hit. The telecoms companies that blocked social media sites, and later on, the most popular VPN services, also blocked popular discussion sites (in no way connected to the violence in Digana) and other random websites including blogs. All this was by no means unpopular. Somewhat simplistic surveys done by mainstream media suggested a high degree of public support for the social media blocks, in light of the violence and going by the explanations provided by government at the time. The blocks played into an older generation’s enduring fear – piggybacked on by government – that all social media is evil, all the time, and only serves to corrupt the minds of the young. In their incomprehension of how social media works, what it does and how it helps stem, prevent and combat violence, a blanket ban or block over social media remains one that many are partial to – just like the opposition to the Internet, the VHS recorder, TV and telephone in years past. The significant, multifaceted and growing ways through which social media help combat rumour, misinformation and shape public perceptions around democracy, governance, political participation and social mobilisation for good remain unexplored or often undervalued.
There is a far more sinister element also at play, increasingly evident as the blocks on social media continued long after the violence on the ground in Digana died down. The government, especially under Emergency Regulations, seemed overtly interested in engaging Facebook to stop the transmission of hate on its platforms, but covertly interested in negotiating ways through which dissent could also be controlled. Using Digana as a powerful, emotive reminder of what we as society should never again see, the government seeks to monitor and control the use of social media in particular, in ways yet to be publicly disclosed, and may never be fully revealed. True, governments have a legitimate purpose in ascertaining public mood and sentiment over social media, for obvious reasons related to governance, law and order and policymaking. But the constant refrain in Sri Lanka, including from Ministers in Government, is that it is the Ministry of Defence or the Army best positioned and capable of social media monitoring. This is dangerous for two reasons, at least. One, obviously, the Army isn’t really interested in human rights, the freedom of expression or privacy and the deep or dark State, dormant to date, now has the perfect vector through which to stamp its authority. Secondly, less evident, is that this government for the best of reasons is setting up the worst of templates – one ripe for abuse by more authoritarian, illiberal regimes in the future. Monitoring architectures, by their very nature, are turnkey solutions – which can be used for the benefit of society, or to severely restrict their rights. Who controls the architecture matters in a country without any constitutional or legal provisions to safeguard the right to privacy or oversight around surveillance.
Facebook, as a company, isn’t known for its ethics. For many years, data-driven and evidence-based arguments were presented to the company around the violence and hate produced, promoted, projected over its platform in Sri Lanka. It took Digana for the company to take serious notice. For years, Facebook was asked to strengthen its Sinhala language moderation in order to deal with the reporting of content. This wasn’t done. What is even more disturbing is that content explicitly, through direct translation and without any need for contextual awareness was in violation of community standards, passed muster – suggesting that those in charge of responding to user generated reports at Facebook who understood, or were Sinhalese, allowed their own personal bias and prejudice to take precedence over the company’s moderation guidelines. Facebook’s impunity regarding all this is indicative of Silicon Valley’s approach to the problem of hate writ large – profit first, public relations second, government satisfaction third, user capture fourth, ethics and rights – well, that’s for another day. Coupled with governments like ours who will use any excuse to control, contain and censor inconvenient narratives, and you have a perfect storm.
All this, of course, does nothing whatsoever to really address the root causes of the violence in Digana. Why did the STF attack innocent Muslim civilians? Why were the Police so impotent? Why hasn’t the government addressed racial hatred over three years? Why is a Buddhist monk, a central figure in the promotion of hate, openly seen with and beside the President in official tours abroad, even as he is wanted by the courts in Sri Lanka? Why isn’t the catastrophic failure of our intelligence services a matter of concern? Why did it take Digana for the government to wake up to the nature, volume, vector and sources of hate online, well-known, reported on, and flagged for years by civil society? What has any programme, policy or project on reconciliation done to address underlying communal and social grievances that give rise to this kind of violence? Why is there so much of hatred in those who are so young? Why is it that in Sri Lanka today, an accident, a drunken argument, a brush, nudge, poke or prod, a word or glance, a random action in sober or inebriated state, can immediately or days after, become a flashpoint for the worst communal violence, ignited by architects seeking political gain through chronic instability?
These are questions Facebook cannot answer, because they are our own creations. Social media wasn’t the cause of Digana, Gintota, Ampara or Aluthgama. These are two conversations here. One, around popular technologies and media, is emotive and helps conveniently gloss over the other more urgent, enduring and serious one, around the grievous failure of government. Our interest is perennially around the public optics of cosmetic solutions. Social media and Facebook today grab headlines because it’s easier than tackling the real issues that plague society and polity, post-war. The future if clear. We either fix and address them or face many Digana’s in the future.
Each one, worse than the other.
First published in The Sunday Island, 18 March 2018.