Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka

First published in Peace Chronicle, the mnagazine of the Peace and Justice Studies Association, Summer 2019.


Write whatever makes sense to you, I was told. Though I understood the instruction, I struggled with its execution. The suicide bombings on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka massacred over 250 people. This included 45 children, or about the same number as those killed by the awful terrorism in Christchurch, New Zealand, a month earlier. Many hundreds more were injured, some severely. News reports on children who survived the attacks—too scared to speak and many scarred for life—I admit I glossed over. The content was just too hard to read, much less comprehend. While international media attention covered the terrorism on Easter Sunday and the days immediately following, then moved on to other world events, the violence, instability, confusion and chaos on the ground and across the country continued for over a fortnight. Struggling for words to capture what unfolded on the 21st of April, those of a certain age were reminded of and reverted to a time in the late 1980’s, when Sri Lanka was dealing with open war in the North-East, a brutal radical Marxist uprising in the South and a government of the day that was equally vicious in response and reaction.

After the awful terrorism in Christchurch a month prior, I was asked to respond to the violence by those in my University and beyond who harboured the assumption that I was used to that level of violence. I didn’t know quite what to say to my interlocutors, many of whom had had the envious privilege of mostly studying violent conflict in a library. The assumption was partly true. Many born to protracted conflict, faced with systemic discrimination or living in violence normalize the abnormal, the exceptional and chronic instability. Once normalised, ordinary life is conducted in frames that consider a day at a time. My parents, for example, when my sister and I were growing up, never came to any event in public together. Their logic, which I learnt as an adult, was that if one were to be killed by a suicide bomb—a common occurrence in the country of my childhood and youth—we would not be orphaned. This is not an equation I had to make with my son, who is now 12. Growing up in Sri Lanka, he has for almost all his life, never experienced the violence his mother and I grew up with and learned to negotiate.

These old considerations are now real and reborn. You don’t ever get used to this violence. It takes its toll in what is often not documented. The pauses, silences, shuttering of doors, closing of windows, darkening of rooms, cancellations, closures and concerns that grow within, but aren’t ever fully vocalized. You don’t get used to the loss of life. You don’t get used to seeing children die. You don’t get used to the constant anxiety. You learn to live, laugh and love despite the violence. But you never get used to it.

How then to make sense of what happened? I took recourse to my doctoral research, which looks at the role, reach and relevance of social media in Sri Lanka. I look at Facebook and Twitter in particular, but my focus extends to other platforms as well. Variously called networked gatekeeping or complex media ecologies, at its simplest, this area of research involves looking at how content produced or promoted digitally impacts public opinion as well as kinetic, physical reactions and responses. This is not as simple as positing a causal relationship between what’s posted online and what happens in the real world. And yet, Western scholarship and writing, very evident in the media framing and responses to the Easter Sunday violence, tends to simplistically project social media as an accelerant to violence on the ground. Contributing to this perspective, the Sri Lankan government blocked social media on Easter Sunday for nine days, ostensibly to protect citizens from misinformation seeded and spread on social media. It was Sri Lanka’s longest social media disruption. A few from outside the country and from Western countries supported this. However, many in Sri Lanka and I pushed back. Lived experience, context, culture and hard data, amongst other pulse points, very clearly indicated that blocks initiated by the government were entirely ineffective in their stated aims and counter-productive to boot.

Faced with the catastrophic failure of government to act on intelligence reports provided well in advance of the attacks, the near total collapse of crisis communications by the President and Prime Minister, the insensitivity of MPs who laughed and joked at a press conference held a day after the attacks, the shifting of blame, incredible denials, jostling for parochial or partisan advantage and in general, a complete lack of contrition and unity in responding to the massacre, tens of thousands expressed their frustration on social media. Data collected during the week saw unprecedented levels of grief on the 21st. By the 28th, this had transformed to very high levels of anger across more than 1,000 web pages dealing with politics, news, information, gossip, memes, entertainment and religion that I closely monitor. There was also, statistically, a lot of love on Facebook. More qualitative analysis indicated the emotion was closely pegged to criticism of the government. Violent rhetoric against the Muslim community grew apace, despite the social media block. Refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan in the country suffered the brunt of the pushback, with many forced out of their shelters and housing.

Wolfendal Church in Pettah, Sri Lanka photographed by Saranga Buwaneka.

Seven million of the country’s 22 million are on Facebook. There are around 23 million SIM cards registered in the country. WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Instagram are used by millions, daily, for everything from business and commerce to family chats and news. In just a week, some of the videos on Facebook uploaded by prominent news channels or politicians, even with a social media block in place, were viewed more times than the population of the country. Especially in the aftermath of a disaster, citizens turn to social media for news and information. Facebook is inextricably entwined into the country’s socio-political, economic and communications DNA. In this context, the blocking of social media added to the anger. It also weaponised grief, fear and anxiety by creating the space for content that whipped up emotions or incited hate. Importantly, this hate and violent othering have festered for decades in the country. Aside from ethno-political conflict, the country has, even after the end of war ten years ago, witnessed sustained violence against the Muslim community, condoned and even openly architected by sections of the Buddhist clergy. The terrorism on Easter Sunday was intentionally aimed at exacerbating these tensions.

Sri Lanka is already a tragic example of a new kind of transnational terrorism. For those of us who call it home, much of the commentary and framing in the media is a blur at best. We remain paralysed, not just by the magnitude of the events on Easter Sunday, but what is essentially a reset for the country’s post-war trajectory. With presidential elections due later this year revolving around populist incumbents and candidates, this terrorism plays into deeply problematic framing and responses. Comments by President Maithripala Sirisena, other politicians, and the army, blaming human rights activists and “too much of peace” for the violence, indicates the contours of a hostile terrain for peace and reconciliation which is both distressingly familiar and disturbingly novel.

I was asked to make sense of the violence on Easter Sunday. The reader, I hope, will forgive me for my failure to do so. Writing five op-eds published in New Zealand, studying and responding to the violence in Christchurch, I thought, would somehow prepare me better to capture what Sri Lanka experienced. The challenge for many of us in peacebuilding is to intellectually engage when emotionally overwhelmed. I am not alone in this and join many others in New Zealand, Sri Lanka and beyond who seem destined to find new meaning or take refuge in the pregnant lines of Robert Frost,

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

What we are today

Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?
Because the barbarians are coming today.
What’s the point of senators making laws now?
Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Waiting for the Barbarians, C P Cavafy

To condone the stoning of Muslims. To boycott their shops and businesses. To say that eating from Muslim shops poisons Sinhala Buddhists and makes them sterile. To say that a Muslim doctor had destroyed thousands of Sinhalese children. To say that the Rule of Law doesn’t work. This is no longer the domain of fringe lunacy, or a renegade monk. Warakagoda Sri Gnanarathana Thero is the Mahanayake Thera of the Asgiriya Chapter. He said all this and in public. To my mind, this is by order of magnitude worse than and indeed, going by statements made after Rathana Thero’s farcical fast, entirely counter to more conciliatory sentiments expressed by Gnanasara Thero, who isn’t known for his pacifism or love towards Muslims. Warakagoda Sri Gnanarathana Thero’s statement – because of his seniority – take on added significance. In 2017, the Asgiriya Prelate, following a meeting of the senior most prelates in the ‘Karaka Sangha Sabha’, condoned Gnanasara Thero’s virulent words and violent actions, despite the awful harm informed, influenced or inspired by the BBS against the Muslims for years and a campaign of vicious hate directed against Sandya Eknaligoda. After Easter Sunday, the racism of the Sri Lankan state is in full view and indubitable. And every day brings its further entrenchment or, for the more cynical, evidence around how much and to what degree, Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism is and will forever be what animates policies and politics.

Take for example, the President’s sentiments as reported in the media, a few days after the Asgiriya Prelate’s incitement to violence and hate. In Hanguranketha, opening – as one must – a new temple, the President noted in the presence of the Asgiriya Prelate that “the country will never head in the wrong direction if… leaders act on the advice and guidance of the Mahasangha”. That the highest political office has not a word to say against the racism and hate sown by one of the highest Prelate’s in the country comes as little surprise, given the Presidential pardon to Gnanasara Thero last month. At the time of writing, Mangala Samaraweera is the only MP to condemn the Asgiriya Prelate’s speech publicly. Samaraweera is on record questioning why the SLPP and factions of the SLFP are silent. This is pertinent since the Prelate noted the Sangha’s joy around the news that, apparently, Chamal Rajapaksa would be the next President, just before his homily of hate.

As if not more important, for Mr Samaraweera, the PM and the UNP, is to question why former SLFP’er and current UNP MP Mayantha Dissanayake, in the company of and referred to by the Asgiriya Prelate, hasn’t said a single word against or distanced himself from the incendiary sermon. Mindful of the bizarre context in Sri Lanka, where critical reportage on content inciting hate or violence risks arrest more than powerful political or robed producers of hateful rhetoric, I listened very closely to the Asgiriya Prelate’s sermon in Sinhala when translating it into English for subsequent dissemination amongst those who otherwise wouldn’t grasp the import of what was said. Thirty-eight seconds into the most shared version of the sermon, published by Radio Gagana on YouTube, there’s a reference by the Prelate to something that Mayantha Dissanayake had apparently said. The Prelate’s words are unclear. To be safe and maintain fidelity to the original, I translated this segment to English rather innocuously – as the Prelate noting that Mayantha Dissanayake had spoken earlier. However, though unclear, the Sinhala original is far more pregnant with meaning. In timbre and tenor, the Prelate is not berating Dissanayake or expressing something that was distinct from or different to whatever the MP had said before. The Prelate’s words prefacing the segment where he implores Sinhala Buddhists to not go to or eat from Muslim shops – “Maath kiyanawa / I also say” – suggest approbation and continuation of a line of thought that seems to be anchored to whatever UNP MP said, not repudiation or a clear disconnect. What Dissanayake said is not in the public domain. But his silence is telling. We know where the SLPP, SLFP and now the President stand. We do not know yet where the MP, PM or UNP stand, aside from Mr Samaraweera’s timely and courageous rejection of communal hate.

Stochastic terrorism, or so-called lone wolf attacks, is a growing risk in a context where hate and violence is normalised to the degree that one finds in Sri Lanka today. Terrorist acts that are ‘statistically predictable but individually unpredictable’ have no easy fix, since they are given birth to by a larger context of sustained hate mongering. When our President and Prelates openly espouse or condone violence against Muslims only to be met with weak repudiation and resistance at best, and a telling silence in the main, context, country and community risks and is ripe for radicalisation. The targets of hate, quickly and unsurprisingly losing faith in political office, public institutions and electoral processes, choose responses that by design, or quickly become, violent. The majority community, continuously and conspiratorially captured as facing destruction or destitution, out of unwarranted but palpable anxiety and fear, can and will take to violent means to secure their future, especially when the lives of their children are projected as being at stake. No good will come out of this prolonged barrage of hate and violence produced by some of the symbolically and politically most powerful people in the country.

Though subject to debate, the broken windows theory from criminology suggests that that visible signs of violence, if unattended to, encourages even greater and more serious violence. Think of the barrage of hate against Muslims as an endless enfilade aimed at what remains a fragile democracy, hanging on to the faintest of hope that another war or genocide can be averted. The shards of glass, metaphorically, is the permissive context for greater violence – fueled by anger, anxiety or arrack – that the likes of the Asgiriya Prelate and Gnanasara Thero create with total impunity. The hate and violence spewed by Buddhist monks, condoned by Politicians, is after the Easter Sunday attacks very visibly the warp and woof of mainstream identity. It is racist to the core. It is violent by design. It is strategically divisive. It is politically expedient. As someone quipped on Twitter just after the Asgiriya Prelate’s joyful assertion that a Rajapaksa would be the next President, it’s perhaps better to call Sri Lanka a theocracy and be done with it. It is also a useful starting point to critically appreciate the work of ONUR and many other arms of government, over the past decade, anchored to reconciliation in some form or the other. It is a useful reflection for donors and diplomats to also have, given how much and how often they praise strides in post-war development and democracy the country’s made, which I am at a complete loss to identify as easily or confidently.

Let’s be clear about all this and not mince words. This is a systemic problem, beyond just episodic sermonising and specific individuals. We have been, still clearly are, and will for the foreseeable future, be a racist state. The elimination of Muslim lives and livelihoods is what Chamal Rajapaksa’s glowing endorsement from the Buddhist clergy entails. Erasing them from society is what the President condones. The silence of the PM and UNP, save for one conscientious individual, is its own damnation. Despite all this, I am frequently told to maintain hope in light of a ‘silent majority’ of both the Buddhist clergy and Sinhalese that reject this rhetoric. I imagine this must be the same silent majority that was supposed to stop Nandikadal from happening.


First published in The Sunday Island, 23 June 2019.

When a law is not the answer

Wonderful news said all the Sri Lankans. But why Queensland, all the Australians asked. Fifteen years ago, a Rotary World Peace Fellowship award offered seven universities around the world to undertake a Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies. I chose the University of Bradford. I was awarded a place at the University of Queensland, in Brisbane. I didn’t complain. The scholarship was a chance to get out of Sri Lanka and rigorously study what I had till then done on the ground, at a time when violent conflict dynamics were, after some years of relative calm, rising rapidly. My Australian friends, however, were concerned that I would face in Queensland a degree of discrimination and intolerance they said I would never encounter in Sydney or Melbourne. I didn’t know enough to argue and expected the worst. After two years of extensive travel within the state and country, I returned to Sri Lanka experiencing very little along the lines I was warned about. Others though, at the same time, had a different experience – never physically violent, but far more verbally abusive. For them and I, this othering was at the margins of society. Well over a decade ago and without social media, violent extremism and ideology had to be actively sought after to be engaged with. Racism wasn’t digitally dispersed.

It is with an enduring affection of Australia that I am deeply concerned about disturbing new legislation, passed hurriedly last week, which uses the terrorism in Christchurch to justify overbroad controls of social media. The central focus of my doctoral research at Otago University is technology as both a driver of violence and a deterrent. How, today, social media promotes hate or harm is well known and widely reported. As with any generalisation, though elements of truth exist, the simplification of a complex problem results in illegitimate targets of fear or anger. Social media companies, for their part, are irascibly unmoved by what for years those like me have warned them about, around the abuse of platforms by those who seek to profit from violence. Coherence and consistency in policies that respond to the seed and spread of violence are lacking and resisted. However, significant changes in stance, response and policies are coming. The terrorism in Christchurch is responsible for accelerating globally what was sporadically mentioned or implemented with regards to safeguards around the production and promotion of content inciting violence, hate and discrimination. However, we must resist what appear to be simple answers to complex challenges, whether it comes from governments or big technology companies.

Violent extremism has many drivers, both visible and hidden. It doesn’t bloom overnight. Social media, inextricably entwined in New Zealand’s socio-political, economic and cultural fabric as it is back home in Sri Lanka, cannot be blamed, blocked or banned in the expectation that everything will be alright thereafter. Driven by understandable concern around the dynamics of how the terrorism in Christchurch spread virally on social media, the Australian legislation – rushed through in just two days without any meaningful public debate, independent scrutiny or critical input – doesn’t address root causes of terrorism, extremism or discrimination.

Amongst other concerns and though it sounds very good, holding social media companies and content providers criminally liable for content is a very disturbing template and precedent. American corporate entities are now required to oversee to a degree technically infeasible and humanly impossible, information produced on or spread through their services. This risks the imposition of draconian controls over what’s produced, judged by hidden indicators, with little independent oversight and limited avenues for appeal. As a global precedent, the law is even more harmful, allowing comparatively illiberal governments to project or portray as the protection of citizens, parochial laws essentially that stifle democratic dissent.

David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the freedom of expression, is also deeply concerned. In an official letter to the Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kaye stresses, amongst other more technical, procedural and legal points, the need for public review and proportionality, international legal obligations on the freedom of expression and imprecise wording in the law, which is entirely removed from how digital content is generated in society today, and by whom. And herein lies the danger for New Zealand too. Politicians, under pressure to respond meaningfully, need to assuage the fears of a grieving country through demonstrable measures. The tendency is to pick an easy target and push through solutions that look and sound strong. The underlying drivers of violence and conflict, however, simmer and fester. Measures taken to control and curtail gun ownership are welcome, and arguably, long overdue. Policymaking around social media, however, is a different problem set that cannot be as easily, or concretely, addressed.

This is not a submission to do nothing. Rather, it cautions against the understandable appeal of following the Australian response and law. Steps around the non-recurrence of domestic terrorism must certainly embrace aspects of social media regulation and related legislation. The public must be involved in this. We know already that social media reflects and refracts – mirroring values of consumers as well as, through ways academics are struggling to grasp fully, changing attitudes and perceptions of users over time. This requires governments to iteratively work with social media companies on checks and balances that systemically decrease violence in all forms.

Elsewhere in the world, politicians who know the least about social media seek to control it, and those who know more or better, often abuse it. Kiwis, led by PM Ardern’s government, have a historic opportunity to forge a response to terrorism – relevant and resonant globally – that incorporates how best government can work with technology companies to protect citizens from harm. Australia, with the best of intent, gets it very wrong. New Zealand, with a greater calling, must get it right.


This article was first published in the Otago Daily Times on 16 April 2019, under the title ‘A Historic Opportunity’.

Principles over promises: Responding to the Christchurch terrorism

Almost exactly a year ago, Facebook was in the news in New Zealand over a row with Privacy Commissioner John Edwards. The heated public exchange between Edwards and the company took place in the context of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which the private information of millions of Facebook users was harvested, illicitly, for deeply divisive, partisan and political ends. Edwards accused the company of breaching New Zealand’s Privacy Act. The company responded that it hadn’t and that the Privacy Commissioner had made an overbroad request which could not be serviced. Edwards proceeded to delete his account and warned others in New Zealand that continued use of Facebook could impact their right to privacy under domestic law. Just a few months prior, the COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, was pictured on Facebook’s official country page with New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern. The caption of the photo, which captured the two women in an embrace after a formal meeting, flagged efforts the company was making to keep children safe. It is not surprising that Sandberg also wrote the paean to Ardern in last year’s Time 100 list of the most influential people.

The violence on the 15th of March in Christchurch dramatically changed this relationship. In response to the act of terrorism, Facebook announced, and for the first time, a ban on “peace, support and representation of white nationalism and separatism on Facebook and Instagram”. Two weeks after the killings in Christchurch, a message by Sandberg was featured on top of Instagram feeds in the country and featured in local media. The message noted that Facebook was “exploring restrictions on who can go Live depending on factors such as prior Community Standard violations” and that the company was “also investing in research to build better technology to quickly identify edited versions of violent videos and images and prevent people from re-sharing these versions.” Additionally, the company was removing content from, and all praise or support of several hate groups in the country, as well as Australia. Sandberg’s message called the terrorism in Christchurch “an act of pure evil”, echoing verbatim David Coleman, Australia’s immigration minister, in a statement he made after denying entry to far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos, who after the attack referred to Muslims as “barbaric” and Islam as an “alien religious culture”. Last week, New Zealand’s Chief Censor David Shanks, declared the document released by the killer as ‘objectionable’, which now makes it an offence to share or even possess it. Following up, authorities also made the possession and distribution of the killer’s live stream video an offence. Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft have all been to New Zealand in the past fortnight, issuing statements, making promises and expressing solidarity. Silicon Valley-based technology companies are in the spotlight, but I wonder, why now? What’s changed?

Since its debut in 2015, a report by BuzzFeed News published in June 2017 flagged that at least 45 instances of grisly violence including shootings, rape, murders, child abuse and attempted suicides were broadcast on Facebook Live. That number would be higher now, not including Christchurch. The Founder and CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, in May 2017, promised that 3,000 more moderators, in addition to 4,500 already working, would be added to over live and native video content. Promises to do more or better are what Zuckerberg and Sandberg are very good at making, in the aftermath of increasingly frequent and major privacy, ethics, violence or governance related scandals Facebook is in the middle of. Less apparent and forthcoming, over time, is what really the company does, invests in and builds.

There are also inconsistencies in the company’s responses to platform abuses. In 2017, the live video on Facebook of a man bound, gagged and repeatedly cut with a knife, lasting half an hour, was viewed by 16,000 users. By the time it was taken down, it had spread on YouTube. A company spokesperson at the time was quoted as saying that “in many instances… when people share this type of content, they are doing so to condemn violence or raise awareness about it. In that case, the video would be allowed.” Revealingly, the same claim wasn’t made with the Christchurch killer’s production.

The flipside to this is the use of Facebook’s tools to bear witness to human rights abuse. In 2016, the killing of a young black American Philando Castile by the Police in Minnesota was live-streamed on Facebook by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who was present with him in the car. The video went viral and helped document police brutality. There is also clear documented evidence of how violence captured from a Palestinian perspective, as well as content on potential war crimes, is at greater risk of removal on social media platforms. In fact, more than 70 civil rights groups wrote to Facebook in 2016, flagging this problem of unilateral removals based on orders generated by repressive regimes, giving perpetrators greater impunity and murderers stronger immunity.

It is axiomatic that deleting videos, banning pages, blocking groups, algorithmic tagging and faster human moderation do not erase root causes of violent extremism. The use of WhatsApp in India to seed and spread violence is a cautionary tale in how the deletion of content on Facebook’s public platforms may only drive it further underground. The answer is not to weaken or ban encryption. As New Zealand shows us, it is to investigate ways through which democratic values address, concretely and meaningfully, existential concerns of citizens and communities. This is hard work and beyond the lifespan of any one government. It also cannot be replaced by greater regulation of technology companies and social media. The two go hand in hand, and one is not a substitute for the other. It is here that governments, as well as technology companies, stumble, by responding to violent incidents in ways that don’t fully consider how disparate social media platforms and ideologues corrosively influence and inform each other. Content produced in one region or country, can over time, inspire action and reflection in a very different country or community.

Take an Australian Senator’s response, on Twitter, to the Christchurch terrorism. Though condemned by the Australian PM, the very act of referring to the Senator and what he noted on Twitter promoted the content to different audiences, both nationally and globally. The Twitter account, as well as the Facebook page of the Senator in question, produce and promote an essential ideology indistinguishable from the Christchurch killer’s avowed motivations. It is the normalisation of extremism through the guise of outrage and selective condemnation. What should the response be?

In Myanmar, an independent human rights impact assessment on Facebook, conducted last year, resulted in the company updating policies to “remove misinformation that has the potential to contribute to imminent violence or physical harm”. And yet, it is unclear how what may now be operational in Myanmar is also applied in other contexts, including in First World countries at risk of right-wing extremism.

I wonder, does it take grief and violence on the scale of Christchurch to jolt politicians and technology companies to take action around what was evident, for much longer? And in seeking to capitalise on the international media exposure and attention around an incident in a First World country, are decisions made in or because of New Zealand risking norms around content production, access and archival globally, on social media platforms that are now part of the socio-political, economic and cultural DNA of entire regions? Precisely at a time when any opposition to or critical questioning of decisions taken on behalf of victims and those at risk of violence can generate hostility or pushback, we need to safeguard against good-faith measures that inadvertently risk the very fibre of liberal democracy politicians in New Zealand and technology companies seek to secure. An emphasis on nuance, context, culture and intent must endure.

So is meaningful investment, beyond vacuous promises. In 2016, Zuckerberg called live video “personal and emotional and raw and visceral”. After the Christchurch video’s visceral virality, it is unclear if Sandberg pushed this same line with PM Ardern. In fact, Facebook astonishingly allowed an Islamophobic ad featuring PM Ardern wearing a hijab, which was only taken down after a domestic website’s intervention. Clearly, challenges persist. Social media companies can and must do more, including changing the very business models that have allowed major platforms to grow to a point where they are, essentially, ungovernable.

Grieving, we seek out easy answers. Banning weapons and blocking extremist content helps contain and address immediate concerns. Ideas though are incredibly resilient, and always find a way to new audiences. The longer-term will of the government to address hate groups, violent extremism in all forms and the normalisation of othering, from Maori to Muslim, requires sober reflection and more careful policymaking. What happens in New Zealand is already a template for the world. We must help PM Ardern and technology companies live up to this great responsibility.


First published on Scoop NZ on 4 April 2019.

Pulse points

Whether bound by country, city or community, the pulse of or, on Friday, the pain from a place like Christchurch can often be determined by the careful collection of social media updates published in the public domain. It is an interest in precisely this that brought me to New Zealand, where I study how Twitter and Facebook are integral to political communications and cycles of violence in Sri Lanka, my home. In South Asia, social media engagement drive attention towards or away from around key events, issues, individuals and institutions. Sport, religion, politics, elections and entertainment dominate content creation. The resulting conversations, to varying degrees, contest or cement opinions. Emotions drive engagement more than reasoned presentation or critical inquiry. Interestingly, though geographically distant and culturally distinct, a shared pattern of access and resulting behaviour on social media makes a younger demographic back home almost indistinguishable from their counterparts in New Zealand. This includes the heightened production of content on social media after an unexpected event.

Based on all this, I wasn’t surprised to discover that the violence in Christchurch last Friday generated a tsunami of content just over Twitter. In the hours and days after the killings, specific hashtags on Twitter captured a community grappling with trying to make sense of, and recover from, a scale and scope of violence unprecedented in its history. The study of this content – much of it extremely painful to read – offers a glimpse into how the violence in Christchurch resonated access the country, and far beyond.

Almost immediately after the first news reports of the killings, #christchurchmosqueshooting, #christchurchshooting, #christchurchterroristattack, #newzealandterroristattack and #christchurch started to trend on Twitter domestically. This means that content using one or more of these hashtags showed a dramatic increase over a short period. In just a day, around 85,000 tweets featured one or more of these hashtags. By the 16th, two other hashtags started to trend – #49lives and #theyareus. In just a day, these two hashtags generated close to 37,000 tweets. With a single tweet capturing 280 characters, I was curious as to what just over 34 million characters, in the first 24 hours after the killings in Christchurch, said about the event. This is not just of academic interest. Policymakers and others interested in or tasked with immediate response after a natural or man-made catastrophe can look at social media as a digital weathervane of public sentiment, crafting measures based on need, mood, reception or pushback.

When studied at scale, publicly shared content on social media is almost pathological. Key ideas, communities that assemble around specific individuals and content that goes viral can be gleaned through network science, which those like myself employ to understand key drivers and motivations behind content generation. This is easier to grasp by way of an example. Adil Shahzeb is in Islamabad, Pakistan and a television news presenter and host. And yet, on the 15th itself, he appears quite prominently in the content shared around the violence in Christchurch. This is, prima facie, utterly confusing. How can someone all the way in Pakistan become rapidly popular on Twitter around an event that happened in New Zealand? The answer is in a single tweet by Shahzeb, currently pinned to his Twitter profile, which identifies a man who tried to stop the killer as Naeem Rashid, with Pakistani origins. Rashid and his son Talha, the tweet noted, were tragically lost to the killer. This single tweet generated a considerable number of retweets and likes amongst those on Twitter, in both Pakistan and New Zealand. It is a similar story with Sunetra Choudhury, a Political Editor and journalist at NDTV, a popular Indian TV station. One of her tweets, featuring a clip of PM Ardern speaking to the affected community in Christchurch on Saturday, was viewed close to half a million times. The responses to the tweet, almost all from India, feature an overwhelming appreciation of the New Zealand PM’s political leadership. These are two great examples of how empathy, shock and solidarity – here expressed in Urdu, Hindi and English – were able to cross vast geographies in a very short span of time.

Another way to get a sense of what’s being discussed is to analyse the substance of the tweet. Through what’s called a word cloud, words used more frequently can be rendered to appear larger than other words used less frequently. This process ends up with a visual map of the conversational terrain that affords the closer study of specific terms. Different hashtags feature different word clusters, but across all of them, Muslim, condemns, reject, Muslims, victims, terrorist, mentally, deranged, mosque, name, remembering, grotesque, white, supremacist and love feature prominently. The thrust, timbre and tone of tweets that feature these words are overwhelmingly empathetic and ranges from the profoundly sad to the outraged. By way of a loose comparison, when awful violence directed against the Muslim community broke out in Sri Lanka almost exactly a year ago, public sentiment I studied on Twitter at the time didn’t feature anything remotely akin to the levels of solidarity and support channelled towards the Muslim community in New Zealand, since last Friday.

What academics call a ‘platform affordance’ is more simply known to all Twitter users as a mention. Prefacing an account with the @ symbol ensures that on Twitter, a specific account is notified of a tweet. This is also used to direct a tweet towards a specific recipient or group. Unsurprisingly, PM Ardern, the Australian PM, the American President and controversial Australian Senator Fraser Anning are amongst those referenced the most over the first 24 hours. #49lives started trending on the 6th, generating nearly 17,000 tweets in a single day. The instigator of the hashtag is American. Khaled Beydoun is a Professor of Law based in Detroit, Michigan and a published author on Islamophobia. It is perhaps this academic interest that drove him to create #49lives, reflecting the number that at the time was the official toll of those killed in Christchurch. Beydoun’s tweet, pinned to his profile, has generated an astonishing level of engagement – from New Zealand as well as globally. Liked nearly 146,000 times, retweeted just over 89,000 times and generated around 1,700 responses to date, the tweet prefigures PM Ardern’s assertion in New Zealand’s Parliament that she will not ever speak the killer’s name. “I don’t know the terrorist’s name. Nor do I care to know it.” avers Beydoun’s tweet, which also asks to remember stories around and celebrate the lives of the victims. #theyareus generated just over 20,000 tweets by the 16th, but the sentiment or phrase is anchored to a tweet by PM Ardern made on the 15th. In a tweet liked 132,000 times and retweeted 40,000 times to date, she noted that “many of those affected will be members of our migrant communities – New Zealand is their home – they are us.” However, it was two heartfelt tweets by Sam Neill, a businessman from Central Otago, that kick-started the hashtag trend. Speaking out against white supremacism and in solidarity with the Muslim community in New Zealand, Neill’s two tweets, published consecutively on the 15th and 16th, have cumulatively generated nearly 27,000 likes, 4,200 retweets and 300 responses to date.

In sum, a cursory top-level study of the nearly 85,000 tweets generated in the 24 hours after the violence on Friday shows a global community outraged or dismayed at terrorism, an outpouring of love, empathy and solidarity, engagement that spans many continents and languages, addressing prominent politicians and journalists, featuring hundreds of smaller communities anchored to individuals based in New Zealand and beyond tweeting in a manner overwhelmingly supportive of the Muslim community.

The Twitter data underscores the value of studying public sentiment on social media in the aftermath of a tragedy. Social media provides pulse points. Framed by moments in time and driven by an understanding of, amongst other things, context, technology, access and language, the study of content in the public domain often helps in ascertaining how violence migrates from digital domains to physical, kinetic expression. Christchurch offers the world another lesson, a glimpse of which I wanted to capture here. Just as social media helps extremist ideology take seed and grow, it also helps in healing, empathy, gestures of solidarity, expressions of unity, the design of conciliatory measures and the articulation of grief and sympathy. The admiration, bordering on adulation, PM Ardern has received since Friday for her political leadership on just Twitter alone indicates that New Zealand is already seen as a template for how a country can and should respond to terrorism. These are more than just ephemeral in nature. Long after the world has moved on to the next news cycle, domestic conversations around what happened in Christchurch will endure on social media. Understanding how these ideas, anxieties and aspirations grow and spread lie at the heart of measures, over the long-term, that address extremism, racism, terrorism and prejudice, in all forms.

Sanjana Hattotuwa is a PhD student at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (NCPACS), University of Otago. This article was first published on 21 March 2019 on Scoop New Zealand.

The infamy engines

Coming out of a long meeting, the first I heard of the violence in Christchurch was from those in Sri Lanka who had got breaking news alerts. I was both very disturbed and extremely intrigued. Terrorism as popular theatre or spectacle is not new, and some academics would argue is a central aim of terrorists, who want their acts recorded and relayed, not redacted or restrained. The use of social media to promote and incite hate, violence and prejudice is also not new. From ISIS to politicians elected into office through populist, prejudiced campaigns, social media is foundational in contemporary terrorist recruitment and political propaganda. What events in Christchurch last Friday brought to light was something entirely different, new and very unlikely to be resolved easily or quickly. The killer’s intentional use of the internet will have far longer reaching implications, requiring significant, urgent reform around the governance of large social media platforms as well as oversight mechanisms, including regulations, on parent companies.

Though Facebook New Zealand, Google and Twitter all issued statements hours after the attack that they were working with the New Zealand Police to take down content associated with the attack, the content had by then spread far and wide across the web. The video moved from platform to platform, edited, freeze-framed, downloaded off public streams which risked being taken down and then re-uploaded to private servers, which in turn served up the video to thousands more. As Washington Post journalist Drew Harwell noted, “The New Zealand massacre was live-streamed on Facebook, announced on 8chan, reposted on YouTube, commentated about on Reddit, and mirrored around the world before the tech companies could even react”. The challenge is significant because of the scale of the platforms, with billions of users each creating or consuming vast amounts of content every second. Managing the platforms is now largely algorithmic, meaning that only machines can cope with the scale and scope of content produced every second. There are serious limitations to this approach. Terrorists know and now increasingly exploit it, weaponising the unending global popularity of social media to seed and spread their ideology in ways that no existing form of curtailment, containment or control can remotely compete with. And that’s partly because of the way algorithms tasked with oversight of content are trained, which is entirely opaque. It is entirely probable that algorithms trained to detect signs of radical Islamic terrorism are incapable of flagging a similar violent ideology or intent promoted in English, anchored to the language and symbolism of white supremacism or fascism.

In March 2018, Facebook’s Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Mike Schroepfer noted that the company was using artificial intelligence (AI) to police its platform, and that it was “fairly effective” in distinguishing and removing “gore and graphic violence”. Last Friday’s killings highlight the risible falsity of this claim. Hours after the killings, dozens of videos featuring the same grisly violence as the original live stream were on Facebook. One had generated 23,000 views an hour, with nearly 240,000 seeing it. Though Facebook notes it blocked 1.5 million videos in the days after the killings from being uploaded, it has tellingly withheld statistics on how many the original live stream reached or why 300,000 related videos were not identified soon after upload, which means they too were viewed – even for a short time – by hundreds of thousands. And this isn’t the first time graphic, wanton violence has resided on the platform for hours before it was taken down, by which time, the strategic aim and intention of producers have been met. The problem doesn’t end there. Neal Mohan, YouTube’s Chief Product Officer, is on record saying how Christchurch brought the company’s moderation and oversight to its knees. Unable to deal with tens of thousands of videos spawned across its platform that showed the grisly killings – one every second at its peak. In two unprecedented moves for the company based on the severity of the challenge, his team decided to block search functionality that allows users to search recent uploads and also completely bypass human moderation, trusting even with the possibility of false positives, content possibly linked to the violence in Christchurch flagged by its algorithmic agents. Mohan has no final fix. The company just has no better way – even in the foreseeable future – to deal with another incident of this nature. Terrorists simply have the upper hand.

The Christchurch killer knew this and used it to his advantage. He won’t be the last. The appeal to internet subcultures, famous personalities, memes, the very choice of music, expressions, gestures and popular references are a new argot of communications intentionally designed to use online cultures as means to amplify and promote violent ideology (called red-pilling). At the same time, malevolent producers can almost entirely bypass existing controls and checks on the distribution of such material. The scale of social media is the hook, with the inability to oversee and inadequacies around governance, weaponised. Academics call this a wicked problem – a challenge that is so hard that even partial responses to any single aspect or facet increase the levels of complexity, often exponentially.

Generating greater friction around the production, promotion and spread of content is not in the interests of social media companies, who will continue to maintain – not without some merit – that billions of users producing vast amounts of mundane yet popular content daily is what primarily drives research and development. Read profits. Not without some irony, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg wrote in 2018 a glowing tribute to New Zealand’s Prime Minister in Time magazine’s list of 100 ‘Most Influential People’. After PM Ardern noted that the live streaming of the grisly killings would be an issue she takes up with the company and perhaps mortified that this incident will strengthen calls around more robust regulation in the US, Sandberg had reached out after the violence, though it is unclear with what intent or assurances.

This rough sketch of the context I locate my doctoral studies in masks far greater complexity, anchored to community, culture, context and country. What is true of social media Sri Lanka, my home and the central focus of my research, doesn’t always hold sway in New Zealand. There are however strange parallels. Repeated warnings around the weaponisation of Facebook to incite hate and violence, since 2014, went entirely unacknowledged by the company until severe communal riots almost exactly a year ago. In Myanmar, the company’s platforms were flagged by the United Nations as those that helped produce, normalise and spread violence against Muslims. Till 2018, the company did little to nothing to address this, despite warnings and ample evidence from local organisations. YouTube’s recommendation engine – the crucial algorithm that presents content that may interest you – has long since and openly been flagged as extremely problematic, beguilingly guiding users towards far-right radicalisation. The Christchurch killer’s release of a 74-page document before his rampage shows an acute understanding of how all this works, by transforming tired conspiracy into highly desirable material through strategic distribution just before an act that serves as the accelerant to infamy.

Alex Stamos, the former Chief Security Officer at Facebook, posted in the aftermath of Christchurch a sobering reminder of just why this violence goes viral. He notes that the language used, links provided and even excerpts of the violent video broadcast by news media only served to pique interest in the killer’s original document and full video. This is a disturbing information ecology where content produced by terrorists cannot be taken down easily or quickly because the surge of interest generated around discovery and sharing will overwhelm attempts to delete and contain. If this is the world we now inhabit and by using social media, contribute to cementing, the questions directed at companies and governments may be better directed at ourselves. How many of us searched for the video, and shared it? How many of us, without having any reason to, searched for, read and shared the killer’s document? If we cannot control our baser instinct, then we become part of the problem. The terrorists are counting on this, and us, to succeed. We should not let them win.


Sanjana Hattotuwa is a PhD student at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (NCPACS), University of Otago. This article was first published on Stuff New Zealand on 20 March 2019.

Terrorism in Aotearoa

Do you love New Zealand, asked the extremely inebriated young white man and his companion as they suddenly blocked my path at the Octagon, a few weeks after I arrived in Dunedin. Of all the people on the sidewalk at the time, I noticed they only followed me for a while. Not knowing quite how to respond, I said affably that I liked what I had seen so far. Entirely uninterested in my answer, coming closer and with their bodies and fingers arching towards me, they said that they were willing to die for New Zealand and that I needed to know this. Recalling a poet from Sri Lanka who in verse noted that it was far better to live for one’s country, I decided just to smile somewhat incredulously. Satisfied that whatever point they had wanted to make had got through to me, they left and lunged into a wine and beer shop.

Claims of New Zealand’s innocence lost after Friday’s attack in Christchurch need to be tempered with stories that abound around how those who are perceived to be different to or somehow not Kiwi are subject to, every day, the language and looks of condescension, incomprehension and suspicion. Not noticing this othering or not being subject to it is the privilege of those who are, and are seen to be Caucasian and Kiwi. New Zealand is isolated by geography but despite popular belief isn’t as exceptional to be immune from ingrained prejudice and latent racism. Especially in the light of the strong political leadership responding to the attack last Friday in Christchurch, endeavouring to define New Zealand as multicultural and diverse, the acknowledgement of any underlying bias amongst society is arguably hard. Some may argue it is an insensitive or inopportune moment to raise systemic issues, when the more urgent need is to respond to an episode of wanton violence. An argument can be made to pursue both, recognising that longer-term policymaking requires the unearthing of deep-seated anxieties.

I came to the University of Otago to study the role, reach and relevance of social media in political communication. My research is primarily based on Sri Lanka, where I come from and call home. Friday’s events have resulted in the frames and foci of my research, directed more to a city, community and country I never expected would be a primary site of study or analysis. This is personally jarring, but not entirely surprising. White supremacism and fascism, when those terms are employed, are frightening concepts and unfathomable to most. But fear of strangers is more common. It is also  shared, present both amongst communities in New Zealand and those who are new immigrants. When channels to address this fear aren’t present – through robust dialogue, sustained interaction, education or official policy – alternative vectors of information come into play and take root. Bizarre but compelling conspiracy theories, demonisation and othering thrive online, amplifying our worst fears by mutating legitimate sources of grievance or anxiety into vast communal or civilizational faultlines, perverting over time any appreciation of diversity and demos.

A document uploaded to the Internet by the killer – a self-proclaimed fascist – is instructive reading on this score. First, the language is simple and clear, even if and indeed, particularly because, the logic is so twisted. The entirely subjective and strategically selective are presented as indubitable fact and authoritative history. Existential concerns about the economy, jobs, and particularly important for New Zealand, the environment, are posited as those immigrants and Muslims, in particular, are to blame for. Islam is singled out as a violent religion. Various purported features of the Muslim community are defined as significant threats to a way of life that predates their problematic, polluting entry. Though the document is anchored to right-wing extremism, what’s remarkable is in how much of it resonates with the anti-Muslim rhetoric spewed by extreme Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist monks in Sri Lanka, and their equivalent in Myanmar. The targets of hate are the same. The unborn, women, children and men, brick and mortar structures as well as Islam itself are identified as threats that need to be eliminated – urgently and everywhere – for the greater good and the survival of a more exalted and antecedent culture, congregation or community.

Aside from the physical and kinetic, the process of othering also happens at scale when communities – and especially the young – are divorced from any direct engagement with diversity yet increasingly connected over social media. In the absence of meaningful interaction between diverse groups, faiths, genders or identities, clusters of the like-minded form online, almost immediately putting up high-barriers to inflows of opinion, information and perspectives that contest or question widely held assumptions. Over time, the illusion of diversity based on only the smallest of divergence supplants a more open discussion that embraces radically different ideas. Author Eli Pariser warned us about this many years ago, noting how algorithmically, our social media accounts feed us what we want to see, instead of what we need to engage with. It is online and by careful design that Friday’s fascist found his most receptive audience. As Washington Post journalist Drew Harwell noted, “The New Zealand massacre was live-streamed on Facebook, announced on 8chan, reposted on YouTube, commentated about on Reddit, and mirrored around the world before the tech companies could even react”. Policymakers who may not even recognise some of the platforms here have a steep learning curve ahead. New Zealand authorities must now pivot an existing intelligence apparatus geared to hone in on the projected threat of Islamic radicalisation, to as or more adroitly pick up signals around the very real presence and rapid spread of white supremacist ideology.

Which begs the question – should the response to Friday be primarily one that is anchored to national security? Coming from Sri Lanka, I sincerely hope not. In my country, legislation purportedly drafted to prevent counter-terrorism has resulted in a convenient framework for successive governments that condones extrajudicial torture and the rampant abuse of human rights, for decades. The slow erosion of civic rights begins, invisibly, with the emotional appeals to protect all citizens or certain groups from violence. And the very technologies that help with identifying threats are also turnkey solutions that increase surveillance. The necessary balance between proportional responses to new and increasing threats and the protection of civil liberties has escaped Sri Lanka, where more parochial and communal interests have held sway. New Zealand’s story, in the months and years to come, must not be this.

Flagged and framed in my social media accounts since Friday is the contrast between a moral and political leadership so visibly present here, yet markedly absent in other countries after a cataclysmic event of this nature, including my own. Terrorism of this scale, speed and scope is new here. Many of who come to and seek refuge in New Zealand are no strangers to much worse and for a lot longer. But what is both remarkably different and since Friday, reassuring, is the language employed by and actions of this country’s political leadership. Faced with an unprecedented loss of life, all official responses – without exception – were anchored to denouncing extremism and fringe lunacy, not communities and faiths present in, or part of, New Zealand. Ironically, it may not even be recognized as exceptional by those living here, but it is precisely that for those of us who are more used to, tired of and frustrated with politicians who are in effect as racist as the terrorists and terrorism they often seek to denounce.

Though profoundly distressed by the events of Friday, I am hopeful that the tragedy will result in local and national conversations which lead to, through policy and practice, social, political and cultural templates for other countries to emulate in responding to, and preventing, terrorism. The encounter at the Octagon fresh into my sojourn in Dunedin was not the only time I have been subject to wary looks and violent language. It is worse for others, identified as belonging to a faith or community that is feared more. The pain of acknowledging this is – more than or at least alongside revisions to legislation around gun ownership – a necessary step towards a country that may never be able to prevent terrorism, but always sees it as entirely alien to its core values, beliefs and principles rooted in decency, dignity, diversity and democracy.


Sanjana Hattotuwa is the Founding Editor of Groundviews. He is currently pursuing doctoral studies at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (NCPACS), University of Otago. An edited version of this article was published in The Otago Daily Times on 20 March 2019.