Written by Nuzaifa Hussain.

Image credit: mkhmarketing/Flickr, Licence CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

A temporary block on several social media platforms including Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, YouTube, Viber, IMO, Snapchat and Twitter has been deployed in Sri Lanka for the third time within the space of a month. The move came in the wake of attacks on mosques and Muslim-owned businesses in Chilaw after residents there perceived a threat to Christians in a social media post.

However, the social media blackout did little to curb communal violence and anti-Muslim riots in North Western Province this week, which resulted in angry mobs torching dozens of mosques and Muslim-owned businesses and homes, claiming one life.

While social media has been a tool for positive change in the past … today it has become weaponised to broadcast hate and upset fragile communal balances

The first social media block was implemented following a series of highly coordinated attacks on churches and hotels on Easter Sunday by local militants linked to the Islamic State (IS) that left over 250 people dead. In March 2018 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 circumvented at the time 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, were also blocked later.

In light of these recent events, this article considers the effectiveness of social media blocks and offers recommendations to curb the spread of misinformation and fake news resulting in communal violence.

The weaponisation of digital media

Social media shutdowns have faced global scrutiny.  Although government officials claim that such moves are essential to prevent violence from escalating, by curbing the spread of fake news and incitement, the instigators continue to work around such blocks, hence negating the argument. A recent working paper suggests that internet shutdowns could potentially increase the intensity of violent mobilisation.

While social media has been a tool for positive change in the past – as in the case of Twitter during the Arab Spring – today it has become weaponised to broadcast hate and upset fragile communal balances, further amplified by fake accounts and automated bots. As inflammatory content overruns social media feeds – the primary source of information for many citizens, especially impressionable young people  – misinformation becomes perceived as fact and prejudices are affirmed, creating an ‘us vs. them’ mentality. In extreme cases, this is used to mobilise and justify violence.

Online outrage has become very much part of socio-political dialogue around the world. However, in Sri Lanka and other countries with a history of vigilantism, digital violence can escalate to mob violence on the ground, as seen in the case of Digana in 2018 and North Western Province more recently.

Nonetheless, there are four practical ways in which nations can overcome the weaponisation of social media, as detailed below.

Strengthening the media

Globally, there has been a decline in public trust in the media, and this was also apparent in Sri Lanka following the terror attacks. Questions concerning the quality of the information available to the general public and the role of the post-attack coverage in inciting communal fears have been raised.

Journalists need to report on terrorist activities without falling prey to the manipulation of the terrorists. Also, the media has an obligation to inform the public, so a blackout is not the solution. However, journalists must strive towards socially responsible and accurate reporting. 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 broadcast 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 there acted decisively, making several media appearances, visiting victims, cancelling non-urgent engagements, convening the Defence and National Security Council, and taking significant measures to reassure and protect the public.

Regulation of technology

Industry regulation

The government should develop standards around the identification and removal of harmful content and hold companies accountable. Social media giants should also work to weaken financial incentives by making it challenging 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. In response, Facebook took several 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.

National regulation

Sri Lanka already has laws that comply with international standards to deal with hate speech, and 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’. However, non-enforcement of the law has been an issue.

International cooperation

Following the attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called for a global coordinated approach to rein in extremism and violence on social media. The ‘Christchurch Call’ is an agreement that calls for technology companies 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 country and company to decide how to honour its voluntary commitments.

Australia and Singapore have also recently passed legislation to crack down on fraudulent content, which includes hefty fines and even jail terms for social media executives if they do not ensure the ‘expeditious’ removal of inappropriate material. The UK’s ‘Online Harms’ White Paper, 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.

Investing in digital literacy

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 propaganda 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, a national education non-profit organisation 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.

Policymakers must also address the political, economic and social conditions that make citizens vulnerable to misinformation, such as loss of confidence in democratic institutions. Issues of structural racism as well as longstanding communal fears also need to be addressed.

Conclusion

In an age where global terror organisations are winning the ‘social media war’, nations should work together to weaken the harmful narratives of extremist elements. In addition to national and industry-level regulatory mechanisms, governments 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 to strengthen online accountability through the enforcement of laws that prohibit hate speech.

Nuzaifa Hussain is the Communications Manager at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKI) in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

*Articles published by The Asia Dialogue represent the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of The Asia Dialogue or affiliated institutions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.