Role of social media in igniting pogroms

Posted on March 9, 2018  /  0 Comments

I was asked by the FT about the Facebook shut-down decision of the government. Here is my response:

It is true that Facebook as well as Viber, etc. have been, and are being, extensively used by various extremist groups to organize. The climate for this conflagration was created by mainstream media such as Divaina, which gave coverage to hate speech as well as by hate speech messages that were circulated among their circles of friends and family without central direction by members of the majority community using social media, not limited to Facebook. The root cause of the problem lies in this insidious spread of falsehoods and hate over multiple years, not solely in the specific messages being communicated now.

The immediate priority for government (and for all well meaning citizens of Sri Lanka) is stopping further violence. From colonial times, it has been believed that the formation of mobs can be prevented by stopping or controlling communication. The idea of the curfew, which prevents individuals from being on the roads and public spaces, reflects that thinking. In the context of telephones and telegraphs, government has believed that their control in times of “emergency” is necessary to prevent the formation of mobs. The Telecommunications Act No 25 of 1991 includes provisions that allow it to do so. Obviously, the framers of that legislation did not know about social media back in 1991. So the question is whether the banning of one application, Facebook, or a class of applications, social media, is legal. Even if the legality issue is kept aside, one has to ask if such a ban will be effective, given that Facebook and Internet penetration in Sri Lanka is still around 30 percent. The evidence does seem to be clear that Facebook or other social media are not solely responsible for mobilizing the violent mobs. Is it not possible that phone calls and SMS are also used? Or people going across fences to spread lies and hate, and encouraging the formation of violent mobs?

There is no doubt that we need to work hard, in cooperation with the providers of social media applications, to prevent the spreading of hate speech. This is not a task that is limited to when the mobs are running, but is a long-term project. For the immediate problem what the government should do is seek to cooperation of Facebook and others to identify the sources of hate messages if any, and shut them down, rather than shut down the whole system which prevents event the good message such as those by Upul Tharanga and Kumar Sangakkara from getting through.

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