Sri Lanka Digital blooms in social media and violence

Sanjana Hattotuwa

Social media and violence in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka suffered a brutal civil war for over 25 years. Post-war, the country remains divided, beneath the veneer of economic prosperity, relative calm, increased tourism and large-scale multi-sectoral infrastructure development. Social media strengthens prosocial democratic impulses as well as disturbingly destructive ones in Sri Lanka. The broad landscape of social media use and abuse in Sri Lanka, post-war (i.e. since 2009), mirrors the context in countries like Myanmar and the Philippines, and in elections or referenda held since 2015 in the US, UK, France and Germany.

An island-wide survey conducted by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) in 2016 paints a distressing landscape for democratic institutions and processes. Only 13.2% of Sri Lankans have a great deal of trust in the Parliament; 36.5% of Sri Lankans have no trust in the Parliament. Exactly half those polled said they trust political parties the least. In the March 2015 wave of the poll, 62.3% indicated that they trusted the Election Commission. By the February 2016 wave, this figure had declined to 54.8% (Centre for Policy Alternatives 2016b). The roots of this democratic deficit lie in the lack of trust around and poor public perception of key democratic institutions.

The weaponisation of social media, the inevitable result of a zero-sum political culture, to exacerbate socio-political division is a (long-term) strategy that is anchored in underlying socio-economic, political, religious and identity-based tensions that have grown for decades in the country. The end of the war in Sri Lanka has done little or nothing to address what gave rise to the violent conflict. Today, violent content on social media is often the digital manifestation of longer-standing communal fears, anxieties and concerns. These socio-political tensions have now metastasised into short-form video, memes and tweets produced by and for a young demographic.

Background Note: Primary research informing this chapter took place between 2014-2018 as part of work conducted with the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA). Other observations arise from data analysis and further research as part of ongoing doctoral studies at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (NCPACS) at the University of Otago, New Zealand.

Social media is not the source of violent conflict. On social media as well as in real-world interactions, racism may be the path of least resistance to anxieties, fears and tensions between communities that arc more economic in nature, or existential and personal. An uneven, unequal access to resources and other grievances around economics, especially in commerce and industry, leads to jealousies and other emotions that eventually, through visible, easily accessible, frictionless paths provided by nefarious actors on social media, find expression in a mob mentality and overt racism. The result is that racism grows and is seen as a root cause, when in fact, its genesis and growth is enmeshed in more complex socioeconomic realities in specific geographies, which predate social media. These complex digital interactions are locally rooted in physical, kinetic relations. At the same time, the affordances of social media allow for content to be seen by audiences who are geographically dispersed.

Social media platforms provided a channel to incite hate and mob violence against Muslims in Digana, Kandy, in March 2018. The weaponisation of Twitter since at least 2015 (Hattotuwa, Wijeratne, and Serrato 2018) and Facebook since around 2014 flag the significant power of social media to derail democratic dialogue and the negotiation of difference.

Facebook, over any other social media platform or service, drives and defines political communication and conversations, largely in Sinhala. Content generation trends were studied across 465 accounts that were overtly producing and promoting content that framed Sinhalese Buddhists in exclusive, preferential and superior frames, under increasing threat by Islam and Muslims, and consequently in need of urgent and if necessary violent pushback. The pages revealed a discernible increase in the production of content, particularly in Sinhala, just before the violence in March. Though semantic and more detailed content analysis is a work in progress, simple frequency analysis indicates content from Facebook pages openly partial to, anchored around and promoting an exclusive Sinhala- Buddhist nationalism, by order of magnitude pushed out more content than the civil society pages monitored around the same time. Furthermore, even though civil society produced content against the violence and with a view to calming communal tensions, it was hostage to echo chambers and almost entirely distinct from the loci on social media (e.g. the accounts and actors) that propagated ideas, myths and false information promoting the violence.

Key actants—or social media accounts—were responsible for a lot of the tweets capturing the violence, mirroring reportage of the anti-Muslim violence in Aluthgama, four years prior (Rawanpathirana 2014). In 2018, these key actants included some famous politicians, sportspersons like cricketers, leading journalists, citizens with no public institutional or party-political affiliation as well as civic media accounts, including those the author curated or collaborated with.

Evidence of relatively sophisticated algorithmically-powered influence operations through fake accounts and bots can already be seen in Sri Lanka. Research conducted in early 2018 indicates on Twitter alone evidence of significant investments in the weaponisation of the platform through the generation of accounts promoting a specific political frame or ideology, friends with specific politicians retweeting only the content produced by them and, in concert, attacking those who offered critical perspectives or were from civil society (Hattotuwa, Wijeratne, and Serrato 2018).

Government leaders did not use social media to attempt to quell violence. Almost entirely missing on social media during the violence in March 2018 was content from senior government leaders aimed at quelling the violence. Incredibly, just after the rioting, the President tweeted to congratulate the Indian cricket team for winning a series. Though it was widely retweeted and liked, there was nothing comparable on his account at the height of the violence—and it stands to reason, with far greater urgency and frequency—addressing the fallout, calling for calm, appealing for law and order, combatting rumour, holding those responsible for the violence accountable, detailing what police were doing to bring the violence under control or giving political leadership and expression to ideas and voices around co-existence, tolerance, diversity and democracy. Tellingly, the Prime Minister’s Twitter account was similarly silent.

In contrast, prosocial content framing co-existence, communal and religious harmony and nonviolence, on Twitter at the height of the violence, counterintuitively and organically (i.e. without any paid promotion) was popular. A tweet by a well-known public commentator on the distribution of dry rations in an area affected by the violence was retweeted hundreds of times in a short span of time. Journalists who interviewed popular film stars on the violence and the need to stop it found their content going viral too. But as noted earlier, those perpetrating the violence and fuelling the hate inhabited different spaces or spheres, even on the same platforms.

In an unprecedented move, the government blocked access to Facebook and other leading social media services in response to violence. This was ostensibly done to stop the spread of rumours and hate speech that may have contributed to anti-Muslim riots and attacks on mosques. Research on the impact and effectiveness of this move by government clearly indicates the futility and myopia of such measures (Wijeratne 2018).

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