Unlike the anti-Muslim riots in Aluthgama four years ago, the horrible violence in Kandy, Digana and surrounding areas was covered in great detail by the mainstream media. As a consequence of dealing with the fallout of the violence over social media, some insights are worth sharing. This is particularly pertinent in light of the censorship of social media carried out under Emergency Regulations by the government, ostensibly with the intent of controlling, curtailing and containing the spread of content that incited violence or fomented hate. The public were also divided – with some noting that social media was the cause of, or certainly added to the violence, and others – like myself – noting that the myopic blocking of key platforms were extremely harmful on a number of fronts and set a terrible precedent for governments in the future to do as they saw fit to curtail information flows. But to this we shall arrive after some observations which mainstream media cannot report on, because their model of journalism isn’t linked to a deep-dive into, or the sifting of social media content.
The sheer volume of social media content generation during the violence was significant. Close to ten thousand tweets in Sinhala and English alone with the hashtag #digana, marking out the content as somehow anchored to what was going on in the area. There were dozens of pages on Facebook that were anchored to extremist Buddhist groups promoting falsehoods, vicious diatribes against the Muslim community and Islam, replete with memes and photography on top of which were often calls to protect Buddhism, congregate at a certain place or Temple to discuss and take action against threats to Buddhism, the accelerated birth rate of Muslims, continuing rumours and purported evidence of sterilisation pills sold or somehow smuggled by Muslims to be used against Sinhalese women, and language that suggested there were violent, invaders, alien, untrustworthy, hostile, ungrateful, ungracious and a community that needed to be taught a lesson or two.
Importantly for a discussion on the merits of this content on social media and its influence on the violence over the week is the fact that a lot of this content was openly published, for years on end, by accounts, individuals and institutions who in many cases were openly named, and with contact details given. In other cases, the content was pegged to anonymous or pseudonymous accounts. There are dozens of videos still up on YouTube pegged to individuals and organisations promoting this line of thinking. Repeated reports to Facebook in particular have yielded no relief, since the company does not have the necessary resources to monitor the spread of hate on its platform in Sinhala. Another key development this week was in the form of around seven WhatsApp group invitations I got, with names indicative of the content and discussions they would have featured.
It was not an option to enter these groups with my mobile number since I would either have been immediately targeted, kicked out or both. Screenshots sent by those who did infiltrate these groups reminded one of the stories now documented of pre-genocide Rwanda – photos of an assorted array of knives calling for all good men to rally around and deal with a problem, the targeting of women specifically, the highlighting of brick and mortar structures including mosques for destruction, the planning and plotting to destroy community symbols, the coordination of mobs, the fuelling of group think against community and religion, the sharing of videos, photos and other material that was trophy footage from individuals and groups who celebrated the wanton destruction and violence. There was also a link to a group on Telegram I received, and since the government also blocked Viber, it’s clear that instant messaging in general has become a primary vector in the communication of violent content leading up to and especially during riots.
The data on Google is also quite revealing. Over the period covering the height of rioting, Mar. 6 – 8, searches for ‘Molotov cocktails’ on Google indicate a sharp, significant increase in the Central Province. Searches for ‘How to make a petrol bomb’ over the same period shows a similar dramatic increase in Sri Lanka. Finally, what we saw over the week was the weaponisation of social in an entirely new and unprecedented way with the advent of trolls and bots, adding fuel to rumour, misinformation and disinformation over Twitter in particular. With most leading social media platforms blocked, Twitter became a platform for the dissemination of information as well as a melting pot of ideas, updates, contestation, fact and fiction. Something interest, nay disturbing took place over the course of the week. As revealed by colleague, friend and researcher Raymond Serrato from Democracy Reporting International, who analysed well over fifteen thousand tweets over the course of the week, a few thousand accounts were created that went on to generate very high volumes of content on Digana.
This initial production of information, fed into the Twitter ecosystem, was retweeted many times over, serving to mislead, misinform and often grossly simplify events to the benefit of a Sinhala-Buddhist perspective or narrative. These accounts featured fake names and fake photos designed to look like Sinhalese, Muslim and Tamil names. They targeted individuals like me and other senior journalists, as well as anyone on Twitter providing perspective to the rioting that held accountable Sri Lanka’s systemic racism, the silence or complicity of the Buddhist clergy, and the criminal nature of what was going on in and around Kandy.
In the middle of all this, and far better known and reported was catastrophic, shameful government inaction and impotence in the face of violence. Instead of attention and action, we got censorship. As noted by me in public over the course of the week, the blocking of social media directly increased distrust of and pushback to Government, contributed to international media headlines which have painted Sri Lanka in a very negative light, fuelled significant and growing concerns by foreign investors, severely impacted the operations of the civic media teams and professional journalists in Sri Lanka to respond to and know about ground conditions, severely and tragically curtailed the ability of victims of violence to make their voice and concerns heard and finally, emphatically did not contributed to a reduction in mob violence on the ground – despite what the Commander of the Army noted late into the week. This is because the use of VPNs was openly and first promoted by the very group whipping up the violence and hate, content continued to be exchanged over WhatsApp by a number of the groups, and pre-planned attacks, vectors of violence and targets, once mobs had assembled in an area, didn’t require further coordination or collaboration using social media – they knew what to do, how to do it, and where to go.
Early and sustained reports from the worst affected areas indicated that the Police did little or nothing and that they were grossly outnumbered by the mobs. There are dozens of videos around how the mobs roamed freely during curfew, and importantly, imposed under a State of Emergency. It is evident the government has no capacity whatsoever to monitor social media, and that its only approach to it is to shut it down completely no matter what the consequences. As reported by so many, until the weekend, neither the President nor Prime Minister had gone to Digana. Throughout the week, the Chief Prelates were silent. Episodic, inspiring stories of communities, Buddhist priests and ordinary citizens standing up to the violence, giving refuge, security and showing up in solidarity to mosques and shelters gave a glimmer of hope that even in the darkest of times, not all were consumed by hate. But fear and anxiety persist and grow, across the country, spanning the usual social, economic and political divisions – around what this violence truly highlights, and how it is controlled by forces that turn it on and dial it up with almost total impunity, at their whim.
The past week was a grim reminder that Sri Lanka is post-war, but yet not a country with or at peace. What lies ahead, for us all?