Kandy, Riots and Sri Lanka’s Facebook Ban

Last week, anti-Muslim riots erupted in Kandy, leading to homes being burned down, a State of Emergency imposed on the country, and widespread fears that we would see a repeat of 2015’s Aluthgama incident. Initially, almost no action was taken by government forces.

In light of this, I published on Facebook a six-stage request to Maithripala Sirisena (the President of Sri Lanka) and Ranil Wickramasinghe (the Prime Minister):

1. Declare the BBS and the Mahason Balakaya to be terrorist organizations. If you talk like a terrorist, and you act like a terrorist, you are a terrorist.

2. Swap out local police officers who may be pressured into inaction by threats to their families. Swap in police from other regions. Give them riot helmets and the water cannon you usually deploy against university students.

3. Use the opportunity of racists collecting into one mob to round up, tear-gas and water-cannon the shit out of them in one go. Arresting the lot is a lot of paperwork, so at least make them suffer mightily for their beliefs.

4. Arrest any Facebook video-makers foolish enough to put their names and faces on video (there are a lot of them – note to Facebook and Facebook Security: your platform is being used to mobilize mobs). Charge them with the intention to incite civil war.

5. Meanwhile, have TRCSL/ICTA/CERT/ earn their paychecks and work on reporting and shutting down, en masse, all pages inciting religious hatred on Facebook.

6. Generally, act with the same authority you people usually do when your personal assets and political positions are under threat. Get your shit together.

Several things have happened since them. That statement promptly went viral. The Government declared a block on social media, blocking Facebook, WhatsApp and Viber. Operators like Dialog Axiata took this even further: they seem to have caused issues with Discord and other voice services, and even blocked this website for good measure. Ministers that I spoke to seemed to have absolutely no awareness that this was the case: it took Nalaka Gunawardene ranting at Dialog on Twitter to get my site back.

This business did themselves more damage than good: news of solidarity and reconciliation, as well as the government’s own arrests into the matter, which would otherwise have circulated through Facebook (lk pop: ~4 million), were limited to Twitter (lk pop: ~90,000 at best). Meanwhile, those with enough technical proficiency – and this includes racists – found out how to Google ‘VPN’ and bypass the block.  Ray Serrato, a researcher currently working in Myanmar, scraped a religious hate group of over 90,000 members and found that almost 200 posts were still going up daily despite the block.

Meanwhile, businesses that rely on FB for marketing took a hit. Anecdotal figured quoted to me by the startup community say they saw a hit of anywhere between 30-70% to their revenue.

Yes, the government is stupid. Our President, who I mentally think of as the Glorious Rice Lord, seems to be of the opinion that he can control the Internet.

“My secretary has discussed with officials of Facebook, who have agreed that its platform will not be used for spreading hate speech and inciting violence,” the president, while touring in Japan, said on Twitter.

In that same visit, he’s been spotted entertaining the head of the BBS. Go figure.

The country’s still screwed, and the people running this country seem to hail from the days of AM Radios. They think they can bully the Facebook system into submission – while being fundamentally unprepared to deal with what’s going on beneath their own noses. Instead of listening to conversations, politicians still treat social media as a way of only expounding their views. This is usually done through a team of half-wits, so the politicians themselves are free to look at this social media business like some sort of new fad.

This most basic level of analysis ^ is unavailable to the government, probably because politicians don’t seem to believe it’s possible. It’s curious that racists seem to understand tech better than the government: the Other Side knows how to use Facebook Live during riots, knows how to create pages and engage with vitriol against both people and pages, and generally push their way of thinking.

Now that the ban is lifted, the government – regardless of whichever government comes into power – needs to use social media to listen rather than preach. Illusions of control must be pushed aside.  Facebook, which seems completely useless at parsing local language and issues and enforcing their own Community Standards, needs to either hire more local language experts or work with civic groups with capacity here.

And on my end, I’ve been scraping both Twitter and FB conversations. This, hopefully, I can turn into a report, as a 30,000-foot view into what went on – and also as a public record that this happened and cannot be swept under the rug. It looks like Icaruswept in online again, albeit in a far more diminished form.


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