Sri Lankan social media expert: 'We must confront what we fear'

At a time when social media is under scrutiny for its role in tragedies like the Christchurch mosque shootings, governments must avoid knee-jerk reactions, writes Sanjana Hattotuwa.

The markets — or "pola" as we call them in Sri Lanka — my father took me to when I was a child were chaotic. Vendors shouting over each other. Buyers animatedly haggling. The sights, sounds and smells of produce and livestock were overpowering to the senses, especially when at waist-height to everyone else. 

Social media today reminds me of the markets of my childhood. Those who shout the loudest often get the most attention. It’s easy to get lost in the madness. The more outrageous an idea or item held up for public display, the more crowds throng around it. Like different sections for vegetables, fruits, fish and meat in a "pola", social media platforms or accounts are branded by what their authors say, stand up for, are opposed to, or want to see more of.  

In less than a decade, the same platforms that were attributed with enabling popular uprisings and revolutions overturning dictatorships are now flagged as tools of authoritarians or the megaphones of populists. Social media has become a reservoir of toxicity. For the most part, Silicon Valley companies are responsible for this mess. I should know. Documenting what was then a rising tide of violence against Muslims, I published evidence of inciting hate, racism and violence on Facebook as far back as 2013. The company said and did nothing.

Sri Lanka's social media shutdown

For years in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, just as much as it has contributed to violence, social media has become entwined with activism against authoritarianism. However, with every tragic act of violence or terrorism, media and governments are drawn to framing social media as something defined by emotion over evidence and fears over facts. This is dangerous. In the guise of public safety and security, governments in countries with a democratic deficit, like mine back home in Sri Lanka, are primarily interested in social media regulation only to censor and stifle democratic dissent.

For example, following the Easter Sunday terror attacks, the government blocked social media in an attempt to curb the flow of rumours and misinformation. It was the longest block in history, lasting close to two weeks. At the time, I recorded a rapid escalation in frustration that soon gave way to seething anger. Cut off from victims and loved ones, social media users around the country used VPNs to bypass the blocks and began to suspect the government was more interested in stifling criticism and public knowledge of intelligence failures that led to the attack. Ultimately, the block stymied the spread of content that sought to heal, and resulted in an angrier public more susceptible to rumours and the weaponisation of grief.

Lessons from Christchurch


The Christchurch terrorist attack sent shockwaves throughout the Muslim world.

How can evidence around the complexity of social media help fight against extremism, and celebrate its potential to be used for positive change? This question inspired my study of close to 100,000 tweets in the week after the Christchurch massacre in March. Domestic and international media at the time were aghast at how an awful livestream and hate-filled document had rapidly spread online. Yet, I found a different story on Twitter, anchored to content and commentary markedly different from what a terrorist wanted to inspire. I found a large number of tweets were in Urdu and Hindi, from Pakistan and India, respectively. Why? Because when prominent news anchors broke the story of Indian and Pakistani lives lost in Christchurch, tens of thousands of others from both countries, in their own language, joined in expressing dismay, distress, care and concern for Kiwis. There was a near-total absence of hate or violence and an abundance of love.

Rising above knee-jerk reactions

The theatre of terrorism thrives on stoking emotions that generate reactions. Politicians are driven to do something — anything. However, rarely does anything useful or enduring result. Rising above knee-jerk reactions, Prime Minister Ardern’s ‘Christchurch Call’ recognises the “internet’s ability to act as a force for good”, “fostering inclusive societies”. It also calls for the closer study of online content, over time. These are helpful frames to gather evidence required for progressive policymaking. Violence and hate are easy stories for media, if only because there’s a lot of it around and easily found. Yet, it also can blind us to content that binds and heals, somewhat hidden but often, just as abundant.

Just like global warming has no easy solution pegged to a single source, effort or location, governments, private corporations and civil society will need to work together to address the harms of social media. This is why I argue for a more dispassionate study of data, framed by values entrenched in New Zealand’s constitution, country, culture and communities. This is hard work, with no easy wins. But robust evidence and data on social media should inform official responses, reforms and regulations. I believe that confronting what we fear can help us identify the worst of what social media is, which is the first step towards making it a more civil environment. We must rise to the challenge.

Sanjana Hattotuwa is currently researching the role, reach and relevance of social media in Sri Lanka to trigger or exacerbate violence and at other times, strengthen peace and democracy.

 - Asia Media Centre