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Policing social media

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The Government blocking social media access in the midst of communal clashes in the Kandy District this week received mixed reviews from the public. While some have acknowledged that the Government had to act swiftly to contain the spread of incendiary messages on social media and other communication platforms, others have called on the State to have a more nuanced and holistic approach. 

The National Movement for Consumer Rights Protection on Friday complained to the Human Rights Commission (HRC) against the Telecom Regulatory Commission (TRC) for blocking websites and apps saying that the decision has violated section 14 (1) A of the Constitution.  They have also threatened to petition the Supreme Court if the HRC refuses to take up the matter.  

The consumer rights group contends that the Government took its decision without clear evidence and with no recommendation from any expert. If there was a situation to be concerned about, then there should have been a proper procedure followed. They concur with civil society activists who have voiced fears that the Government could abuse freedom of expression if it is allowed to impose access limitations and undermine the public’s ability to share information. 

The politicisation and weaponisation of social media has led to many questioning the effectiveness of banning social media. LIRNEasia Chairman Prof. Rohan Samarajeewa too has been critical of the blanket ban pointing out that, as an immediate measure to address the current issue, the Government should have worked with social media sites such as Facebook to “identify the sources of hate messages if any, and shut them down, rather than shut down the whole system.” 

Many others have pointed out that the Government measure blocked even the constructive messages from respected, influential personalities from getting through to the public. Moreover, in an environment where people struggle to get information they are more likely to panic and believe rumours, making it even harder for law enforcement to bring the situation under control.   

An inescapable point is that rising ethnic tensions have spread over years, with contributions from even mainstream media, politicians, religious leaders and other vested agenda-pushers. Falsehoods and hate has been spread liberally over multiple years or even decades, not solely in the specific messages being communicated at present, though they can be used to tip and already tense situation over the edge. 

Therefore, the Government also needs to have a holistic strategy to deal with communal tensions, which should include a strong communications strategy and physical presence of top officials. It is disheartening that even days after the clashes started Muslim affected areas have not seen the presence of President, Prime Minister or other top Sinhalese Ministers. Statements are well and good but winning the hearts and minds of the people require a personal touch. In the light of strong complaints about police standing by while mobs set fire to shops and homes perhaps there has to be a review of training and chain of command to ensure better response in these situations. 

Consistent, balanced and restrained management is what is needed. Other countries, such as the UK have appointed independent bodies to monitor social media and rid it of hate speech with the public having the ability to make complaints in real time. Clearly there has to be vigorous public discourse on formulating a strategy for this issue before it is too late, again.   

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