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Social media and the state of the nation

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 8 March 2018 00:00

Hate speech is usually seen as a precursor to hate crime. In Sri Lanka hate speech, especially on social media platforms had proliferated at an alarming rate over the last few years, spewing toxic divisions in their wake. Hate speech often combined with fake news to create issues where none existed and promote an alternative reality of sorts where the bogey man or the fault of all the nation’s ills were directly laid at the foot of the minorities.

Sri Lanka is not alone in this. Around the world there has been a massive increase in hate speech, primarily against minorities including immigrants, which have shocked governments into action. Everywhere, it seems, the cycle is the same. A small group of people, at times supported by extremist ideologies promoted by political parties or larger-than-life, find that their reprehensible views can be widely shared on social media where there is little censure. 

In this space extremists, unlike in public, become omnipresent by flooding the space with their toxic views, often attracting other people who may harbour similar views or be swayed to believe them because they feel justified by the vehement ferocity of other people. This sheep-like mentality is part of human nature. Social norms demand that even if people have bigoted views they be marginalised from society but because social media is essentially a caricature of real life these platforms provide a safe zone for people to not just express whatever views they please but also justify their cancerous impact on society.

Since there is a feeling of isolation within social media spaces their connection to reality is sometimes convoluted. But increasingly there is evidence to show that increased hate speech on social media triggers violence in reality. In fact the more governments attempt to crack down on physical organisations with extreme views the stronger their presence on social media becomes. This has become one of the biggest challenges for democratic governments who have to tread a fine line between protecting people’s right to expression while stamping out hate speech. This contradiction has tripped over many officials who struggle to listen to all parties, including extremists masquerading as nationalists, blurring the lines of hate speech. 

The underground nature of hate speech on social media is incredibly difficult to curb. Hate speech has been defined as possessing the same level of impact as face-to-face interaction by the British government, which recently tightened its legislation on hate speech and increased punishments to offenders. Many other countries have followed and perhaps it is time for Sri Lanka to do the same.

As the clashes in Digana continued into its third day the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) blocked social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp in an effort to reduce the spread of rumours and hate speech. Yet within hours memes and other tools were being used to slip past the firewalls. The Government must understand that it has to take a holistic approach to dealing with race tensions and policing the internet or indeed undermining net neutrality could have other impacts as well as being unsuccessful.

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