Social media is one of the main methods of intercommunication and usage is rising
This one line and variations of it – passed on as received – written innocuously at the end of a message, can send shivers down the recipient’s spine these days.
What it means is that the sender has very little knowledge of the authenticity of the content. What it does real time is give the recipient another reason to be scared, as if there weren’t enough reasons already.
Since the April 21 attacks, Sri Lanka social fabric has been on tenterhooks. It has been like an over-tuned string instrument that creates the most jarring of sounds at the slightest of jolts.
Incidents in Negombo, Chilaw and Kuliyapitiya show that tensions are running high and authorities are yet to fully grasp their extent and to be proactive.
What we have seen is that when tensions flare up, the clampdown is enforced, with a new caveat – social media block.
In the last month, social media have been blocked thrice in Sri Lanka. We really don’t know the effectiveness of such blocks, neither the Government nor the platforms that have been targeted, primarily Facebook, have said anything about this.
What was quite clear was that at least in certain areas the block did not minimize the threat of mob violence as much as the presence of military did.
The last time the block came into effect at least there were official communiqués that informed of the move. That is indicative that it was preplanned, even though not announced earlier.
This time Twitter also was blocked. As I have mentioned earlier in these columns social media block is now part and parcel of Sri Lanka Government crisis control.
It is true that social media have become a vehicle, with millions having access to them, of virulent hate speech and rumour. Within minutes of the latest social media block, an acquaintance showed a message that had arrived on one of the blocked platforms. It detailed locations, vehicles and methods of possible attacks timed for the 13th.
Such messages could send panic levels soaring. And yes it ended with ‘Passed on as Received’ indicating the sender got this from someone, who got it from someone, who got it from another someone one who has contacts
The group was, in fact, a school group and this was the day that schools were reopening.
Such messages could send panic levels soaring. And yes it ended with ‘Passed on as Received’ indicating the sender got this from someone, who got it from someone, who got it from another someone one who has contacts.
But parents with five-year-olds going to school in circumstances where their bags are checked and body searched are not going to feel safe enough when the mothers’ group on WhatsApp keeps spewing out rumours - the latest more detailed and vicious than the one before.
There is no Government authority that has the public trust to debunk these rumours. No one really tried. The only logical option for the Government was to block the platform.
But then again social media does play an important role. It is one of the main methods of intercommunication and usage is rising.
What we really have is a combination of lack of public trust on authoritative sources and the spread of rumour and hate-mongers.
Blocking social media will only be a stop-gap solution unless it is going to be like the great firewall.
To deal with hate-speech platform buy-in and user awareness will be key. On the former, we still have very little idea as to what Facebook has been discussing with the Government. On the other hand, even though Facebook did start content moderation in Sinhala, we really don’t know how many are engaged in this, whether they are fulltime or otherwise.
The point is we don’t know if Facebook’s inventions since April 2018 match the scale of the problem.
The last time this column wrote Facebook’s nascent Sinhala moderation process, there were some murmurs that the company was contemplating reacting to them, but nothing came of it.
To counter the rumour mill, there also needs to be public outlets that are trusted. Right now, trust levels are better left unspoken. Professional information management is a long term engagement and Sri Lanka public officials have always been slow at this.
The author is the Asia-Pacific Coordinator for the DART Centre for Journalism and Trauma, a project of the Columbia Journalism School Twitter - @amanthap