On the eve of Avurudu last week, a relatively obscure Twitter account became the focal point in Sri Lanka’s tweets sphere.
@ChinaEmbSL had joined Twitter less than a month back and did not have that many followers, nor was it verified. But it had been tagged by the President and the Prime Minister in Tweets boosting its profile. It also had access to information from the highest level of government. Like when it was one of the first to tweet on the plans to light up the Lotus Tower to honour all those fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Or when it tweeted images from within the tower on how the feat was engineered.
WhatsApp groups buzzed on the blocking and the reasons that led to it. Then came the next cryptic scenario. Messages began appearing on these groups purportedly from the Embassy, but not officially signed off by any official
Suddenly on April 13, the account was blocked. The message from Twitter read that it had violated
WhatsApp groups buzzed on the blocking and the reasons that led to it. Then came the next cryptic scenario. Messages began appearing on these groups purportedly from the Embassy, but not officially signed off by any official.
“This is double standards. There is so-called freedom of media, but on the other hand, they suspend and lock any account that is not on their agenda,” a message sourced to the Embassy but circulated via social media accounts linked to persons working with the China state-owned Xinhua news agency and China’s international radio channel said.
It was not clear why the account was blocked and the statements instead of creating clarity led to more confusion. More so, given the very aggressive language used by the account to take on critics.
By next morning, the account had been unblocked. “This account was mistakenly caught in a spam filter. This has been reversed and the account has been reinstated,” on inquiry, Twitter said without elaboration.
@ChinaEmbSL had joined Twitter less than a month back and did not have that many followers, nor was it verified. But it had been tagged by the President and the Prime Minister in Tweets boosting its profile
The Embassy said the account had been blocked without giving any reasons. The mission had inquired twice from Twitter on the suspension. After the account was unblocked, it reiterated in a statement that freedom of speech should be honoured and should not be “misused to spread groundless, racial or hatred speech nor be treated with ‘Double Standards’”.
Ironically, Twitter remains blocked in China. A detail that was not lost on Sri Lanka Twitterati some of whom made repeated reminders.
The whole saga then took the shades of an international diplomatic incident when the relatively dormant Twitter account of Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena chimed in. Breaking a 13-day Twitter hiatus the account said, “we welcome the reinstating of the Official Twitter account of the Chinese Embassy in Colombo”.
This is not the first time that genuine accounts have got caught in spam filters. One such victim was the Twitter account of the Supreme Leader of Iran.
And it’s not only in Twitter. I have faced snags when I tried to post updates from Wuhan health authority on Facebook.
What is even more curious is why the Twitter account of the Foreign Minister decided to weigh in on the reinstatement. What it again shows is China’s pre-eminence as an international power in
Part of the issue is the lack of human oversight due to COVID19-linked social distancing impacting moderation. The details made available by Twitter and the Embassy does not in any way suggests a hatchet-job.
The Twitter handle despite its relative short lifespan in fact, reflects the aggressive stance adopted by some Chinese diplomats and state media to gain control of the global COVID19 narrative. Some like the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Linjian have been quite bullish in pushing back against social media critics. Something that @ChinaEmbSL also did.
However, in both cases, after the initial outbursts, the accounts have pulled back on the language. They however remain on message, reaffirming China’s role as global leader in fighting the virus and helping other nations.
What is even more curious is why the Twitter account of the Foreign Minister decided to weigh in on the reinstatement. What it again shows is China’s pre-eminence as an international power in Sri Lanka.
Colombo appears keen not to lose even the smallest opportunity to emphasise this, even taking absurd ones like the blocking and unblocking of a Twitter account due to a technical glitch.
Politics in the time of pandemics do create some strange phenomena, indeed.
The writer is currently pursuing a Masters by Research at CQUniversity, Melbourne on online journalism and trauma
Twitter - @amanthap