Online hate and its offline costs

At a time when the world is feeling sorry for itself, amid a pandemic that is laying bare all that is wrong and unjust about it, an apology from Facebook made headlines in Sri Lanka.Over two years after an ugly episode of anti-Muslim violence in the island’s Central and Eastern provinces, Facebook has said it “deplores” the misuse of its platform then. The mob violence, unleashed by hardline Sinhala-Buddhist groups, led to at least two deaths and enormous loss to property. Perpetrators carried out planned arson attacks, targeting dozens of mosques, shops and homes of Muslims, even as rumours and hate speech spread like wildfire on Facebook. Then President Maithripala Sirisena declared an emergency and briefly banned Facebook that was seen as a co-conspirator.“We recognise, and apologise for, the very real human rights impacts that resulted,” the tech giant told Bloomberg News. The admission came after human rights consultancy Article One, hired by Facebook to conduct an investigation, in its recent report noted that the hate speech and rumours shared on Facebook “may have led to offline violence”.Facebook has since hired “dozens more” Sinhala and Tamil-speaking moderators, to review and remove content violating what it calls its “community standards”. “We deployed proactive hate speech detection technology in Sinhala to help us more quickly and effectively identify potentially violating content,” according to a statement from Miranda Sissons, director of human rights at Facebook. Further, the company said it launched a third-party fact check programme, partnering AFP Sri Lanka and Fact Crescendo to counter misinformation.What does Facebook’s apology mean to social media users in Sri Lanka? It was both overdue and welcome, says Sanjana Hattotuwa, doctoral scholar at the University of Otago, New Zealand, researching social media and politics.In his view, the recently released report acknowledges Facebook’s failure to heed warnings from Sri Lanka for nearly a decade, around how the platform and other products were being used and abused to spread racism, Islamophobia, hate and violence against specific communities.Not a passive observerNo one blames Facebook for the prevalent racism or discrimination in society, but incidents like the violence in Digana town in 2018 show the platform might be more than a passive observer. And even now, “they are not apologising for the company’s inability and unwillingness to respond to user-generated reports and research noting the increasing risk of the digital spilling over to the physical and kinetic violence,” Mr. Hattotuwa said. While the company claims it has invested more resources to monitor content in all languages, the platform’s “enduring unevenness” of making redress or reporting tools available in English, accessible in Sinhala and Tamil is a concern, given that inflammatory content goes viral in no time. Despite its attempts to automate detection of content that could incite hate crimes, the company lacks contextual awareness and grounding, said Mr. Hattotuwa.Moreover, guidance, help, redress and reporting tools are all there on the platform, but many users are unaware of them. “It’s hard enough in English. It’s close to impossible in Sinhala. There are ways the company can make these more visible, at specific times, or to specific users and groups, in specific languages, over each product. It is the company’s choice to do so, and not a technical inability.”Tamil pages too present the risk of highly polarised debates, according to Jaffna-based journalist Benislos Thushan. “While you see some constructive pages, like the Jaffna Photography Society’s, I see a lot more of arm-chair criticism or rant, especially from users among Sri Lankan diaspora who have strong views on developments here. The debates get risky because they are highly polarising,” he told The Hindu.Young Sri Lankan Tamils and Tamil-speaking Muslims are quite active on Facebook, according to Mr. Thushan. “There is a lot of cross-pollination in terms of content, but little accountability.”Of Sri Lanka’s 21-million population, Facebook has 6.85 million monthly active users and 4.4 million daily active users, according to Article One. Like any company geared towards profits and a greater market share, Facebook too would count its users in numbers. Not dealing with hate might have offline costs for users, but dealing with it might, for the company. Will the tech giant see beyond numbers?(Meera Srinivasan is The Hindu’s correspondent in Colombo)

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