In Sri Lanka, Facebook Contends With Shutdown After Mob Violence

MUMBAI — In many countries, Facebook is contending with a darkening reputation as a vehicle for disinformation and false news. The most recent example: Sri Lanka.

This week, the island country sought to block access to the social network, as well as two other platforms that Facebook owns, WhatsApp and Instagram, in an attempt to stem mob violence directed at its Muslim minority. Citing inflammatory posts on Facebook and WhatsApp, the Sri Lankan government ordered internet providers and mobile phone carriers on Wednesday to temporarily block the services along with Viber, another messaging app.

“These platforms are banned because they were spreading hate speeches and amplifying them,” Harindra B. Dassanayake, a government spokesman, said in a phone interview on Thursday. Sri Lanka’s government has also imposed a nationwide state of emergency after violence broke out Sunday in one of the island’s central cities, where dozens of Muslim businesses, houses and at least one mosque were attacked. At least one person was killed.

Sri Lanka is the latest country to grapple with hate speech being magnified on Facebook, especially in parts of the world that have only recently come online. As use of the social media platform has ballooned in recent years, so have cases of extremist fringe groups using Facebook’s reach to magnify their messages.

In Myanmar, where Facebook is so dominant that it is often confused for the internet itself, the social network has been blamed for allowing hate speech to spread, widening longstanding ethnic divisions and stoking violence against the Rohingya ethnic group. In the Philippines, Facebook has been used to spread pro-government propaganda.

Internet watchdog groups have long warned that Facebook was being used to distribute hate speech about ethnic minorities in Sri Lanka. Freedom House, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for free speech and democracy, said in a recent report that “hate speech against minorities continues to foment on various social media platforms, particularly Facebook.” The report said online campaigns targeting Muslims and other minority groups in Sri Lanka had been ongoing since 2013 and had recently increased.

Sri Lankan officials this week blamed Sri Lanka’s Buddhist majority, as well as Muslims, for spreading false information on the social networks.

“Some attacks that have actually not taken place are being reported. It spreads that we are being attacked and we have to respond,” said Mr. Dassanayake. In some cases, people were also sharing information on how to make simple bombs, he said.

On Thursday, the violence continued, according to news reports. Although Facebook was blocked, WhatsApp was functioning sporadically.

On Twitter, two of the country’s legendary cricket players, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardena, tried to defuse tensions.

“I strongly condemn the recent acts of violence & everyone involved must be brought to justice regardless of race/ religion or ethnicity,” Mr. Jayawardena tweeted on Wednesday.

Sri Lanka is still recovering from a long civil war waged by Tamil separatists. The conflict ended in 2009 after the military crushed the rebels, and hard feelings remain.

Facebook said Thursday that it has clear rules against hate speech and incitement to violence. “We are responding to the situation in Sri Lanka and are in contact with the government and nongovernmental organizations to support efforts to identify and remove such content,” the company said in a statement.

Mr. Dassanayake confirmed that Facebook was cooperating with the Sri Lankan government. He said that at a meeting in Colombo, the capital, on Thursday morning, the government raised more than 100 items with the company.

“Once we come to an agreement on these, and once the situation is under control, Facebook will be live again,” he said. It was not immediately clear what the items entailed.

Sri Lanka is hardly the only country to resort to extreme measures like a social media shutdown.

Last year, India blocked 22 social networking services — including Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and YouTube — for one month in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir in a bid to curb street protests there. Mobile internet service is also frequently blocked in Kashmir, which borders Pakistan and has gone through spasms of violence for decades.

Turkey has also repeatedly shut down Twitter and YouTube for allowing content opposed by the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s president.

Content originally published on https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/08/technology/sri-lanka-facebook-shutdown.html by VINDU GOEL, HARI KUMAR and SHEERA FRENKEL