A local office to monitor Sinhala language FB content: Is it a wise move?
Posted on May 3rd, 2018

By Rohana R. Wasala Courtesy The Island

It is reported that Sri Lanka is to ask Facebook to set up an office in Colombo to help monitor content posted in the Sinhalese language so that the medium is not used for nefarious purposes such as creating communal conflicts” (‘Lanka to ask Facebook to bar objectionable Sinhalese language posts’/ The Island/April 9, 2018). According to The Island report, Austin Fernando, secretary to the President and also the chairman of the TRCSL (Telecommunications Regularity Commission of Sri Lanka) confirmed that such is the case and that a Facebook delegation will be arriving soon to discuss the matter.

(Though completed on April 12, 2018, this article remained unpublished. The circumstances that prompted its writing could have changed by now; the office in question may or may not have materialized, but the topicality of the piece probably still holds, in the writer’s view.)

Needless to say, the proposal to set up an office to monitor Facebook content will be greeted with just opposition from the more than 4.5 million Facebookers, most of whom belong to the Sinhala speaking majority (75%) of the population. (This figure- 4.5 million – is taken from Colombo Digital Marketers estimates 2017; the same source claims that there are over 6 million active internet users in the country.) The decision to initiate such arbitrary censorship over Sinhala language internet traffic is utterly objectionable in its crass racism against the majority community and its callous disregard of all ordinary Sri Lankans’ right to freedom of expression. For the major implication of the proposed move is that it is exclusively the Sinhalese who use Facebook for nefarious purposes such as creating communal conflicts” and that they are inveterate troublemakers. This is adding insult to injury.

What precisely do the authorities mean by ‘nefarious purposes’ that they say lead to communal conflicts? How are they going to ensure that purposes which are absolutely legitimate in the opinion of the Sinhala speaking FB users are not included in this arbitrary category of ‘nefarious purposes’? Won’t the implicit assumptions behind the proposal to monitor Sinhala language FB content give credence to the Goebbelsian lies spread around the world by a section of the so-called Tamil Diaspora about alleged racism on the part of the Sinhalese? Isn’t this violent racism attributed to the Sinhalese an utter falsehood that is nevertheless religiously believed outside of Sri Lanka and is one of the main causes of the growing misery of all Sri Lankans?

Perhaps, the authorities justify the move in terms of ‘Desperate times call for desperate measures’. Obviously, two parties are in states of desperation: the people on the one side and the ‘yahapalanaya’ government or what remains of it on the other. There cannot be any dispute about whose desperation is more important for the country and demands prior attention. But the envisaged Facebook monitoring step seems to be a desperate measure dictated by the desperation of the less worthy and hence more dispensable party.

For most innocent users, Facebook is synonymous with freedom of speech. They unhesitatingly consider it to be a platform for uncensored information exchange among its users. However, that is far from reality. Facebook, like other social networking sites, is primarily a business concern. In fact, it is a corporation whose shares are traded on the NASDAQ (National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations) exchange and the NYSE (New York Stock Exchange), both in America. Social media try to attract and retain users in order to display advertisements to them. Basically, that is their business. It is very much like that of a TV network. They have no concern with upholding democracy or with protecting the users’ right to freedom of speech. As businesses, they are accountable to their shareholders. They are actually service providers whose transactions with their clients are subject to specified terms of service, but the guaranteeing of the clients’ right to free speech, democracy, etc is not included in these. Under democracy, governments are constitutionally required to protect citizens’ right to freedom of speech, but not so the social media including Facebook. (By the way, the foreign funded NGOs that are bringing tremendous pressure to bear on Sri Lanka on ‘accountability’ issues are themselves not accountable to the Sri Lankan public.)

Could a joint project between  the democratic government of an independent sovereign country and a private company with mutually divergent interests be expected to work in the best interest of that country? The American online social media and social networking service company known as Facebook has its rights and responsibilities as a business within the legal framework of that country. It has a right to make editorial decisions (for example, about what content to allow to be published or withdrawn or re-introduced, or modified or deleted, and so on). So, there could be instances where it is seen to impose restrictions on the exchange of certain types of news, videos, etc. No one can find fault with Facebook over this unless the terms of service are shown to be infringed as a result of such censorship. However, it is extremely doubtful whether Facebook authorities could agree to the Sri Lankan government’s request without seriously disappointing a large section of their clientele, particularly the majority Sinhala speakers among them. On the other hand, however, though Sinhala speaking FB users are a drop in the ocean compared with the 2.13 billion FB users across the world (statista.com statistics 2017), and though only about 30% of the Sri Lankan population is exposed to internet penetration (Colombo Digital Marketers 2017), the Facebook corporation will still respond to the government request in an accommodative manner as can be predicted from its past conduct in similar situations. Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression, at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (a non-profit international digital rights group in San Francisco founded in 1990) touches on the subject when he says, “These companies have done a reasonable job of being accountable to government requests, but not to their own private terms of services”, and his words are relevant to Facebook.

According to The Island report, Austin Fernando further said that during the anti-Muslim riots in Kandy district in the first week of March, the government banned Facebook and other social media platforms having found that these had been used to spread communal animosity. Facebook especially had a big role to play as it is very popular in Sri Lanka.” Blaming the social media users – specifically, Sinhala language speakers – for fomenting communal violence is difficult to justify. Facebookers are invariably people with some education, and the vast majority of them are young millennials who are justly impatient with the devious ways of old politicians of every colour and creed. But Austin Fernando claimed that  When there were anti-Muslim riots in Kandy district in the first week of March, the government banned Facebook and other social media platforms having found that these had been used to spread communal animosity. ……”

It is clear that the government is acting on its own initiative in this situation. The government wants Facebook to set up an office in Sri Lanka and employ Sri Lankans to do the job of monitoring. This is easier said than done. First, the key terms involved such as ‘hateful speech’ ‘insulting to some religion or religious leader’ have to be defined. This is no easy task. Now, FB uses two basic ways: automated algorithms and human moderators for monitoring offensive content. Both are open to manipulation in their different ways (‘massaging’ of data can be done to produce a specific favourable – which translates unfavourable – result to one party when two parties are at loggerheads in any situation)  and this is usually detrimental to the rights and interests of the Facebook users as well as to reconciliation interests among them (The Facebook community is a vital part of the most cognizant section of the citizenry).

The only way forward is to impartially investigate and establish the truth about what actually led to the recent flare up of violence in the Kandy district (which, incidentally, going by internet sources, could have been easily prevented). Most probably it will be found that the cause of trouble lies elsewhere, and that must be addressed in all honesty and earnestness without exonerating the guilty and punishing the innocent. The denial or non-action mode (justified almost always as a ‘reconciliation’ or ‘political correctness’ strategy) that previous and present government leaders have traditionally resorted to when confronted with issues such as the encroachment, vandalizing, or destruction of archaeological sites, allegations of surreptitious sterilization, alleged mob attacks on places of worship needs to be seriously reviewed. This is what peace loving ordinary Muslims, Tamils and Buddhist monks demand. But politicizing issues and investigations as appears the order of the day at present must be totally avoided.

4 Responses to “A local office to monitor Sinhala language FB content: Is it a wise move?”

  1. Hiranthe Says:

    These fools are turning blind eye to the blatant lies created by LieTTE and Channel 4 and the Tamil politicians to change the opinion of the world against this Island nation and now going to set up an office to tackle the local lies for their own survival.

    “Country before you” has been changed to “my survival before country”

    Order of the day for Yama Palanaya.

    If such a thing was done by the previous regime, the whole world will start shouting saying it is dictatorship….

    What is hypocrisy!!

  2. shenali Waduge Says:

    people are already employed for this … our own traitors are being paid to report anti-yahapalana posts & get them removed as a means to counter the propaganda against this govt

  3. Asanga Says:

    “”Lanka to ask Facebook to bar objectionable Sinhalese language posts””

    Because you KNOW that there could NEVER be any objectionable posts in Tamil right???

    The hypocrisy!!! Oh the hypocrisy!!!

  4. Asanga Says:

    …..Even more tragic- there is actually guy working in an office who is getting paid for looking at Facebook all day!! LOL

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