Photo courtesy Sri Lanka Brief

The Centre for Policy Alternatives, the institutional anchor of Groundviews, released today a report co-authored by Shilpa Samaratunge and I on hate speech online, looking at Facebook in particular.


The report is the first in Sri Lanka to focus on hate and dangerous speech in online fora, contextualising the growth of this disturbing digital content with increasing violence against Muslims and other groups in Sri Lanka. As the blurb on the front cover of the report avers,

The growth of online hate speech in Sri Lanka does not guarantee another pogrom. It does however pose a range of other challenges to government and governance around social, ethnic, cultural and religious co-existence, diversity and, ultimately, to the very core of debates around how we see and organise ourselves post-war.

The report looks at 20 Facebook groups in Sri Lanka over a couple of months, focussing on content generated just before, during and immediately after violence against the Muslim community. Detailed translations into English of the original material posted to these groups (including photographic and visual content) and the responses they generated are provided. It is the first time a study has translated into English the qualitative nature of commentary and content published on these Facebook groups, indicative of a larger and growing malaise in post-war Sri Lanka.

More generally, the study looks at the phenomenon of hate speech online – how it occurs and spreads online, what kind of content is produced, by whom and for which audiences. In addition to Sri Lanka, policy frameworks and legislation around online hate speech in Kenya, Rwanda, India, Pakistan, Canada and Australia are also flagged in the report.

As Shilpa and I note,

Ultimately, there is no technical solution to what is a socio-political problem. Sri Lanka’s culture of impunity and the breakdown in the rule of law is what affords the space for fascist groups like the Bodu Bala Sena, Sinhala Ravaya and Ravana Balakaya to say what they do and get away with it. In July this year, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) compiled a short brief to create awareness on the Constitutional and legal framework and available legal remedies regarding religious freedom and related issues, in light of the violence in Aluthgama. What is evident is that even without new legislation looking at online domains and content, there are a range of legal remedies and frameworks to hold perpetrators of hate speech accountable for their violence, whether verbal or physical. The issue is not the non-existence of relevant legal frameworks, but their non-application or selective application.

Though there is no easy or prescribed solution, progressive thinking, proactive content production, strategic interventions and careful monitoring can identity and neutralise the wider harm online hate speech can, if unchecked and allowed to grow, sustain and strengthen.

Civility, tolerance and respect for diversity are as hard to find online as they are in Sri Lanka’s mainstream party political framework even post-war. It would be a tragedy if the country’s only remaining spaces to ideate, critical reflect and robustly debate – which are online – are taken over by hate-mongers, to the extent they are allowed to do so in the real world. So many in Sri Lanka, in various ways, resist violence, whether verbal or physical. The challenge is to strengthen their voices and efforts in light of what is a growing trend of hate speech production online, which though by no means easy, is also not an insurmountable one.

Download the full report here.

Download just the Introduction and Executive Summary here or read it online here.

Hate Speech - Cover

  • Dev

    It would be interesting to compare with Burma/Myanmar where rabidly racist monks are tearing the country apart too. I bet you it will be similar.

  • Aadee

    You have mentioned Bodu bala sena, But not thowheed jamath. Wonder to what category these falls. Oh yeah! You’ve only concerned Facebook right? Not YouTube.

  • Srivan

    That photo speaks for itself! Photos never lie!! The phenomenon of hate speech and killings and serious forms of abuse are not at all new but form an unending criminal malaise fanned under the PTA which neuters all forms of legal remedies. It is indeed sad but the powers that be continue regardless and it can but lead to greater catastrophies amid blatant denials. What a pity to see a country with potential go to seed and seek cover behind road building and physical infrastructures!

  • Amarakoon

    The author focused only at an one side of the coin. When he labeled BBS, Ravana balay he failed
    (or deliberately avoided) name and shame Muslim radical groups. Why?

    • Dev

      Because unlike them one of them has the patronage of the state (democratically elected)??

    • LearnToDoYourResearchRight

      It is possible that it’s not easy for Muslim groups with Islamist flavors to freely operate online because foreign intel groups are now increasingly monitoring them. Then again, the authors are cherry-picking some segments of Sinhala nationalist groups. They shouldn’t have titled their paper that way, it gives the impression that they are studying Sinhala, Tamil, English- language hate speech (racist, exist, all of it) perpetrated on Facebook.

  • LearnToDoYourResearchRight

    This title of this “study” is inherently misleading. The authors have handpicked only some Sinhala nationalist Facebook groups spreading hate speech against Muslims. So this is NOT a study on “Hate speech on Facebook in Sri Lanka,” it should be titled something along the lines of “Sinhala/Singlish Islamaphobic hate speech perpetrated on Facebook by selectively sampled Sinhala nationalist groups.”
    It is a serious misstep by the authors to exclude Lankan or Lankan Diaspora oriented hate speech in other languages, namely English and Tamil, in a study titled as this.
    There also seems to be a bias problem, with the authors dragging in government issues to online hate speech, where people, easily anonymously, can freely speak their minds regardless of how offensive or disgusting someone else might find them to be, or what the law tells them they can say. No government has control over these things. Especially in recent years, Islamaphobic hate speech has been on the rise worldwide, not just in Sri Lanka.
    I also noticed that one of the recommendations by authors to counter hate speech is to counter message. This does happen in mainstream Facebook pages. Someone posts a racist/sexist comment, there would be others to counterpoint that or point it out as racist/sexist. But groups such as this that attracts a specific type of user, counter messaging doesn’t happen because the all the users are there because they like this type of hate speech.

  • Justice & Fair Play.

    Something will need to be done by a brave government soon, to curb this menace. If done too late (like so many other irritants) it would be hard to stop without a major upheaval. This government will not have the guts to do it, because they survive on ‘mass sentiment’ and not through the application of the rule of the law.

    Because LTTE terrorism was not nipped in the bud, because there were so many who were sleeping when they should have not, we had 30 years of violence and thousands of deaths and destruction. The implications of its annihilation are now hounding us in the UN.

    Here is another budding issue and it will create the same issues for us, in time to come. Taking to violence to purportedly safeguard a religion that is rooted in non violence? Well, that is exactly what BBS is about, as far as I can see.

  • Lakmal Boteju