Battle against hate speech intensifies

By Maheesha Mudugamuwa

Efforts to curb and prevent hate speech on social media have intensified in Sri Lanka with social media giant Facebook (FB) holding several formal and informal discussions in Colombo last week.

Following the March 2018 riots in Digana, the Government imposed a temporary ban on social media sites fearing they could be used to spread misinformation or incite violence against communities.

Facebook was criticised over its failure to prevent hate speech circulating on Facebook and Instagram at the time, which resulted in the Digana violence spreading.

Learning how social media was used during the Digana incident and subsequent attacks on minorities and ensuring there is no repeat were the main focuses of the discussion with Facebook officials from India in Colombo last week.

During a roundtable discussion held in Colombo last week, a Facebook official who wished to remain anonymous elaborated on the measures FB had now taken to tackle hate speech in Sri Lanka.

The FB official said that the company had already hired Sinhala and Tamil language experts to identify hate speech online in those two languages. In addition, the company had also invested heavily on proactive detectors such as artificial intelligence (AI) to automatically trace hate speech.

Elaborating further, the official said that all of its users were covered under FB’s Community Standards and if someone violates it and if it is reported to FB, the team immediately takes steps to remove the harmful content.

Drawing the margin between hate speech and freedom of speech as per the FB standards, the official stressed: “We define hate speech as a direct attack on people based on what we call protected characteristics – race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, caste, sex, gender, gender identity, and serious disease or disability. We also provide some protection for immigration status. We define an ‘attack’ as violent or dehumanising speech, statements of inferiority, or calls for exclusion or segregation.”

On the other hand, as explained by its Spokesperson, FB doesn’t get involved in restricting the political expression rights of the community.

Speaking to The Sunday Morning, Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) Chairman Prof. Rohan Samarajiva said: “After the Digana incidents, we were on the radar of FB and money is being spent not only for business-related things, but also on community standards and educating people on how to take care of their personal information.”

According to him, FB in collaboration with Sarvodaya had trained over 50,000 people on how to be safe on the internet. In addition, they also conducted a series of awareness campaigns on how to use FB to develop their businesses.

In addition, FB officials engaged in discussions with civil society groups and had also held two roundtable conferences in Sri Lanka so far.

“I’ve been informed that Sinhala-speaking people have been employed at foreign sites in Ireland and various other places to look at problematic content, in addition to other mechanical aspects they are engaged in,” Prof. Samarajiva said.

In addition, as highlighted by Prof. Samarajiva, the Parliamentary Sectoral Oversight Committee on National Security requested him to provide his expert input on issues such as hate speech and disinformation.

However, as the ICTA Chairman said, even though his agency has no authority on content-related issues on the internet, he is acting as a mediator to minimise the negative impact of banning social media sites that are being used by thousands of people to promote their businesses while also tackling issues related to hate speech, among others.

New cybersecurity laws

In the modern world, social media has become fundamental to how we communicate. Last year, it was estimated that the number of global social media users reached over three billion, with around two billion having active FB accounts. And despite valid concerns surrounding the power and use of these platforms, they can have an extraordinarily positive effect on freedom of expression, facilitating public debate, and strengthening social movements.

Social media has the power to make and break political leaders, connect protest movements, and change societal attitudes on issues of equality.

As reported by international media, apart from FB, several other social media platforms have also started to review their safety regulations as well as community standards.

On Tuesday, Twitter announced an expansion of policies around hateful content that dehumanises others based on their religion. Following this update, the company will require the removal of tweets that dehumanise whole religious groups when they’re reported to the company.

To stem the rising influence of fake news, some countries have made the deliberate creation and distribution of false information a crime. Singapore is the latest country to have passed a law against fake news, joining others like Germany, Malaysia, France, and Russia. Countries like Iran and China have blocked access to certain social media networks in their entirety, while others have engaged in targeted blocking.

According to a survey conducted by Sri Lanka Computer Emergency Readiness Team (SLCERT), it was revealed that Sri Lankan youth use a wide range of social networking sites such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Viber, Google+, Skype, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, Flicker, Line, Blogger, Imo, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Instagram.

Among them, Facebook is rated the most popular social networking site among Sri Lankan youth. As highlighted in Figure 1, 89% of the respondents used Facebook, followed by WhatsApp (79%), Viber (75%), Google+ (62%), and Skype (48%). Line is the least popular social networking site among respondents.

SLCERT Media Spokesman Ravindu Meegasmulla told The Sunday Morning that the laws pertaining to cybersecurity would soon be passed in Parliament as the draft bill was in its final stage.

“The technical specifications have already been done and we’ve put it to the web to get public comments. Once this is done, it will be submitted to Parliament and then we will open it for public consultation,” he added.

According to Meegasmulla, the Act would identify Critical Information Infrastructure (CII) and a Cyber Security Agency (CSA) will also be set up. In addition, the Act will also regulate SLCERT and decide on who should be in charge of CSA, he added.

In addition, the SLCERT formulated Sri Lanka’s first National Cyber Security Strategy to be implemented over a period of five years from 2019 to 2023 and Cabinet approval had already been given for the strategy. As highlighted by the SLCERT and ICTA, as of now in Sri Lanka, there is no authority with powers to monitor cybersecurity functions, and the only control the Government had as of now was to block social media channels via the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC).

But even when the channels were banned by the Government, Sri Lankans were seen to be actively engaged in those very social media channels using Virtual Private Networks (VPN), which is seen as a threat to the country by the ICTA Chairman as its use increases the risk of information being stolen.