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Banning hate speech in Sri Lanka poses social media conundrum

The apps stopped working in Sri lanka sometime on March 7th. The blanket decision to curb the hate speech that ensued after the clashes in Kandy was both a blessing and a curse. It’s not the best strategy, but it’s often the only one left when a government is caught unprepared.

Censorship – what else could we call it?- is a curse. “Social media is a noisy and contested space,” observed Nalaka Gunawardene. After all, “many have been using the platform to counter myths, misconceptions and prejudices.” Hate speech lives here alongside the more commendable forms of social interatcion. We have seen this movie before, though. Social media companies are often unable to, or incapable of filtering out the noise. Or the conspiracy theories, or the fake news. So pulling the plug is a hard choice. But it should go with long-term preventive measures that prevent offline hate speech. Which, as has been well documented, the government has not addressed for years. Again it’s worth quoting Nalaka who observes:

We did not reach this point overnight. For many years, ultranationalists have been poisoning the public mind with racial and religious hatred. Some local language newspapers – in both Sinhala and Tamil – regularly use racially-charged language and accommodate extremist viewpoints. Privately owned TV channels, engaged in a fierce competition for ratings, have also sometimes played with fires of communalism. 

His article, a long read, is titled “Smart phones and stupid governments.”

In 1983, the outbusts of hatred and bigotry travelled over long distances with no help from phones, let alone smart phones. There was no platform to block or blame. The culprit? Politicians! People at the top of the totem pole with no crisis plan, no leadership.

 
 

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