A statement from Sri Lanka’s ministry of defence on Sunday said the government had “taken steps to temporarily block all the social media avenues until the investigations are concluded”.
But thousands of Sri Lankans used VPNs to get around the block. Google trends recorded up to a 2000 per cent spike in searches related to the technology, a repeat of the experience when the government blocked social media in March 2018 after hate speech against Muslims spread online.
Colombo researcher Sanjana Hattotuwa, who partners with Facebook in the country through thinktank Centre for Policy Alternatives, said he and his colleagues had been working at “breakneck speed” in the last 48 hours to monitor, identify and report harmful Facebook content.
“It was a very volatile situation on the ground and it required the greatest care that social media did not inflame pre-existing hate against specific communities,” he said. “[Facebook] constantly asked whether this content or that post was going to lead to imminent harm.”
Facebook’s difficulties with moderating live content were exposed after last month’s terrorist attack in Christchurch, but in Sri Lanka Mr Hattotuwa said Facebook was “floundering” under the sheer volume of content and limitations of its algorithms.
“In countries like Myanmar and Sri Lanka, our languages aren’t spoken anywhere else in the world,” he said.
The machine learning and artificial intelligence that goes into the pro-active identification of content that can be inflammatory doesn’t work in Sri Lanka as Zuckerberg advertised.
“The machine learning and artificial intelligence that goes into the pro-active identification of content that can be inflammatory doesn’t work in Sri Lanka as Zuckerberg advertised in Congress when he was questioned in 2018 after Cambridge Analytica.”
After Sunday’s attack, Mr Hattotuwa said unverified information about perpetrators as well as hate-fuelled dog-whistling spread rapidly in Sinhalese, contributing to the government’s decision to block the network.
Facebook said it was “working to support first responders and law enforcement as well as to identify and remove content which violates our standards”.
But Mr Hattotuwa said the “vitriolic” content Facebook was looking to manage over the past two days was an “ongoing problem”.
“It hit a crescendo with what happened yesterday, but it never really goes away,” he said.
“There have been some strides made, but until 2018 Facebook did not have any response whatsoever to anything we identified as inflammatory or inciting hate and violence on the platform in Sinhalese, telling them specifically that this would lead to harm. They’re not doing enough.”
Natassia is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald.