Earlier in the week Facebook Inc. issued an apology for the role it may have played in fuelling the violence that erupted in Sri Lanka in early 2018.
Along with the apology, Facebook also released three impact assessment reports that looked at the platform’s role in human rights violations in three countries, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Indonesia.
Anti-Muslim riots in Digana in the Kandy district in March that year came about when a Sinhalese man was attacked and killed by some Muslim youth in the area. Prior to that outbreak of violence, a video of a Muslim man purportedly mixing ‘sterilization pills’ with food served to Sinhala men, in the Ampara District went viral, heightening tensions between the two communities.
Even as Facebook was identified as one of the platforms used by extremist elements to rally supporters to intensify the attacks on Muslims, the government of the day introduced a blanket clamp down on all social media in a bid to curtail the rising violence.
In the apology, Facebook said in relation to Sri Lanka, ‘We deplore this misuse of our platform. We recognize, and apologize for, the very real human rights impacts that resulted.”
The assessment on Sri Lanka was carried out by Article One, which noted in its Executive Summary that ‘Sri Lanka represents one of the most critical countries when it comes to potential human rights infringements on the platform. Recently emerging from a decades-long civil war, Sri Lanka continues to struggle with ethnic and religious tensions that play out both offline and online. For example, harmful rumors about Muslims in Sri Lanka spread across the Facebook platform in March of 2018. These rumors fanned existing ethnoreligious tensions and may have contributed to offline violence against Muslims.”
The impact assessment was for a period ending September 2018. The report spoke of Facebook’s failure to effectively respond and curb misuse of its platform by various quarters, despite complaints to it, for nearly a decade.
Following the assessment reports, Facebook states that it has put in several safeguards to ensure their platform is not misused. In a statement titled, ‘An Update on Facebook’s Human Rights Work in Asia and Around the World,’ it says it has ‘formalised’ the approach to decide which countries require more investment in terms of increased staffing and product changes and research. ‘We have committed to expanding end-to-end encryption, a security function that is already core to WhatsApp, to all of our messaging products to protect people’s private messages, including journalists and human rights defenders.” While it had updated the values that underpin its community standards in October of last year, to reflect human rights principles, an assessment by the Global Network Initiative completed earlier this year has determined that Facebook has strengthened its “systematic review of both privacy and freedom of expression.” Accordingly, over the last two years Facebook has begun looking at countries at risk of conflicts and formulating policies to address specific needs.
In terms of Sri Lanka, this has been reducing distribution of frequently re-shared messages which are usually associated with misinformation or clickbait and removing verified misinformation which could lead to imminent physical harm and also unverifiable rumours and also expanded its policies on voter interference.
Facebook has also increased its staff in Sri Lanka, including program managers and policy leads, content reviewers for Sinhala and Tamil, fact-checking partnerships and digital and media literacy programmes.
Article One, in its report states that ethnic tensions between the majority Sinhala Buddhists and the Tamils have been seen since the country gained independence in 1948, and despite the end of the ethnic war between the two communities in 2009, these divisions continue to shape the country’s political landscape.
More lately, fears amongst the majority that the country will be taken over by the international Islamic community, has resulted in heightened tensions between these two communities as well. “These tensions have played out most tragically on the ground, but also on Facebook, where the platform has 6.85 million monthly active users and 4.4 million daily active users,” the report states.
Article One has looked at the human rights impact that Facebook has on several groups; Religious Minorities, Women, Children, LGBTQ+ Community and on Human Rights Defenders.
Actions of Facebooks users, says the report, could infringe upon several components guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). These include the right to dignity, privacy and non-discrimination amongst others.
In the area of Religious Minorities Article One says, ‘Facebook platform contributed to spreading rumors and hate speech, which may have led to “offline” violence. Indeed, the assessment found that the proliferation of hate speech (e.g., “Kill all Muslims, don’t even save an infant; they are dogs”) and misinformation (e.g., that a Muslim restaurateur was adding sterilization pills to his customers’ food) may have contributed to unrest and in the case of the restaurateur and others, physical harm.
Women in Sri Lanka, notes the report face similar harassment both off-line and on-line which it identifies as; “gender-based hate speech and harassment (“cyberbullying”), non-consensual sharing of images in public (“creepshots” and “upskirting”), and non-consensual sharing of intimate images (“revenge porn”).”
Article One has also found evidence of sexual exploitation of Sri Lankan children on-line including on Facebook. Evidence which included comments and images ‘of child sexual exploitation related to the posting of sexually explicit photos and comments related to children, as well as online grooming of children.”
Even as Facebook provided a safe space to the LGTBQ+ community, it also put them in harm’s way the report notes, pointing out that members of LGBTQ+ community have faced bullying, harassment and even being ‘outed on the platform.’
For human rights defenders on-line platforms including Facebook provide the space for their activism. However, here again, Article One determined that human rights defenders were subjected to harassment and on-line surveillance, “by other users, as well as a potential overreach by government agencies seeking to monitor defender activity online.”
In fact, the statement released by Facebook states that it is working towards mitigating the harmful impacts of its platform, and to be more transparent in its communication with and building trust with rights holders.
The Facebook statement says it plans to work on advancing human rights in countries such as Sri Lanka, in keeping with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. “In particular”, says the statement, “we are deeply troubled by the arrests of people who have used Facebook to engage in peaceful political expression, and will continue to advocate for freedom of expression and stronger protections of user data.”