ri Lanka’s keenly contested general election was entering its last two weeks of campaign, and Manjula Gajanayake, one of the island’s foremost election monitors, was nervous.
While driving to the remote south eastern Uva Province two weekends before the national vote on August 5, the head of the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) received a call. A candidate had just stormed a government-run transport depot with 60 supporters in tow.
“This is usual; this can be handled,” Gajanayake said, heaving a sigh of relief.
Sri Lanka’s new president Goatabaya Rajapaksa dissolved parliament on March 3 this year six months ahead of schedule and called for elections on April 25. However, just two weeks later the Election Commission postponed the elections as the island braced for the onset of rising Covid-19 infections. The polls were then set for June 20 but were postponed again.
The new date was announced on June 10 after the Supreme Court dismissed legal challenges against the conduct of the elections amid the pandemic.
As has been the trend during past elections, the lead-up to the August 5 poll has witnessed the pitting of divisive politics between the majority Sinhala Buddhist parties and minority Tamil and Muslim parties, and between divergent forces, including those espousing extremist platforms, against one another.
What was more worrisome to Gajanayake though was a trend on social media where there are over six million accounts of Sri Lankan origin. Hate speech and incitements to hostility or violence had recorded a dangerous uptick in the last few days of the campaign.
A casual quip against a prominent opposition candidate, Saijith Premadasa, by Mahinda Rajapaksa, the incumbent Prime Minister and former two-time President, was the most concerning in this growing list.
Rajapaksa’s insulting comment in a video clip on Premadasa not being a father yet, meaning childless, had unleashed a social media firestorm. Ordinary citizens and activists alike had criticized the comments as being insensitive and degrading. Yet Rajapaksa had not apologized for the offensive remark.
Gajanayake’s worry was that someone of Rajapaksa’s stature, as the elder statesman of his party, could set a trend. Lower-ranking party members could interpret his lack of remorse as a license to indulge in similar incitements to hatred, discrimination, and vitriol, which have caused deep divisions in the 21 million-strong island country in South Asia.
“Election campaigns are like dominos – what happens right at the top can cascade down very fast,” Gajanayake said.
Hate speech across the political divide
Incidents of hate speech were also visible among minority parties contesting the election in regional districts. In the Eastern Batticaloa District, Tamil political parties were trading barbs against each other while widely shared messages on social media platforms contained derogatory remarks against Muslims.
In the not so distant past, Sri Lanka had paid a bloody and steep price for racial divides. The three-decade-old civil war that ended in 2009 was the result of militant groups from the minority Tamil community fighting for a separate state. But the end of the civil strife that cost the lives of over 100,000 people did not mean the end of widening ethnic fault lines.
Simmering tensions in 2014 and most recently in 2018 between the majority Sinhala community and minority Muslims flared into deadly riots. In April 2019, the Easter Sunday bombings carried out by Muslim extremists claiming 269 innocent lives plunged the nation deeper into the abyss of racial division.
At the presidential elections in November 2019, Gotabaya Mahinda Rajapaksa’s younger brother and the last war-time defense secretary, was elected president.
In this year’s parliamentary elections, the Covid-19 lockdowns meant that the usual pell-mell campaigning replete with mass rallies and posters at every nook and corner were forced to be much more subdued.
Election watchers likes Gajanayake hoped a similar trend on hate speech, noticeable at the beginning of the campaign, would hold. “We did not notice violent incitements dominating the campaign, at least not those of the major parties,” Gajanayake said.
Hashtag Generation, a national youth organization that has also been monitoring inflammatory content on Facebook and reporting it to the platform for action, noticed similar trends.
“Maybe the content would not have gone down, but the potency of the content was down a notch,” Senel Wanniarchchi, director at Hashtag Generation, said.
Sanjana Hattotuwa, a PhD candidate at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has cautioned that the spread of hate speech was still wide, especially on social messaging platforms. Whatever visible downturn was there was owing to the fact that monitoring was not keeping pace with the width and spread of online content, he said.
Hattotuwa has repeatedly stated that even for a smaller country like Sri Lanka, social media dynamics were complex and hard to keep track of without investing in needed skills and resources.
“Essentially though, the challenge is pegged to the business model of social media companies, pegged to profit and virality,” he added. “Both of these, individually and together, operate to inflame and amplify content that in countries with decades-old majoritarianism and discrimination, operate in ways that strengthen existing power dynamics in society.”
Sri Lanka’s political landscape being rife with authoritarian rhetoric in itself raises another set of concerns.
“Authoritarians are today better at manipulating and weaponizing social media to suit their aims, often through strategically targeted hate against opponents and activists. During elections, this landscape of challenges increases exponentially in complexity,” Hattotuwa warned.
Hashtag Generation internal assessments suggested that of the hate-related content monitored on Facebook, 57% was anti-Muslim and 6% anti-Tamil. Indeed, the early signs that there was a toning down of hate content could easily have been false without a full accounting of the content being shared on private messaging apps.
One example was how a party contesting in the central Kandy District had been using WhatsApp groups to circulate racist messages against Muslims. One such message spoke of how the Muslims were engaged in having their own courts, banking systems, marriage laws, and food (halal). It beseeched the voters to support firebrand Buddhist monks whose election would be a bulwark against Islamic expansion in Sri Lanka, it said.
In Sri Lanka clergy are not banned from contesting elections. However, the mid-1990s saw a change in the tradition of religious leaders not standing at elections when Buddhist monks began running for parliament, with some of them eventually getting elected.
The Sri Lankan government blocked WhatsApp and Facebook soon after riots broke out in parts of the Kandy District in March 2018. Government authorities said that the messaging apps had been used by mobs to share information.
The inability to monitor private messaging groups has been compounded by the slowness of the process of moderation. The Election Commission and Facebook have had an informal agreement to deal with hate speech since the November 2019 presidential election. However, Ratnajeevan Hoole, one of the three Commission members, admits that the process is fraught with kinks. “Usually before a decision is made to remove [violative content], the damage is done,” he said.
Hashtag Generation and the polls monitoring body, People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL), wrote to Facebook in April highlighting the time lapse between complaints and action. During last year’s presidential election, an email that Hashtag Generation sent to Facebook highlighting a post at 8.45 pm on October 22, received a reply 65 days later, indicating that it was taken down at 10.14 pm, December 27.
“We do not believe that there was adequate staffing to ensure that such a review process was conducted in a timely manner. Evidence of this was that some reports took over 60 days to receive a response through Facebook’s trusted partner escalation channel” the letter said.
Covid-19 restrictions, some of which are imposed by the Election Commission, have put a spanner in the works of the Sri Lankan election campaigns. Closely contested elections have historically been reflected on the ground with rising violence. This time, however, with less than 10 days to go before the polls, not a single death linked to election violence had been reported.
The most common violation was illegal campaigning, according to reports by PAFFREL. This was followed by violations of medical guidelines during the campaign – hardly cause for concern given the extent of violence that marred past elections.
But the veneer of a peaceful campaign, not least due to Covid-19 fears, may be just that, a veneer for something more sinister that is lurking not on the platform stages but on the ubiquitous phone on everyone’s hand – something that may be much deeply entrenched and harder to dislodge.
“No one really has a blueprint on how to do this,” said Asanga Ranaweera, assistant Election Commissioner and the chief contact point at the Election Commission on hate speech. “We all are learning as we go.”●
Amantha Perera has over 15 years of experience as a journalist. His works have appeared in TIME, Reuters, the Guardian, and the Washington Post. He also works as a regional coordinator and trainer for the DART Centre Asia Pacific. He is currently pursuing post-graduate research on online trauma threats faced by journalists and their impact at the Central Queensland University in Melbourne, Australia.