The trigger was supposedly a road-rage incident, said to have involved members of Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority, near the popular tourist destination of Kandy. A lorry driver from the country’s biggest ethnic group, the Sinhalese, ended up dead. Angry Sinhalese mobs, urged on by Buddhist monks, began attacking mosques and businesses owned by Muslims, hurling rocks, burning tyres, and setting fires, leading to at least two more deaths.
Some two dozen policemen and soldiers watched helplessly, according to residents, as the mob – mostly Sinhalese Buddhist men – vandalised and set fire to Muslim homes and businesses in the Welekada area of Ambatenna town.
In response Maithripala Sirisena, the president, declared an island-wide state of emergency on March 6th of 2018.
On March 7th authorities restricted access to social media to prevent the spreading of rumours and fomenting of further violence
The government of Sri Lanka shut down Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Viber in an attempt to quell ethnic strife in the country. Authorities said that people were using the social media platforms to stoke violence against Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority.
The riots in early 2018 started in the district of Ampara in the eastern province, where anti-Muslim hate was whipped up via posts across social media platforms such as Facebook. Facebook, over any other social media platform, was used by Buddhist nationalists to spread propaganda against the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka which makes up just 10 percent of the country’s population.
In a report by Sanjana Hottotuwa, the editor of Groundviews, outlined how content generation trends from Facebook were studied across 465 accounts and were reported to have content that framed Sinhalese Buddhists as being “under threat” from Islam and Muslims, and “consequently in need of urgent and if necessary violent pushback.”
The Facebook pages revealed an increase in anti-Muslim content just before the violence erupted in March 2018. At least three people were killed and 20 injured in the 2018 unrest. Mosques and Muslim businesses were burnt by majority Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists.
Even though nationwide block on Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter was subsequently issued by the government following the mob violence against Sri Lankan Muslims, this only lasted for 72 hours before the block was lifted. The riots then continued, with many victims stating that they felt that the police were enabling the attacks and not taking any action against the perpetrators.
Government officials and those in power in Sri Lanka did not speak out on social media to quell the violence, despite having put a block on the social media networks in a bid to stop further planning of attacks against Muslims. The lack of condemnation of the attacks from those in power in Sri Lanka resulted in the mobs finding their feet to incite further violence.
|Prime actors: Buddhist nationalists, Anti-muslim extremistsSecondary actors: anonymous social media users, police officials||Intent: suggests aspersive intent||Anti-Muslim hate was disseminated via posts across social media platforms such as Facebook.Truthfulness:The contents were untrue and not based on proofNarrative: It is aligned with the disinformation narrative.||Target audience: Sri-Lankan population, specifically Muslims.Platforms: Social media||Human rights:Right to life, freedom of expression, rights of religious and ethnic minorities.|
ABCDE Framework Analysis:
Actor: Screenshots of Facebook posts from the days before and during the violence were disseminated throughout social media. This show extremists stoking fear of Muslims and calling on fellow Buddhists to target them. The dates on the screenshots show that the content was allowed to stay on the site for days despite having been reported. Facebook eventually took many of the posts down, but by then, they had already been viewed and shared thousands of times.
Behaviour: The anonymous social media users created those contents to incite violence against Muslims.
Content: The content carried element of threat and possessed harm against the Muslim community in Sri Lanka. The contents were deceptive and untrue used with disinformation narrative.
Degree: The content was targeted against Muslim communities. The social media specially Facebook was used to distribute the content as a part of encouraging Buddhist to incite violence against Muslims.
Effect: The content violated fundamental freedoms including right to life, freedom of expression, rights of religious and ethnic minorities.
Diagnosis: The Case has been identified as incident of disinformation because there was evidence of deliberately deceptive behaviour.
Since the Easter Sunday bombings in April 2019 that killed over 250 people, which was claimed by Islamist militants, Sri Lankan Muslims have faced an upsurge in violations of their basic rights and assaults and other abuses from Buddhist nationalists. Sri Lankan officials and politicians should stop endorsing, ignoring, or exploiting hate speech and mob violence directed at Muslims by members of the Buddhist clergy and other powerful figures.
The 2018 Sri Lankan riots are a testament to the perils of social media that is not monitored sufficiently and puts the most vulnerable in society at risk. Islamophobia has intensified over the years in Sri Lanka and rose again after the Easter attacks in April 2019, leaving many Muslims vulnerable to being systematically targeted by nationalists.