Hate Speech and Social Media in Sri Lanka

Ms. Rebecca Devitt

This paper will exam the resurgence of Sinhalese Buddhist extremist groups in Sri Lanka and how these groups exploit social media to spread Islamphobia and incite violence. Disinformation and the spread of hate speech on Facebook in 2018 and 2019 following the Easter bombings led to Anti-Muslim riots in Kandy and Negombo. This disinformation included false reports of sterilisation of Sinhalese women by Muslim’s which were spread through social media platforms and news outlets. Since the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War in 2009 there has been an increase in support for Sinhalese Buddhist extremist groups who have targeted Muslim minorities. Groups such as BBS have adopted the rhetoric and language of the global anti-Muslim movement which has gained increased momentum in South Asia.

Debate around the place that Sinhala Buddhism identity holds within Sri Lanka and the fears that it is under threat by Muslim minorities is at the heart of understanding the recent attacks and the rise in popularity of groups such as BBS. Sinhala-Buddhist extremist groups such as BBS have large followings on Facebook and recent polling results in the 2015 parliamentary elections suggests that such groups are gaining mainstream appeal and consolidating political influence.

Whilst the Sri Lankan government has introduced a new bill to curb the spread of online hate, there is a fear that the law will be used to stifle debate. Government internet shutdowns following the riots, have also been criticised for doing little to stop the spread of disinformation and no Sri Lankan has been arrested for the spread of hate speech or hate crimes.

These developments suggest that it is the entrenched impunity, normalisation of prejudice against minorities through social media and fear around national identity that pose the greatest challenge for protecting the rights of minorities in Sri Lanka. The spread of an anti-Muslim narrative through social media platforms is a fairly new phenomenon and this paper seeks to explore the motivations for this institutionalised Islamophobia by examining how social media has been weaponised by groups such as BBS and manipulated by the State.