Disinformation, propaganda and hate speech continues to distort the digital space in Sri Lanka, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) noted during a panel discussion organised by the Information Safety and Capacity (ISC) Project, which provides information security and capacity building assistance to civil society organisations, rights activists and independent media. The discussion was held in Washington DC on June 4, and CPA were the only participants representing South Asia.
These distortions in the digital space deepen divisions along lines of race and religion that persist post-war, CPA noted, alongside panelists from Venezuela, Macedonia, Ecuador, South Africa and Ukraine.
CPA flagged the spread of hate speech on social media during riots targeting the Muslim community in the Central and Eastern Province of Sri Lanka, resulting in the government blocking social media platforms Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, while delaying the immediate detention of the perpetrators responsible for the violence.
Other topics raised included a recent spike of bot accounts following key accounts on Twitter, targeting journalists, activists, lawyers and diplomats in April, which affected countries across South Asia, including Hong Kong, Myanmar, Cambodia and other countries. The weaponisation of social media using bots and troll accounts by political figures on Twitter, including by Joint Opposition MP Namal Rajapaksa was flagged as a point of concern. Parallels were drawn with the situation in Macedonia, where the State actively uses ‘troll farms’ to spread State-sponsored propaganda and disinformation, while the Ukranian panelist spoke about the Russian influence on disinformation within the country.
In Venezuela, the integration of citizen’s biometric data with social welfare programmes raises privacy concerns similar to those raised by Sri Lankan civil society after the introduction of a digital Identity Card in Sri Lanka, late last year.
CPA also noted impingements of freedom of expression online, with 13 websites blocked by the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission since 2015.
In the lead up to the panel discussion, CPA participated in the ISC Project’s annual workshop, bringing together tech-developers and activists. CPA led sessions highlighting the situation in Sri Lanka pertaining to freedom of expression online, to an audience of tech-developers, representatives of established social media platforms and activists from across the world.