Tackling online hate speech in Sri Lanka, key lessons from MDI project

By Farah Firthous, MDI workshop participant

In recent years, Sri Lanka has witnessed a concerning rise in online hate speech, exacerbating existing tensions and perpetuating social divisions. The proliferation of social media platforms has provided a fertile ground for the dissemination of hateful rhetoric, often targeting marginalized communities based on ethnicity, religion, gender, and other identity markers.  

Amidst this challenging landscape, initiatives such as the Media Diversity Institute ‘Get The Trolls Out Sri Lanka’ (GTTO) project have emerged as crucial endeavours to equip individuals and civil society actors with the tools to understand and counter hate speech online. 

The dangers of online hate speech 

As a participant in the GTTO Sri Lanka project, I had the opportunity to contribute to the creation of content aimed at combating stereotypes and promoting inclusivity, focusing on topics such as hijab rights and men’s mental health. Here is what I will take away with me from this experience. 

One of the primary motivations behind the GTTO Sri Lanka project was the alarming impact of online hate speech on society. Hate speech not only perpetuates discrimination and prejudice but also has tangible consequences for individuals and communities, fueling tensions and undermining social cohesion. 

 Economynext wrote in their article “Though a sense of freedom dawned with the election of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government in 2015, it was also the period when ill-informed members of the police distorted the provisions of the newly introduced International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to harass and arrest citizens and foreigners alike”.  

In many cases, hate speech has led to real-world violence and discrimination, amplifying existing conflicts and deepening divisions within Sri Lankan society. 

The spread of inflammatory rhetoric targeting minority communities has fueled interethnic tensions and contributed to incidents of violence and discrimination. One notable example is the anti-Muslim riots in Kandy in 2018, which were fueled by false rumours and hate speech propagated on social media platforms and equally in traditional media. Such incidents underscore the urgent need to address the root causes of hate speech and equip individuals with the skills to challenge and counter it effectively.  

Creating a network of ambassadors

The GTTO Sri Lanka project facilitated a series of training workshops for civil society actors, providing us with essential knowledge and practical tools to combat hate speech online. Through these workshops, we gained insights into the dynamics of online hate speech, learning how to identify and deconstruct harmful narratives while promoting positive and inclusive messaging. The project gave us digital advocacy skills, enabling us to leverage social media platforms to amplify our voices and counter hate speech effectively. 

The training sessions covered a range of topics, including the psychology of hate speech, legal frameworks governing online content, and strategies for fostering constructive dialogue and mutual understanding. We had the opportunity to engage in hands-on activities, such as developing content and campaigns to challenge stereotypes and promote tolerance and diversity. 

One of the key outcomes of the GTTO Sri Lanka project was the empowerment of participants to take proactive measures against hate speech in their communities. Armed with newfound knowledge and skills, we emerged as advocates for change, actively challenging harmful narratives and promoting a culture of respect and understanding online.  

By fostering a network of informed and engaged individuals who are working voluntarily for the cause they choose among their community, the project laid the groundwork for sustained efforts to combat hate speech and promote digital citizenship in Sri Lanka. 

Acting on the legal framework 

Furthermore, initiatives like the GTTO Sri Lanka project are particularly vital in the context of emerging legislation such as the online safety bill. While ostensibly aimed at curbing online harm, such legislation risks being weaponized to suppress dissent and stifle freedom of expression. By equipping individuals with the knowledge and skills to navigate these challenges, initiatives like the GTTO Sri Lanka project play a crucial role in safeguarding democratic values and ensuring that voices of dissent are not silenced. 

The GTTO Sri Lanka project represents a significant step towards addressing the scourge of online hate speech and promoting digital citizenship in Sri Lanka. By building the capacity of individuals and civil society actors to understand and counter hate speech online, the project has contributed to fostering a more inclusive and resilient society. Moving forward, sustained efforts are needed to amplify these initiatives and promote a culture of tolerance, respect, and dialogue in the digital sphere. 

While there may be other projects addressing online hate speech in Sri Lanka, the GTTO Sri Lanka project stands out as a unique initiative. What sets this project apart is its ability to bring together content creators from diverse backgrounds and regions of the country, fostering collaboration and collective action against hate speech online.  

By creating a platform for individuals to come together and pool their resources and expertise, the GTTO Sri Lanka project has the potential to have a broader and more sustained impact on tackling online hate speech. 

However, it’s important to recognise that this is just the first step in addressing a complex and multifaceted issue. To truly make a lasting impact, more funding, support, and resources are needed to scale up initiatives like the GTTO Sri Lanka project and ensure their sustainability. By investing in projects that empower individuals and communities to challenge hate speech and promote digital citizenship, we can work towards building a safer and more inclusive online environment for all. 

The GTTO Sri Lanka project, spearheaded by Hashtag Generation in partnership with the Media Diversity Institute, aimed to address the escalating issue of online hate speech by building the capacity of participants to recognise, analyse, and effectively respond to such harmful content. 

Pictures from shutterstock.com

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Media Diversity Institute. Any question or comment should be addressed to  editor@media-diversity.org