Originally published on the Sunday Leader
Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict: one of the world’s most protracted and destructive conflicts of our time was brought to a bloody, military end in May of 2009. Seven years have passed since, but the communities in the island remain divided along narrow ethno-religious lines. In many ways, this is a result of the conflicting narratives held by the Sinhalese and the Tamil communities as well as others on Sri Lanka’s history, the beginnings of the conflict and how it was brought to an end. Many Sinhalese people in the South only see the conflict as a separatist war that was initiated by terrorists who happened to be Tamil and do not recognize the years of discrimination and suppression that the Tamil people had to undergo under successive majoritarian governments in post-colonial Sri Lanka who turned the two communities against each other for narrow political wins. Many Tamils in the North have witnessed the violence they saw in their backyards but fail to recognize that thousands of bright and innocent men and women in the South were also killed by the LTTE and do not see the woundedness of the Sinhalese. In a sense, there is almost a competition between the communities to emerge as the ultimate ‘victim’ of the conflict. These narratives have sustained overtime and have been passed down from generation to generation cemented by the media, politicians, textbooks, literature, the arts and so on. This is only exacerbated by various conspiracy theories and hate propagated by racist politicians who thrive on our differences.
The mainstream Sinhala media almost never offers any form of critique of the war or how the war was brought to an end. The ‘official’ version of history taught in Sri Lankan schools and is validated by textbooks with the state emblem teaches kids only of the ancient Kings and Queens (mostly Kings) that reigned pre-colonial Sri Lanka and the syllabi end with discussing how all communities in the country were united in their fight against the colonial ‘masters.’ Episodes of our history such as the anti-Tamil pogroms and dark yet key events in the country’s history such as the Sinhala Only Act of 1956 and the burning of the Jaffna Library are conveniently erased.
A few months back, I was a part of a team from the youth movement, Hashtag Generation which hosted two communications trainings in Sinhala and Tamil for two groups of women aspiring to run for public office from parties across the political divide. The Sinhala language training was in Colombo and the Tamil language training was held in Jaffna. All women who attended the two trainings were leaders in their communities and were already holding various positions of leadership. Meeting these two groups within the time span of two weeks showed us the stark polarity that exists between the communities in terms of the narratives they held on the conflict, inequality and transitional justice. Furthermore, it was clear that whenever they were exposed to a different narrative to what they had heard all their life, there was a natural sense of resistance to accept it.
During our trainings one of the aspects that were covered is how social media could be used as an effective tool to discuss issues these women face on a day to day basis. We believed that, while social media in Sri Lanka, like in many parts of the world is used as a tool to spread messages of hate, incite violence and radicalise impassioned young people; it could also be a force for good – a platform where Sri Lankans from different sides of the battle-lines meet ‘the other’ and share their stories.
Now over 25.8% of Sri Lanka’s population has access to the internet. The mobile phone in particular has enabled millions to get connected, with there being more sims in the country than there are people. This figure is only bound to increase in future. Of the various social media platforms that are available, Facebook clearly dominates with over 2.5 million accounts. For many Sri Lankans Facebook is not just synonymous with social media, but sadly, with the internet.
However, what many Sri Lankan Facebook users probably don’t know is that what appears on our Facebook feeds, is increasingly engineered through extremely clever algorithms to reflect back to us, the world as we already see it. As such, posts with disproportionate amount of engagement (likes, clicks, comments, shares) will be seen by more and more people. In many ways, the dominant narrative – at least among your circle of friends and their friends, is what you will see more and more of on your Facebook feed.
For the longest time, I used to unfriend my ‘racist’ Facebook friends. As I woke up every morning and scrolled through the Facebook feed, I unfriended anyone in my Facebook friends list who shared Bodu Bala Sena and Sinhala Ravaya posts(and trust me there were quite a few). I felt I didn’t need the negativity in my life. What I didn’t realize at the time is that I was also deleting the only windows I had to ‘the other side’ making my Facebook feed, much like the silos that are our social circles which give us the illusion of consensus when the reality is a far cry from it.
Facebook says it uses thousands of factors to determine what shows up in any individual user’s feed. They judge how close you are to a person by how often you interact with them and note your personal preferences based on your behaviour online. While, many people are not aware their feeds are being controlled in this way, Facebook says, it has addressed these concerns through options such as ‘Unfollow’ and the ‘See First.’ However, it’s important to examine how these developments are not just shaping our digital lives but also our civic and political lives as well.
The Facebook algorithms, as clever as they are, are like any system that appears impenetrable at first. If you are clever enough, it’s not difficult to see through it. Do not unfriend your ‘racist’ friends. Look for online spaces of people who share views different to yours, outside of your comfort zones and social circles .They will help break the echo chamber that is your Facebook feed.
As the state embarks on a process of ‘transitional justice’ it’s important to better understand how social media could be used to build bridges, not just burn them.
Social media has enabled us to hold our governments and each other accountable. Mainstream media at the time was largely silent about incidents such as the burning of the Jaffna Public Library in 1981 . Another, more recent example would be the anti-Muslim riots which took place in Aluthgama in 2014. Furthermore, social media has created new possibilities to share and access information and has made censorship an increasingly difficult task for governments.
While ensuring our voices are heard, we must also engage with people we disagree with. Maybe we’d change their views, or they ours.