A reconstruction of Sri Lanka’s descent into violence found that Facebook’s newsfeed played a central role in nearly every step from rumor to killing.
MEDAMAHANUWARA, Sri Lanka — Past the end of a remote mountain road, down a rutted dirt track, in a concrete house that lacked running water but bristled with smartphones, 13 members of an extended family were glued to Facebook. And they were furious.
A family member, a truck driver, had died after a beating the month before. It was a traffic dispute that had turned violent, the authorities said. But on Facebook, rumors swirled that his assailants were part of a Muslim plot to wipe out the country’s Buddhist majority.
“We don’t want to look at it because it’s so painful,” H.M. Lal, a cousin of the victim, said as family members nodded. “But in our hearts there is a desire for revenge that has built.”
The rumors, they believed, were true. Still, the family, which is Buddhist, did not join in when Sinhalese-language Facebook groups, goaded on by extremists with wide followings on the platform, planned attacks on Muslims, burning a man to death.
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But they had shared and could recite the viral Facebook memes constructing an alternate reality of nefarious Muslim plots. Lal called them “the embers beneath the ashes” of Sinhalese anger.
For months, The New York Times had been tracking riots and lynchings around the world linked to misinformation and hate speech on Facebook, which pushes whatever content keeps users on the site longest — a potentially damaging practice in countries with weak institutions and histories of social instability.
Time and again, communal hatreds overrun the newsfeed unchecked as local media are displaced by Facebook and governments find themselves with little leverage over the company. Some users, energized by hate speech and misinformation, plot real-world attacks.
A reconstruction of Sri Lanka’s descent into violence, based on interviews with officials, victims and ordinary users caught up in online anger, found that Facebook’s newsfeed played a central role in nearly every step from rumor to killing. Facebook officials, they say, ignored repeated warnings of the potential for violence, resisting pressure to hire moderators or establish emergency points of contact.
Facebook declined to respond in detail to questions about its role in Sri Lanka’s violence, but a spokeswoman said in an email, “We remove such content as soon as we’re made aware of it.” She said the company was “building up teams that deal with reported content” and investing in “technology and local language expertise to help us swiftly remove hate content.”
Sri Lankans say they see little evidence of change. And in other countries, as Facebook expands, analysts and activists worry they, too, may see violence.
One town, two versions
Five hours east of Medamahanuwara lies the real Ampara, a small town of concrete buildings surrounded by open green fields.
But the imagined Ampara, which exists in rumors and memes on Sinhalese-speaking Facebook, is the shadowy epicenter of a Muslim plot to sterilize and destroy Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority.
As Tamil-speaking Muslims, the Atham-Lebbe brothers knew nothing of that version of Ampara when they opened a restaurant there. They had no way to anticipate that, on a warm evening in late February, the real and imagined Amparas would collide.
It began with a customer yelling in Sinhalese about something he had found in his dinner. Unable to understand Sinhalese, Farsith, the brother running the register, ignored him.
He did not know that the day before, a viral Facebook rumor claimed, falsely, that the police had seized 23,000 sterilization pills from a Muslim pharmacist in Ampara.
The irate customer drew a crowd, which gathered around Farsith, shouting: “You put in sterilization medicine, didn’t you?”
He grasped only that they were asking about a lump of flour in the customer’s meal, and worried that saying the wrong thing might turn the crowd violent.
“I don’t know,” Farsith said in broken Sinhalese. “Yes, we put?”
The mob, hearing confirmation, beat him, destroyed the shop and set fire to the local mosque.
In an earlier time, this might have ended in Ampara. But Farsith’s “admission” had been recorded on a cellphone. Within hours, a popular Facebook group, the Buddhist Information Center, pushed out the 18-second video, presenting it as proof of long-rumored Muslim plots. Then it spread.
Seeking Facebook’s help
In a small office lined with posters in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, members of an advocacy group called the Center for Policy Alternatives watched as hate exploded on Facebook, all inspired by the video from Ampara, which had overtaken Sinhalese social media in just a week.
One post declared, “Kill all Muslims, don’t even save an infant.” A prominent extremist urged his followers to descend on the city of Kandy to “reap without leaving an iota behind.”
Desperate, the researchers flagged the video and subsequent posts using Facebook’s on-site reporting tool.
Though they and government officials had repeatedly asked Facebook to establish direct lines, the company had insisted this tool would be sufficient, they said. But nearly every report got the same response: the content did not violate Facebook’s standards.
“You report to Facebook, they do nothing,” one of the researchers, Amalini De Sayrah, said. “There’s incitements to violence against entire communities and Facebook says it doesn’t violate community standards.”
In government offices across town, officials “felt a sense of helplessness,” Sudarshana Gunawardana, the head of public information, recounted.
Before Facebook, he said, officials facing communal violence “could ask media heads to be sensible, they could have their own media strategy.” But now it was as if his country’s information policies were set at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California.
Gunawardana, the public-information head, said that with Facebook unresponsive, he used the platform’s reporting tool. He, too, found that nothing happened.
“There needs to be some kind of engagement with countries like Sri Lanka by big companies who look at us only as markets,” he said. “We’re a society, we’re not just a market.”
As anger over the Ampara video spread online, extremists like Amith Weerasinghe, a Sinhalese nationalist with thousands of followers on Facebook, found opportunity. He posted repeatedly about the beating of the truck driver, M.G. Kumarasinghe, portraying it as further proof of the Muslim threat.
When Kumarasinghe died March 3, online emotions surged into calls for action: Attend the funeral to show support. Sinhalese arrived by the busload, fanning out to nearby towns. Online, they migrated from Facebook to private WhatsApp groups, where they could plan in secret.
On Facebook, Weerasinghe posted a video that showed him walking the shops of a town called Digana, warning that too many were owned by Muslims, urging Sinhalese to take the town back. The researchers in Colombo reported his video to Facebook, along with his earlier posts, but all remained online.
Over the next three days, mobs descended on several towns, burning mosques, Muslim-owned shops and homes. One of those towns was Digana. And one of those homes, among the storefronts of its winding central street, belonged to the Basith family.
Abdul Basith, a 27-year-old aspiring journalist, was trapped inside.
“They have broken all the doors in our house, large stones are falling inside,” Basith said in a call to his uncle as the attack began. “The house is burning.”
The next morning, the police found his body.
In response, the government temporarily blocked most social media. Only then did Facebook representatives get in touch with Sri Lankan officials, they say. Weerasinghe’s page was closed the same day.
A week after the violence, Shivnath Thukral, Facebook’s public-policy director for South Asia, and two of his colleagues flew to Colombo, for a meeting with a group of government aides.
Thukral was conciliatory, acknowledging that Facebook had failed to address hate speech and promising better collaboration. In a call with civic leaders, he conceded that Facebook did not have enough Sinhalese moderators, pledging to hire more.
Still, government officials said, they face the same problem as before. Facebook wields enormous influence over their society, but they have little over Facebook.
Even blocking access did not work. One official estimated that nearly 3 million users in Sri Lanka continued accessing social media via virtual private networks, which connect to the internet from outside the country.
As officials met in Colombo, Atham-Lebbe Farsith, the Muslim restaurant worker, was in hiding. He had shaved his beard. Not to hide his faith, he said, but because even in the Muslim village where he found shelter, he could hardly make it a block without being recognized.
“People would ask me all sorts of questions,” he said. “ ‘You’re from the video!’ ”
Facebook had turned him into a national villain. It helped destroy his business, sending his family deeply into debt. And it had nearly gotten him killed.
But he refused to abandon the platform. With long, empty days in hiding, he said, “I have more time and I look at Facebook much more.”
“It’s not that I have more faith that social media is accurate, but you have to spend time and money to go to the market to get a newspaper,” he said. “I can just open my phone and get the news instead.”
“Whether it’s wrong or right, it’s what I read.”