Social media giant Facebook is training its employees in Sri Lanka to identify violent and inflammatory content in the country’s local languages, AFP reported on Thursday. The move comes months after Sri Lanka was rocked by deadly clashes between Buddhist extremists and Muslims.
Triggered in part by hate-filled posts spread by nationalistic Sinhala Buddhist Facebook groups, these riots resulted in the death of three people and the destruction of many buildings. More than 300 people were arrested. The country had blocked Facebook for over a week in March in response to the online vitriol. The ban was lifted only after representatives from Facebook met government officials and assured them that the platform would not be used for hate speech and incitement of violence anymore.
“We did make mistakes and we were slow,” Facebook spokesperson Amrit Ahuja told AFP in Colombo. The lack of employees who were fluent in Sinhala worsened the matter, she said, adding that Facebook was now committed to hiring more Sinhala speakers. However, she did not provide specific numbers.
Facebook was working with civil society organisations in the country to help its employees understand the nuances in Tamil and Sinhala slurs and racist epithets, Ahuja added.
Activists, however, claimed there was still a lot left to be done. Though Facebook claimed it has blocked several pages belonging to hardline extremist groups in the country, the same content can be viewed under other names, they said.
“Facebook is only now being held to account over things that since 2013 were evident...[to] us,” said Sanjana Hattotuwa, who has researched on Islamophobia on Facebook in Sri Lanka. “The time for promises has passed. Action is what’s needed, and transparency and accountability.”
Tension has been growing between the Muslim and Buddhist communities over the past year. Hardline Buddhist groups have accused Muslims of forcing people to convert to Islam and vandalising Buddhist archaeological sites. Some have blamed the nationalist Buddhist organisation Bodu Bala Sena for the violence. In February, five people were injured and several shops and a mosque were damaged during clashes.
Muslims make up 10% of Sri Lanka’s population and Buddhists around 75%.