When words do more than hurt, by Anukshi Jayasinha

“The demographics on (sic) these hate groups on social media are very young, which is alarming,” says Sanjana Hattotuwa, editor of Groundviews. “A thrust of hate speech today takes place more on social media than on mainstream media, and it is going viral. These ‘pages’ also carry a lot of photographic and illustrative content that is edited to look frightening and incredibly offensive. My fear is that, should another ethnic conflict arise, the target this time will be human, not simply property.”

Journalist and friend Anukshi Jayasinha has a good piece in Ceylon Today (When words do more than hurt) on the spread and promotion of hate, hurt and harm on online fora in Sri Lanka, especially regarding a growing wave of Islamophobia in the country, championed by groups like the Bodu Bala Sena.

Rather than blocking, banning and censoring (which against hate speech is about as effective as attempts to block, ban and censor dissident voices online) I proposed that there should be more discussion and debate about the venomous content promoted through online fora, requiring parents, schools and even the office environment (often used to produce and access this content) to be more aware of the detrimental effects of such content going mainstream, and influencing the minds of, inter alia, school going children (who are part of these groups).

“Space on the Internet is unlimited. Blocking or banning hate groups on social media is not feasible,” adds Hattotuwa. “Young children must have guidance from parents, schools and the media in understanding what hate speech is. I am not in favour of banning, because freedom of expression requires putting up content that we might not necessarily agree on.” Hattotuwa also adds that the best counter to hate speech, both in mainstream and social media, is to put out alternative viewpoints through various initiatives at all levels; civil society, religious and inter-religious groups and the government. “You cannot erase fringe lunatics, but you can ensure more moderate, inclusive, respectful content and discussions. Give more space for various moderate voices. There is a lot the government can also do through new media.” Hisham also believes that while freedom of expression is important, condoning hate speech will only lead to hate-mongers taking the law unto themselves. “It is important for people to hear what they have to say, but when their communication becomes offensive in an obvious way, it becomes worrying.” Says Deepan: “I believe everyone should be given a platform to express, but it has to be done with moderation, caution and sensitivity to ethics. When the government ignores them, it only feeds their ideologies, and minorities feel vulnerable.”

Especially in light of the Media Ministry’s upcoming media code of ethics, I told Anukshi that instead of more oversight and imposition of possibly self-serving regulations by (any) government, more useful would be to impose some of the existing guidelines and self-regulatory practices at play in print and broadcast media to online spaces.

Groundviews, according to Hattotuwa, has its own site guidelines, which does not allow for posts or comments that are deeply offensive. “We embrace disagreement and difference, but we also believe in respectful communications.” Sadly, many news websites, both state and private, have poor moderation of comments by readers that are hateful, racist and even foul in nature. “Most news organizations follow the Code of Ethics issues by the Sri Lanka Press Insitute (SLPI) and their own ethics. It is just a matter of someone taking the decision to apply these same ethics in their online platforms as well,” says Hattotuwa.

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