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Where Countries Are Tinderboxes and Facebook Is a Match
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Where Countries Are Tinderboxes and Facebook Is a Match

‘You Report to Facebook. They Do Nothing’

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, Calif. The officials rushed out statements debunking the sterilization rumors but could not match Facebook’s influence.

Officials had pleaded with Facebook representatives, in a meeting in October, to better police hate speech and misinformation, which they warned could spiral into violence. They asked the company to establish an emergency point of contact in case it did. In a separate meeting, civic leaders urged Facebook to hire Sinhalese-speaking moderators to staff its reporting tool.

The Facebook employees left offering only vague promises, officials said.

Facebook still appears to employ few Sinhalese moderators. A call to a third-party employment service revealed that around 25 Sinhalese moderator openings, first listed last June, remain unfilled. The jobs are based in India, which has few Sinhalese speakers.

Facebook has no office in Sri Lanka, which officials say makes it difficult to impose regulations.

Mr. 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.”

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