Part 1 of 2

Exactly a year ago, on 5th March 2018, we watched as flames engulfed Digana, in the heart of Kandy. We saw quiet, multi-ethnic suburban localities swept up by a wave of anti-Muslim wrath. On 6th March 2018, the Sri Lankan government responded by blocking access to Facebook, Whatsapp and Viber, on the grounds that they fueled communal violence. And yet, as navigators of virtual realms, we know that the distinction between online and offline spaces is swiftly disappearing.

Certainly, Facebook did play a strong role in the violence meted out against minority communities in Digana, as Sri Lankan media and human rights activists have been saying over and over for years. WITNESS has previously spoken out about how we, as human rights practitioners, cannot allow a few for-profit companies in the Silicon Valley to mete out decisions for public good.

A culture of violence and misogyny that is deeply embedded in any political, social or legal structure cannot have an easy solution. Sri Lanka’s legal system is woefully ill-equipped to deal with sexual and gender based violence, online and offline. According to police statistics, over 41,882 cases of violence against women were recorded between 2012 and 2016 (source: World Health Organization).

In 2017, police statistics noted 294 recorded cases of rape, 1206 cases of statutory rape, categorised under “with consent”, and 232 cases of statutory rape, categorised under “without consent”. There were zero convictions recorded by the end of the year. Cases reported to the police are likely very low compared to the real number of incidents that actually occur.

We recently interviewed Raisa Wickrematunge, co-editor of leading civic media initiative Groundviews, on some of their strategies to fight sexual and gender-based violence, including digital approaches. Their website was the very first attempt by a Sri Lankan collective that provided a digital platform for citizens to express their views and document life post-conflict and during emergent crises, and regularly dispenses innovative solutions by way of new media technology. Their sister sites, Vikalpa and Maatram, serve audiences in the Sinhala and Tamil languages. All three initiatives are anchored at the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), Sri Lanka.

According to Raisa, her team are currently in the process of writing a research report that focuses on tech-based violence, looking particularly at the ways in which women and the LGBT community are being discussed on Facebook. They have been archiving examples for almost a year. The report will be used for advocacy purposes and to provide recommendations for policy makers, social media platforms and civil society. Photo-essays and stories published on the site highlight different types of violence – see here and here

With cases backlogged for years, Sri Lanka’s legal system is notoriously slow. Officials processing cases are often not sensitised to deal with those who have experienced sexual and gender based violence, and are often responsible for re-traumatising victims. There are some state efforts to mitigate this through women’s and children’s police desks, with some police units provided training, but are not considered a priority.

Incidents of sexual harassment, non-consensual dissemination of photos and private, intimate images, are some key trends around technology-related violence that the research team have uncovered. They find that these are normalised by Facebook across its pages in Sinhala, Tamil, and English. The monitored pages indicate that the non-consensual sharing of images publicly are just a preview of larger databases employed to invite page followers to privately gain access to more images. In some instances, the images used are personal images and not intimate images, but the accompanying captions and comments are derogatory, abusive, violent and incite further violence. 

Media literacy is one component of Groundviews’ work, through which the importance of fact-checking and verification is emphasized. Resources include that of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, short videos on creating a secure password, mobile phone security, and on two-factor authentication, among many others. While not many incidents were recorded by video on Facebook for the research on tech-based violence against women, the team received several videos via WhatsApp, and documented two videos on Facebook, downloaded using Keepvid. The videos on WhatsApp were sent to the team from trusted sources and were later corroborated by other activists interviewed in the north and east who confirmed that they were recent. 

Raisa and her team contend that there is a strong culture of impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of online violence on Facebook. The pages monitored do not indicate who is administering them and often, followers and commenters are unidentifiable. They use a fake identity or profile, or do not share identifiable markers such as a profile picture or a full name (see this interesting study of hate speech on Facebook in Sri Lanka). While there might be opportunities to use Facebook reporting guidelines to report perpetrators and get content removed, for women facing violence on Facebook wanting to report to law enforcement, information to identify perpetrators remains elusive. 

There has been very little research done on tech-based violence against women and girls in Sri Lanka. Trilingual, open source resources are rare, but raising awareness and providing easy access to empowering tools can save lives. With these latest findings from their research on tech-based violence against women, we think this team of researcher-activists are already turning the tide. 

–For those seeking support for specific cases of technology-related violence, please contact the Grassrooted Trust or Bakamoono.lk.

–Check out these WITNESS resources for more tips and techniques: 

Meghana Bahar is WITNESS’ Communications & Engagement Consultant for the Asia-Pacific region. She is a gender and media specialist, with 19 years of experience in transnational women’s and human rights movements. 

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