The New York Times has a daily podcast where they discuss with their reporters a single story that they covered. On Wednesday, May 16 they had an episode titled When Facebook Rumors Incite Real Violence about how rumors on Facebook led to deadly violence in Sri Lanka. (Scroll down to find it.) The story provides yet another example of how religious majorities tend to be intolerant and that Buddhists, despite their reputation of being a ‘peaceful’ religion, are no less susceptible to violence than Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Muslims. There is no religion that cannot be turned into a vehicle for intolerance and violence when they acquire the means to be so.
Sri Lanka’s ethnic makeup consists of 75% Sinhalese of whom the overwhelming majority are Buddhist, 15% Tamil of whom the overwhelming majority are Hindu, and about 9% Muslim. There has always been a substantial number of Sinhala Buddhists who feel that the country is ‘theirs’ (like the way that some white Christians feel about the US) and that the rest are interlopers who do not belong. Politicians have tended to pander to this group, just like they do in the US. Naturally this has led to tensions that have periodically erupted into violence, such as the decades-long civil war between the Sinhalese and Tamils that was finally brutally crushed by the government with a massive death toll of civilians.
But now that that violence has ended, the militant Sinhala Buddhists have turned their attention to the Muslims and started accusing them of trying to eliminate the Sinhala Buddhist population and Facebook was used to spread wild rumors, such as that Muslim tailors were putting drugs in Buddhist women’s underwear to sterilize them, Muslim doctors were secretly sterilizing Buddhist women, Muslim restaurants were putting sterilization drugs into food to sterilize Buddhists, and that Muslim MPs were secretly extremists working for Saudi Arabia. These rumors inflamed Sinhala Buddhists and resulted in attacks on Muslims in different parts of the country, killing and destroying their homes and businesses. It only ceased when the government announced a state of emergency and banned Facebook. The violence has now ceased and Facebook has been allowed to resume operations and people fear a resurgence to come.
It is really quite extraordinary how religious and ethnic chauvinism can result in people losing all sense of rationality. Apart from the ridiculousness of thinking that 9% of the population was secretly plotting genocide on 75%, the means that were allegedly being used should have aroused ridicule, not anger.
Facebook had been repeatedly warned by concerned people in Sri Lanka about the spread of these dangerous rumors but did nothing. What I had not known is that in some countries like Sri Lanka, to a large extent Facebook is the internet. Apparently they have some kind of special deal whereby people have access to the internet through the Facebook portal without requiring a separate internet provider. This means that anyone with a cellphone can access the web for free, but only through Facebook. In a country where most people have little disposable income, this gives Facebook a captive market which makes the spread of false and dangerous rumors even easier.
The reporters ended the episode with a poignant story. They interviewed a young Muslim man who was badly beaten and his small restaurant destroyed by a militant Sinhala Buddhist mob who had accused him of putting sterilization drugs into the food he served. He was now in hiding, deeply in debt, and with no livelihood, so he passed his time surfing the web. And what did he use for this? Facebook, the very tool that led to his life being destroyed. When asked about this irony, he shrugged. What else could he do?