The following article is based on the NCEASL report ”The Construction of National Identity Through Online Discourse in Post-January 2015 Sri Lanka” authored by Abdul Halik Azeez and Carmen Aguilera Carnerero. The full publication can be found here.

Sri Lanka is a highly networked society. By some accounts, the number of Sim cards outnumber the number of people. We’re also pretty much addicted to social media and have become reliant on it as a source of relevant information about what is happening in the country. This, as one can imagine, leaves us open to all sorts of dangers, fake news is just one of them. With the already rather lacklustre status of journalistic ethics further eroded in the online landscape, users on social media can use all manner of subtle and not-so-subtle techniques to spread hate and misconceptions that can ultimately cause great damage to national unity.

This study, carried out in 2016, looked at some of the dominant frames through which conversations around the national issue were taking place in Sri Lanka, taking as a corpus Facebook conversations (comments) on posts concerning flash-point incidents in 2015 and 16. The conclusions, needless to say, were rather worrying. The prevailing language barrier is a huge facilitator of miscommunication between Sinhala and Tamil speakers. While a narrow bridge of link-language speakers exist, their ability to cross-pollinate ideas from one side to the other is vastly limited by the fact that much of these debates happen within highly insular social media echo chambers.

Old wounds are still open, comment threads were rife with members of different ethnicities accusing each other of past atrocities. In the debates surrounding the ’Tamil National Anthem’ fracas of 2016, allowing the National Anthem to be sung in Tamil was seen by Sinhalese commentators as a step on the road towards EELAM. Accusations of racism and discrimination were levelled by both minority and majority commentors with minority commentors decrying state and institutionalized racism and majority commentors largely protesting not being able to speak about ’sinhala’ issues without being accused of being racist, whereas minorities had no such problem.

Another strong element in the Sinhala language section of the corpus is the re-assertion of Sinhala Buddhist supremacy. Sri Lanka is explicitly seen as a country that belonged to the Sinhala Buddhists alone, with no other group given ownership to the land. There was negative stereotyping put forward as a complement to this, with Tamils being actively "othered" and dehumanized. In majority comments, EELAM, or the creation of a Tamil nation state within Sri Lanka, was seen as an imminent threat, especially around the conversations about Federalism and devolution of power. While ’creeping sharia’ was a clear theme when discussing the presence of Muslims.  There appeared to be widespread sentiment that the post-2015 regime was actively working with minorities, against Sinhalese interests. 

Ideas of unity, reconciliation and co-existence was interestingly mostly seen only in largely English comment threads, underscoring the fact that public discourse online largely seem to take place within echo chambers delineated by language, inevitably occuring between largely homogeneous groups. Disturbingly in the Sinhala speakers corpus, especially during the Jaffna University issue in 2016, calls to violent reprisals and actions were frequent.

The full report gives more nuance and context. A key thing to remember is how instrumental language is to how we perceive our reality, playing a significant role in the way we choose to act. The public sentiment made evident by this report is bolstered and re-enforced by the particular dynamics of social media, in which affirmative water-cooler conversations are multiplied a hundred-fold. This is clearly not to locate the cause of the problem as being social media, but to highlight its role as a magnifier of an existing issue, running deep in the fabric of our society.

Image courtesy: Sunday Times

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