After inflammatory social media posts fuelled March riots in Sri Lanka, Facebook set to train staff in local languages

Three months after Sri Lanka was rocked by deadly anti-Muslim riots fuelled by online vitriol, Facebook is training its staff to identify inflammatory content in the country's local languages.

Colombo: Three months after Sri Lanka was rocked by deadly anti-Muslim riots fuelled by online vitriol, Facebook is training its staff to identify inflammatory content in the country's local languages.

The social network has been seeking penance in Sri Lanka after authorities blocked Facebook in March as incendiary posts by Buddhist hardliners fanned religious violence that left three people dead and reduced hundreds of mosques, homes, and businesses to ashes.

File image of Sri Lanka's security forces near a vandalised building in Digana. AP

File image of Sri Lanka's security forces near a vandalised building in Digana. AP

Until the week-long ban, appeals to Facebook to act against the contagion of hate speech had been met with deafening silence, at a time when the California-based tech giant was reeling from unprecedented global scrutiny over fake news and user privacy. "We did make mistakes and we were slow," Facebook spokeswoman Amrit Ahuja said in Colombo.

The dearth of staff fluent in Sinhala — the language spoken by Sri Lanka's largest ethnic group — compounded the issue, with government officials and activists saying the oversight allowed extremist content to flourish undetected on the platform. Ahuja said Facebook was committed to hiring more Sinhala speakers but declined to say how many were currently employed in Sri Lanka.

"This is the problem we are trying to address with Facebook. They need more Sinhala resources", said the island's telecommunications minister Harin Fernando. Since the violence broke out in March, two high-level delegations from the company have visited Sri Lanka, where ethnic divisions linger after decades of war, to assure the government of its intent.

Ahuja said Facebook was working with civil society organisations to familiarise its staff with Sinhala slurs and racist epithets. Complex local nuances have added to the challenge. The word for "brother" in Tamil, which is also an official language in the country, can be a derogatory term in Sinhala when a slight inflection is used.

Fernando said the decision to impose an island-wide blackout on Facebook  — used by one in three Sri Lankans — was taken as a last resort to prevent an escalation of violence. Sinhala extremists used the social network to recruit rioters and organise their travel to the troubled area, from where violence later spread.

In addition to government warnings, Fernando said that Facebook users lodged thousands of complaints over extremist content, but to no avail. "It was not something that I liked doing. But if we didn't block Facebook, the violence would have spread out of control," he said.

Eventually the army was given special powers to restore order under the first state of Emergency declared in the 21-million-strong nation since the end of the civil war in 2009.

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