Where Countries Are Tinderboxes and Facebook Is a Match

False rumors set Buddhist against Muslim in Sri Lanka, the most recent in a global spate of violence fanned by social media.

“The house is burning.” Abdul Basith died when a Buddhist mob set fire to his family home in Digana, Sri Lanka. Credit Adam Dean for The New York Times

MEDAMAHANUWARA, Sri Lanka — Past the end of a remote mountain road, down a rutted dirt track, in a concrete house that lacked running water but bristled with smartphones, 13 members of an extended family were glued to Facebook. And they were furious.

A family member, a truck driver, had died after a beating the month before. It was a traffic dispute that had turned violent, the authorities said. But on Facebook, rumors swirled that his assailants were part of a Muslim plot to wipe out the country’s Buddhist majority.

“We don’t want to look at it because it’s so painful,” H.M. Lal, a cousin of the victim, said as family members nodded. “But in our hearts there is a desire for revenge that has built.”

The rumors, they believed, were true. Still, the family, which is Buddhist, did not join in when Sinhalese-language Facebook groups, goaded on by extremists with wide followings on the platform, planned attacks on Muslims, burning a man to death.

But they had shared and could recite the viral Facebook memes constructing an alternate reality of nefarious Muslim plots. Mr. Lal called them “the embers beneath the ashes” of Sinhalese anger.

We came to this house to try to understand the forces of social disruption that have followed Facebook’s rapid expansion in the developing world, whose markets represent the company’s financial future. For months, we had been tracking riots and lynchings around the world linked to misinformation and hate speech on Facebook, which pushes whatever content keeps users on the site longest — a potentially damaging practice in countries with weak institutions.

Time and again, communal hatreds overrun the newsfeed — the primary portal for news and information for many users — unchecked as local media are displaced by Facebook and governments find themselves with little leverage over the company. Some users, energized by hate speech and misinformation, plot real-world attacks.

A reconstruction of Sri Lanka’s descent into violence, based on interviews with officials, victims and ordinary users caught up in online anger, found that Facebook’s newsfeed played a central role in nearly every step from rumor to killing. Facebook officials, they say, ignored repeated warnings of the potential for violence, resisting pressure to hire moderators or establish emergency points of contact.

A false Facebook claim: “23,000 sterilization pills caught in Ampara. Thank you to the police. Muslim pharmacy owner from Akkaraipattu arrested. Who wants to sterilize the Sinhalese?” (Credit Amanda Taub/The New York Times)

Facebook declined to respond in detail to questions about its role in Sri Lanka’s violence, but a spokeswoman said in an email that “we remove such content as soon as we’re made aware of it.” She said the company was “building up teams that deal with reported content” and investing in “technology and local language expertise to help us swiftly remove hate content.”

Sri Lankans say they see little evidence of change. And in other countries, as Facebook expands, analysts and activists worry they, too, may see violence.

Continue reading the main story

The police guarding a restaurant run by the Atham-Lebbe brothers after violence broke out there. Credit Adam Dean for The New York Times

One Town, Two Versions

Five hours east of Medamahanuwara lies the real Ampara, a small town of concrete buildings surrounded by open green fields. The road there passes over verdant mountains before coasting through tropical flatlands, contested territory during the civil war that ended in 2009, now distinguished mostly by quiet teahouses.

But the imagined Ampara, which exists in rumors and memes on Sinhalese-speaking Facebook, is the shadowy epicenter of a Muslim plot to sterilize and destroy Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority.

As Tamil-speaking Muslims, the Atham-Lebbe brothers knew nothing of that version of Ampara when, using money they saved laboring in Saudi Arabia, they opened a one-room restaurant there. They had no way to anticipate that, on a warm evening in late February, the real and imagined Amparas would collide, upending their lives and provoking a brief national breakdown.

It began with a customer yelling in Sinhalese about something he had found in his dinner. Unable to understand Sinhalese, Farsith, the 28-year-old brother running the register, ignored him.