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Facebook contends with shutdown after mob violence in Sri Lanka

[MUMBAI] In many countries, Facebook is contending with a darkening reputation as a vehicle for disinformation and false news. The most recent example: Sri Lanka.

This week, the island country sought to block access to the social network, as well as two other platforms that Facebook owns, WhatsApp and Instagram, in an attempt to stem mob violence directed at its Muslim minority. Citing inflammatory posts on Facebook and WhatsApp, the Sri Lankan government ordered internet providers and mobile phone carriers on Wednesday to temporarily block the services.

"These platforms are banned because they were spreading hate speeches and amplifying them," Harindra B. Dassanayake, a government spokesman, said in a phone interview Thursday. Sri Lanka's government has also imposed a nationwide state of emergency after violence broke out Sunday in one of the island's central cities, where dozens of Muslim businesses, houses and at least one mosque were attacked. At least one person was killed.

Sri Lanka is the latest country to grapple with hate speech being magnified on Facebook. As use of the social media platform has ballooned in recent years, so have cases of extremist fringe groups using Facebook's reach to magnify their messages.

Internet watchdog groups have long warned that Facebook was being used to distribute hate speech about ethnic minorities in Sri Lanka. Freedom House, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for free speech and democracy, said in a recent report that "hate speech against minorities continues to foment on various social media platforms, particularly Facebook." Sri Lankan officials this week blamed Sri Lanka's Buddhist majority, as well as Muslims, for spreading false information on the social networks.

"Some attacks that have actually not taken place are being reported. It spreads that we are being attacked and we have to respond," Mr Dassanayake said. In some cases, people were also sharing information on how to make simple bombs, he said.

On Twitter, two of the country's legendary cricket players, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardena, tried to defuse tensions.

"I strongly condemn the recent acts of violence & everyone involved must be brought to justice regardless of race/religion or ethnicity," Jayawardena tweeted on Wednesday.