Hashtag Generation

Social Media Campaign to Promote Controversial OSB Falls Flat Amidst Opposition

The Sri Lankan Government officially gazetted a bill titled ‘Online Safety’ on 15 September 2023. Subsequently, in October, the Minister of Public Security, Tiran Alles, presented the bill in Parliament. However, since its introduction, the legislation faced intense criticism from various quarters including the country’s opposition, civil society organisations, human rights groups, trade unions, activists, members of the public, and even international organisations. 

In the months after, numerous organisations issued statements highlighting various concerns relating to provisions deemed problematic. Others chose to seek legal intervention by filing numerous Fundamental Rights petitions before the Supreme Court. 

In fact, organisations and individuals utilised social media, the very platforms that might face adverse consequences if the law is enacted, to voice their opposition to the bill. 

The groups noted that the bill violates several articles of the Sri Lankan Constitution and expressed concerns that the vaguely defined offences outlined in the Bill, coupled with the extensive powers granted to the ‘Online Safety Commission’ to be formed through the legislation could have a chilling effect on the exercise of fundamental rights by the citizens of Sri Lanka. 

As observed by Hashtag Generation as part of the project “Get the Trolls Out! Monitoring and Combating Online Hate Speech and Disinformation Campaigns in Sri Lanka”, content disseminated on social media aimed at raising awareness about the potential hazards of the new legislation, coupled with critiques against the Sri Lankan Government and allegations of attempts to curtail the freedoms and rights of the people gained significant traction on social media since September 2023. It was also observed that similar content experienced an upsurge whenever the bill was debated in Parliament or discussed by various parties, including the Minister of Public Security Tiran Alles, who has persisted in pushing it forward despite the intense opposition.

However, the bill has not been without its proponents. Through its analysis, Hashtag Generation also observed what seemed to be a concerning and coordinated effort on social media platforms to promote and endorse the controversial piece of legislation through various pro-government pages or accounts with handles such as ‘Api UNP’ (We are UNP), ‘Next Level 2048’ and ‘Harin Wenuwen Api’ (We are for Harin) which appeared to be accounts supporting the United National Party (UNP) led by President Ranil Wickremesinghe.  

Hashtag Generation observed these posts predominantly featured in the Sinhala language, appeared to underscore the significance of the bill and advocated for its necessity as a solution to issues such as cyber harassment, online sexual harassment, and the sharing of non-consensual explicit images. 

One post that appeared to have been shared the most included data from 2022 and 2023 on these incidents not attributed to a source, and also claimed that in 2021, at least 192 811 images and videos of child sexual abuse were uploaded to the internet using internet protocol addresses which were traced back to Sri Lanka. 

The post also seemed to make an effort to garner support on social media for the bill, especially from parents, by suggesting that without the proposed legislation, their children might soon become victims of abusers engaging in such offences. 

Another piece of content that was seen circulating on social media was a newspaper article dated October 5, 2023, from Dinamina, a Sinhala language newspaper belonging to the state-owned Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd., commonly known as Lake House. The article aligned with the same narrative, labelling the bill as ‘The process to save children from digital abuses introduced through the Online Safety Bill.’ It advocated for the bill as a remedy for various forms of online abuse, particularly those targeting children. This article was also replicated by various personal accounts and pages. 

However, it is noteworthy that the campaign to promote the bill appeared to be unsuccessful, as the content failed to garner significant traction on social media. User engagement remained minimal, with few comments observed supporting the promoted narrative. The campaign seemed to have been abandoned thereafter, as similar content was not observed in the subsequent months, even though discussions about the bill intensified leading up to its second reading in Parliament on January 23, 2024.

The content was overshadowed and outnumbered by content opposing the bill instead, which highlighted the numerous perceived dangers of the proposed legislation, perhaps mirroring the true sentiments of the public regarding the bill.

Nevertheless, despite the stiff opposition, the Government’s hastily proposed bill to regulate online content was passed in Parliament by a 108-62 vote on January 24.  Opposition to the legislation persisted, with many of its detractors highlighting both within Parliament and externally that the amendments mandated by the Supreme Court had not been incorporated. 

Despite this, Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene endorsed the act on February 1 leading to at least two petitions being filed before the Supreme Court against its enactment and seeking for an interim order to be issued suspending the operation of the act. However, the Supreme Court dismissed the petition filed by MP M.A Sumanthiran after the Attorney General’s objections that the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction to intervene in legislative matters following the Speaker’s certification to a bill passed by Parliament.

However, possibly influenced by ongoing opposition and discussions about the act both online and offline, the Government has refrained from enforcing the legislation since its enactment. Its future enforcement remains uncertain to date.

_Article By : Maneshka Borham _

Maneshka Borham, is a print media journalist based in Colombo. She currently works as a reporter for the Daily Financial Times and focuses mainly on subjects including human rights, defense, leftist politics, development, police and crime.

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