A few months ago, I got into a PickMe cab, on my way to a midday work meeting. It was prior to the presidential election, and the radio was playing an hourly news alert with an update on the candidates. The driver, with no prompting on my part, asked me in Sinhalese, “Miss, are there [...]

Sunday Times 2

The Easter Attacks One Year On: How Far Have We Come?


A few months ago, I got into a PickMe cab, on my way to a midday work meeting. It was prior to the presidential election, and the radio was playing an hourly news alert with an update on the candidates. The driver, with no prompting on my part, asked me in Sinhalese, “Miss, are there a lot of Muslims where you live?”
I was taken aback at this strange, abrupt question. Nevertheless, I knew where this was going. “I…. really don’t know,” I responded in Sinhalese.
“Well, you see them, right? Everywhere. Have you heard - I just heard - Turkey has gotten it right. They have a military - the fourth strongest military I think. They have a strong military so that they can keep the Muslims out. Did you know that?”
I was bewildered. Where was he getting his information from? “I don’t think that’s true,” I said quietly. “They have a military but I don’t think it’s to keep Muslims out. I think… Turkey has a large Muslim population actually… Where did you see this?”
He paused. “Ah. Well I saw it… I saw it somewhere on the internet. And people told me.”
I nodded. “Ah. Well I don’t think that’s true, really. I think around 60% of the population of Turkey is Muslim.”
“But this good Muslim, right? They are fighting the bad Muslims.”
I paused. “Who are the bad Muslims? And who are the good Muslims?”
He paused again, then gestured noncommittally. “You know. There are good ones and bad ones.”
“What would you say is the difference?” I pressed.
He glanced at me through the rear-view mirror. “You’re a good Sinhalese girl, right? You know who they are.”
I smiled. “But who do you think they are? And where did you see this?”
He gestured noncommittally again. “You know, I saw something on Facebook. And a video on YouTube.”

On Easter Sunday last year, nine suicide bombers detonated their devices in six locations around Sri Lanka. The bombings too place at three churches and luxury hotels, targeting worshippers and tourists for local and international impact. The island was devastated, and the attacks received substantial international attention, given the particular  locations and victims targeted. One year on, remembrance of these attacks are marked with quiet vigils and lone calls for justice at those within the upper political and security echelons who were allegedly aware of an impending attack, but chose not to act. The purported reasons behind this inaction range from motivated political gain to incompetence and diffusion of responsibility across various judicial, security, and political levels.

In the aftermath of the attacks, calls for accountability were accompanied by another disturbing, yet expected, behavioral consequence: a spike in religiously and racially motivated attacks against those observing the Islamic faith/who identify as Muslim. These types of attacks are typically motivated by fear: fear of losing one’s economic/social/political status to those from another group. Evolutionary biologists, anthropologists, sociologists, and social psychologists have illustrated how humans are motivated to form groups and compete for resources, even along arbitrary criteria such as the color of seats assigned to them, and eye color (or skin color!) The common hypothesis is that humans who form groups have a higher competitive advantage for survival i.e. there’s strength in numbers. This instinct becomes problematic when groups are formed on the basis of religious and racial ideologies. The same instinct that can ensure our survival can lead to our demise. Fragmented societies within nation states can lead to civil unrest and as we have seen in Sri Lanka itself, escalate into civil war. Across history, some have aimed to foster these divisions for political and economic gain.

Many local and international actors have emphasized the importance of strengthening institutions within Sri Lanka to foster accountability and prevent the further escalation of conflict. While the structures that create and sustain peaceful societies are important indicators of positive peace and are associated with positive economic factors such as increased foreign direct investments, Gross Domestic Product, and the Human Development Index (comprising life expectancy, literacy rates), top down approaches can only go so far to prevent violent extremism. Systems don’t engage in violence: people do. Preventing violent extremism and future unrest are dependent on shifting behaviors that contribute to the escalation of tensions.

Terrorist bombings can lead to vicious cycles of radicalisation. Those who experience or consume media about terrorist bombings can be motivated to engage in dangerous and hate speech towards members of a group whom the terrorist group will never wholly represent. The term “extremists” are used for a reason: terrorists are not representative of the entire group they allegedly represent. They operate on the fringes, often co-opting the ideologies of a group to carry out their more violent motivations: to create vicious cycles of terror and radicalisation (sometimes for economic gain). Those who engage in dangerous speech and hate speech are contributing to the terrorists’ goals by creating societal divisions. They create individuals who feel alienated by their former friends and colleagues, and may become more inclined to listen to the radical messages shared by the few extremists. Humans are social beings and we form groups to feel included. When we engage in dangerous speech, we create group divisions that exacerbate the problem - and increase the actual threat that can undermine the strength of a society and nation-state.


What is dangerous speech?

Many of us have heard the term hate speech. Hate speech usually means “vilifying a person or group of people because they belong to a group or share an identity of some kind.” Various countries address hate speech within their legal systems, from Norway to South Africa to Germany. However, the difficulty with hate speech is that its broad definition can be misused to punish and silence journalists, dissenters, and minorities (such as in the cases of Hungary, Rwanda, India, and Bahrain) and be convoluted with freedom of speech. In the United States for example, groups have justified engaging in hate speech on the grounds of freedom of speech.

Dangerous speech by contrast is defined as “any form of expression (e.g. speech, text, or images) that can increase the risk that its audience will condone or commit violence against members of another group.” The crucial point here is that dangerous speech refers to behaviors that can increase the risk of violence. By focusing on behaviors based on this definition, we can better design interventions to reduce the risk of future violence.

Dangerous speech refers to both committing and condoning violence. This is an important definition to make. While ethnic/religious violent acts are usually carried out by a small portion of a group (usually young men), their actions are often supported and justified by those around them, including mothers, fathers, siblings, friends, teachers, employers, etc. “Generally, when a society suffers major intergroup violence, a few commit it and a much larger number condone it.”

Think back to the communal violence of 2014, where Muslim businesses and homes were attacked by mostly militant Sinhalese-Buddhists. There is strong evidence to support that most of the violence (and ensuing communal violence in Gintota, Beruwala, etc.) were carried out by young men. However, discussions about the events often involve both men and women, young and old, either denouncing or justifying the violence on political, social, economic, or religious grounds. The justification of this violence, regardless of which group you belong to, can foster intergroup tensions that culminate in mass violence. Dangerous speech includes the justification of these types of acts that can contribute to both Sinhalese-Buddhist and Islamic radicalism (radicalism across the board). Anyone who engages in dangerous speech is part of the problem. Anyone who engaged in dangerous speech contributes to the risk of escalating violence.

How do we justify violence?

Humans use a range of cognitive strategies to justify violence towards other groups. It can start small: we use white-washing or euphemistic language to justify what our group may have done: instead of saying we killed someone, we call it a “sacrifice.” We can try to justify the violence committed by our group by comparing past transgression committed by the other group - or unrelated violence occurring elsewhere: “Yes, our boys may have done that, but look at the violence that they are committing in the Middle East.” The important thing to note is that advantageous comparisons such as these will not help de-escalate tensions within the current context - just the opposite.

Other strategies of moral disengagement whereby we actively disengage from, and justify violence committed by our groups, include displacement or diffusion of responsibility: “They did it because the officers/higher ups told them to do so,” or “I’m not sure the Sinhalese-Buddhist boys did that, there were so many people there.” People discredit evidence: “I can’t accept that that happened, they did not do it, I don’t believe that happened in that way,” or use essentialist attributions, “They did it because those people deserved it, they were born that way. They are stubborn.” All of these strategies are types of dangerous speech that can contribute to the risk of perpetuating violence. The justification of violence happens across groups. When we make our pledges to never let events such as those resembling the Easter attacks happen again, we need to address dangerous speech, online and offline, that actively contributes to a culture of ethno-religious divisions and tensions across economic, social, and political lines. We need strong institutions to foster positive peace. At the same time, we need bottom-up awareness of, and behavioral shifts in, how we justify and propagate violence by engaging in dangerous speech.

Where do we go from here?

Building awareness of what constitutes dangerous speech in schools

No one is ever born hating other people. We learn to hate. Training in how to identify and counter dangerous speech needs to occur in primary school. This is especially pertinent given the proliferation of dangerous speech online. The dangerous speech framework comprises five key tenets: who is delivering the message (messenger/speaker), what is s/he  saying (message), via which platform (medium), to whom (the target audience), and within which social/cultural context is this referencing/taking place. Focusing on critical thinking and analysis in school to understand these types of messages and the dangers they normative entail can help individuals identify motivated dangerous speech that contribute to violence later on. It can help them question the incidence of events that culminate in violence: when their friend makes a racial slur into a joke, an awareness of how that seemingly one-off, irrelevant comment contributes to a larger culture of derogation and dehumanization could help reduce social divisions. It can help young people call out racism within their homes, schools, and workplaces, and be more critical of racially motivated online content masquerading as jokes, thereby legitimizing outgroup derogation.


Digital literacy to target disinformation and dangerous speech

The digital world is a vehicle for disinformation contributing to dangerous speech. Private Facebook and WhatsApp groups form along political lines to legitimize outgroup derogation and dehumanization via the guise of funny memes. WhatsApp voice files are a relatively new form of spreading disinformation - by having an actual voice deliver the misinformation, we create the illusion of the veracity of the information being shared. “Ah there, is a voice, I can connect and hear that voice more viscerally, it must be true.” Adding to the problem, sharing a WhatsApp message also takes very little effort. Digital literacy programs should target and segment audiences across gender, age, and socio-economic status. Models of dangerous speech and digital literacy workshops tailored for those above 65 show significant shifts in behavior.  Psychological evidence shows that counter-narratives do little to dissuade those who have internalized dangerous speech already. Targeting disinformation and dangerous speech should be more of an upstream process, where individuals are taught to have agency in identifying and countering online and offline dangerous speech in real time, before certain attitudes have been internalized, or to raise legitimate doubts after the fact.

If you don’t measure long-term behavioral outcomes, you won’t see change

Digital literacy and pedagogical programs aimed at raising awareness of dangerous speech should be contextualized and measure long-term behavioral outcomes. Often, workshops on preventing violent extremism take the form of three-day workshops where consultants paid thousands of dollars are flown in to discuss theories of change with quick facilitator feedback surveys tacked on at the end. Workshops/trainings on digital literacy and dangerous speech should equip individuals with robust tools to understand who engaged in dangerous speech where, when, and how, and which social/historical/cultural/economic/political contexts are weaponized to create ethno-religious divisions. These trainings should aim for gender parity in attendance, and have long term behavioral measurement built into their activities instead of tick-boxes for completion. Measurements can include instances of when and how often participants identified and countered dangerous speech online and/or offline six months or a year after the intervention, communities of practice created, or interventions that participants designed to counter dangerous speech within their communities.

Many of our peacebuilding interventions are not reaching out to those most at risk of being radicalized. We need to change this.

There is a selection bias in most peacebuilding interventions. Many programs require participants to sign up to learn more about how they (often youth) can engage in peace and security. Individuals already interested in sustaining peace self-select into those programs. These are usually those individuals least likely to commit violence within their communities, and less likely to interact with those most vulnerable to radicalisation. Building communities of practice with those interested in engendering peace is important. Engaging with those most at risk of committing violence is as important. Programs targeting the reduction of violence extremism should be working to connect with individuals influential within groups most at risk of committing violence to create meaningful behavior change.

Bystander intervention and norm change

Studies from social psychology and behavioral science illustrate the power that ingroup members can have in shifting behavior. We encounter information from a variety of sources every day: from our parents to our teachers to the newspaper to our bosses to our colleagues, friends, and social media. Certain individuals within our networks have a higher capacity to influence our behavior than others. Think about popular kids at your school, celebrities, a radio personality you like, religious leaders at your local church/temple etc. This can be even more granular: individuals differ in whose behavior they choose to follow based on category e.g. you may be a role model to others within your workplace based on your performance/reputation (and not even know it!). We all have the power to influence the status quo. We may be going along with harmful norms of derogating outgroup members at home, at the workplace, or elsewhere because we think everybody else supports it and we don’t want to feel excluded or socially ostracized. We need a few norm entrepreneurs to intervene when we see someone saying something that could contribute to the risk of future violence. It could be a joke here, a side comment there, that escalates to hiring practices based on group affinity and cement systematic ingroup/outgroup divisions within society. “Never again,” does not happen overnight. “Never again,” means that we ensure that we intervene when we see problematic behaviors so that we never again see them culminate in mass violence.

Media that can sow confusion: Beware of availability cascades

We see a video on social media that says that in the aftermath of the bombs that went off on Easter Sunday, more bombs will be dropped by planes overhead, and that the airport will be targeted. We hear rumors that ISIS is involved. We are told via social media that these terrorists are internationally funded. We remember the examples of LTTE planes flying overhead during the civil war. We remember the bombing of the Bandaranaike International Airport during the civil war. These events can cause an availability cascade: a self-reinforcing process of collective belief formation triggered by a chain reaction that creates the perception of increasing plausibility through raising its availability in public discourse. We start to see increased security on the streets and at the airport. We conclude that this must mean that the rumors are correct - there are increased threats at the airport, an increased threat of bombs being dropped by enemy aircraft. Messages on social media spread disinformation and sow confusion. The media pick up on this and start reporting on increased security at the airport. Even though they don’t report on bombings at the airport, and there is no actual evidence to support that the airport will be bombed, or that air raids will occur, panic and confusion are perpetuated via word of mouth and social media. We start to believe that something that isn’t actually happening, is happening. In the end, there’s nothing there - except for heightened anger towards Muslims who had nothing to do with the bombings or the rumors. We are also left with more robust, legitimized dangerous speech. Beware of the availability cascade, especially during heightened tensions. Look for strong evidence. If there’s a lack of robust evidence to support certain rumors, don’t share it (even with your family and friends, even if you say “Forwarded as shared”!) WhatsApp messages don't necessarily count as evidence.

A year has passed since nearly 270 people were killed in a terror attack in Sri Lanka. We owe it to them to be better. Many of us who grew up during the Sri Lankan civil war abhor a spiral into prolonged violence. There are many people doing important work to address the ethno-religious tensions that persist to this day. Fostering a common group identity along national lines could bolster trust across ethno-religious lines. Given the rapid, global proliferation of dangerous speech via online and offline disinformation, we need interventions that target dangerous speech to reduce the risk of future violence. Every message we send that dehumanizes another group, via jokes or fake stories, everytime we awkwardly laugh off that racially-motivated comment, everytime we ‘forward as shared” an untruthful story that’s motivated along political/religious/social divisions, and every time we justify the wrongdoings of our own group members over others, we take a step towards the risk of future violence. It’s been a year since the Easter bombings - how far have we come?


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