The London-based English-language website is one of the main sources of news about the Tamil community in Sri Lanka and the rest of the world and has more than 19,000 followers on Instagram, and yet it was censored in the most brutal manner, with no prior warning and no explanation.
As the Tamil Guardian reported in a statement, its staff suddenly discovered that that the website’s Instagram account had been disabled on 27 October. After several messages were sent to Facebook, the account was reactivated on 29 October, but to little avail. It was disabled again less than 12 hours later. It was suddenly inaccessible to both the website’s staff and all Instagram users. It had simply disappeared from cyber-space.
“Without the least explanation, without the least justification, Instagram’s managers deprived nearly 20,000 followers of the news that the Tamil Guardian normally publishes on its Instagram account,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “We call on those in charge at Facebook, Instagram’s owner, to restore the account at once and to demonstrate more transparency and responsibility in the management of their algorithms. This kind of censorship is completely unacceptable.”
Manipulation of algorithms
The standard response that Facebook sent to the Tamil Guardian simply said that accounts may be disabled for “violating Facebook’s community guidelines.” No further explanation was provided.
Sharmini Vara, one of the editors at the Tamil Guardian, told RSF that it was not the first time this has happened.
“The Tamil Guardian has faced increasing censorship on Instagram and Facebook over several years, and increasingly in recent months, with content being subject to removal.” This trend has coincided with the installation of a new president in Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a leading hardliner with regard to the rights of the country’s Tamil minority.
“The Tamil Guardian team has also received verified information that the Sri Lankan state has been attempting to flag and remove our work on other social media platforms,” Varatharajah added.
In the absence of transparency, the algorithms used by Facebook to regulate its social media can be manipulated by troll armies or “social bots” – ghost accounts designed to generate automatic messages – with the aim of getting content deleted or accounts shut down.
In order to address this kind of online “information chaos,” RSF recently launched the Journalism Trust Initiative, a system whereby reliable sources of news and information can be identified and given greater visibility on social media platforms.
Sri Lanka is ranked 127th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index.