Saving Sunil: A study of dangerous speech around a Facebook page dedicated to Sgt. Sunil Rathnayake

‘Saving Sunil – a study of dangerous speech around Facebook page dedicated to Sgt. Sunil Rathnayake’ continues the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) study of online discourse, particularly over social media, around dangerous and hate speech, following its first report on the subject ‘Liking Violence: A Study of Hate Speech on Facebook in Sri Lanka’ published in 2014.

The report examines the content of the official Facebook page dedicated to saving Sgt. Sunil Rathnayake, who was, on the 25th of June 2015, sentenced to death by the Colombo High Court for the massacre of 8 civilians in Mirusuvil in 2000. The report contains detailed translations into English of the original posts and comments, including photographic and visual content. The Facebook page was monitored for a period of one month, from the time of the verdict. This period also coincided with the period of political campaigning for the General Election of 2015. Given that context, this report explores how potent the saving Sunil Facebook page is, firstly as an example of online hate and dangerous speech and secondly, as a catalyst for social mobilization.

Clearly, the cause of Sgt. Sunil Rathnayake was politicized and the Facebook page dedicated to him used as a political platform. The content of the Saving Sunil page, liberally augmented by hate and dangerous speech reflects the political rhetoric that only a Rajapakse led government can protect the majority community and war heroes from international interference and witch hunts while the Wickremesinghe led UNFGG (UNP) campaign with its inclusiveness of minorities and war related faux pas of the past would result in minority dominance and criminalizing of war heroes. How effective was the Saving Sunil Facebook page in mobilizing their predominantly young audience; either to save Sgt. Rathnayake or as a political platform? Has the recent decline of radical groups and their power over society diminished opportunities for translating hate rhetoric in to mass physical action? As noted in the final chapter of the report, ‘Online hate speech receptacles such as the saving Sunil Facebook page and hundreds of similar groups will not doubt continue to mushroom on Sri Lanka’s social media fabric. However, this phenomenon by itself, in a political and social context which affords less space for impunity and hate is far less likely to thrive long term or have any significant traction. It is more likely that such Facebook campaigns will emerge from time to time and fade out, forming a pattern of waves of online hate speech’.