Facebook’s Tamil Censorship Highlights Risks to Everyone

Facebook moderators seem unable to distinguish the Tamil Guardian from the long-defunct Tamil Tigers. Experts say this sort of bumbling threatens press and cultural freedom worldwide.

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho for The Intercept, Getty Images
Photo illustration: Soohee Cho for The Intercept, Getty Images

Facebook’s Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy, a vast library of secret rules limiting the online speech of billions, is ostensibly designed to curtail offline violence. For the editors of the Tamil Guardian, an online publication covering Sri Lankan news, the policy has meant years of unrelenting, unexplained censorship.

Thusiyan Nandakumar, the Tamil Guardian’s editor, told The Intercept that over the past several years, Facebook has twice suspended the publication’s Instagram account and removed dozens of its posts without warning — each time claiming a violation of the DIO policy. The censorship comes at a time of heightened scrutiny of this policy from free speech advocates, civil society groups, and even the company’s official Oversight Board.

A string of meetings with Facebook have yielded nothing more than vague assurances, dissembling, and continued deletions, according to Nandakumar. Despite claims from the company that it would investigate the matter, Nandakumar says the situation has only gotten worse. Faced with ongoing censorship, the Guardian’s staff have decided to self-censor, sparingly using the outlet’s Instagram account for fear of losing it permanently.

Facebook admitted to The Intercept that some of the actions taken against the outlet had been made in error, while defending others without providing specifics.

Civil liberties advocates who discussed the Tamil Guardian’s treatment said that it’s an immediately familiar dynamic and part of a troubling trend. Facebook moderators, whether in South Asia, Latin America, or in any of the other places they patrol content, routinely take down posts first and ask questions later, the advocates said. They tend to lack expertise and local nuance, and their employer is often under pressure from local governments. In Sri Lanka, authorities have “picked up and harassed” Tamil journalists for critical coverage in real life, according to Steven Butler of the Committee to Protect Journalists, who called the Tamil Guardian’s Facebook experience “definitely a press freedom issue.” Indeed, experts said Facebook’s censorship of the Guardian calls into fundamental question its ability to sensibly distinguish “dangerous” content that can instigate violence from journalistic and cultural expression about groups that have engaged in violence.

Sri Lanka’s Information Offensive

The roots of the Tamil Guardian’s very 21st-century online content dilemma go back more than four decades, to the civil war that erupted between Sri Lanka’s government and members of its Tamil ethnic minority in 1983. It was then that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam began a 25-year, sporadically fought conflict to establish an independent Tamil state. During the war, the LTTE, also known as the Tamil Tigers, developed an increasingly ruthless reputation. To the ruling party of Sri Lanka and its allies in the West, the Tamil Tigers were a bloody, irredeemable militant group, described by the FBI in 2008 as “among the most dangerous and deadly extremists in the world.” But for many Sri Lankan Tamils, the Tigers were their army, a bulwark against a government intent on repressing them. “It was an organization that at the time became almost synonymous with Tamil demands for independence, as they were the group that was quite literally willing to die for it,” Nandakumar explained via email.

Unquestionably, however, the LTTE was a violent organization whose tactics included the use of suicide bombings, torture, civilian assaults, and political assassinations. The government, meanwhile, perpetrated decades of alleged war crimes, including the repeated massacre of Tamil civilians, generating waves of bloodshed that dispersed Sri Lankan Tamils throughout the world. The Tamil Guardian was founded in London in 1998 to serve members of this diaspora as well as those who remained in Sri Lanka. Though it was often considered a pro-Tiger publication in contemporaneous reporting during the war, the Tamil Guardian of today runs editorials by the likes of David Cameron and Ed Milliband, and its work is cited by larger outlets in the western political media mainstream.

The Tigers were defeated and dissolved in 2009, bringing the civil war to a close after the deaths of an estimated 40,000 civilians. In the years since, Sri Lankan Tamils have observed Maaveerar Naal, an annual remembrance of those who died in the war, with ceremonies both at home in Sri Lanka and abroad. “When [Tigers] died or were killed, people lost family, friends, colleagues,” said Nandakumar. “They are people that many around the world still want to remember and commemorate.”

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan state has conducted what human rights observers have described as a campaign of brutal suppression against the memorialization of war casualties and other expressions of Tamil national identity. Mentions of the LTTE are subject to particularly fierce crackdowns by the hard-line government helmed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former Sri Lankan defense secretary accused of directly ordering a multitude of atrocities during the war.

The suppression campaign has included attempts to stifle unwanted online commentary. In September 2019, Gen. Shavendra Silva, Sri Lanka’s army chief, announced a military offensive against “misinformation” at the nation’s Seventh Annual Cyber Security Summit. “Misguided youths sitting in front of the social media would be more dangerous than a suicide bomber,” Silva remarked. Soon after, Nandakumar says, the Tamil Guardian found itself unable to even mention the Tigers on Facebook without being subjected to censorship via the DIO policy. Nandakumar said that virtually any coverage from the Guardian related to the Tigers or even to sentiments of Tamil pride risks removal. Routinely stricken from the Tamil Guardian’s Facebook and Instagram accounts are posts covering Tamil nationalist political protests inside Sri Lanka as well as uploads merely depicting historically notable LTTE figures. Each time the Tamil Guardian has posts deleted or its account ejected, the only rationale provided is that the post somehow violated Facebook’s prohibition against “praise, support, or representation” of a dangerous organization, even though the policy is supposed to carry an exemption for journalism.


Revealed: Facebook’s Secret Blacklist of “Dangerous Individuals and Organizations”

“We have never been accused of breaching any UK, or indeed U.S., laws particularly with regards to terrorism,” Nandakumar told The Intercept.

On the Tamil Guardian’s overall experience with Facebook, spokesperson Kate Hayes would say only, via email: “We remove content that violates our policies, but if accounts continue to share violating content, we will take stronger action. This could include temporary feature blocks and, ultimately, being removed from the platform.”

Though defunct, the Tigers are still a designated terror organization in the U.S., Canada, and the European Union, and Facebook cribs much of its DIO roster from these designations, blacklisting and limiting discussion of not only the Tigers but also 26 other allegedly affiliated persons and groups. Still, as Nandakumar points out, Western outlets like the BBC and U.K. Guardian routinely cover the same protests and remembrances as his publication, and write obituaries for the same ex-LTTE cadres, without their publications being deemed terrorist propaganda.

Nandakumar is convinced that the government is monitoring the Tamil Guardian’s Instagram account and reporting anything that could be construed pro-Tamil, Tiger or otherwise — although he concedes that he can’t prove the Sri Lankan state is behind the Facebook and Instagram suppression. In July 2020, Instagram removed a photo uploaded by the Tamil Guardian of Hugh McDermott, a member of the Australian Parliament, attending a Maaveerar Naal memorial event in Sydney, while a photo of a flower being laid at a similar event in London was deleted three months later. When the outlet published an article about Anton Balasingham, a former LTTE negotiator, in November 2020, on the anniversary of his death, an Instagram post promoting the article was quickly removed, as was a post that same month depicting the face of S. P. Thamilselvan, former head of the LTTE’s political wing and a peace negotiator who was killed by a Sri Lankan airstrike in 2007.

Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam's (LTTE) chief negotiator Anton Balasingham during the press conference at the Bogis-Bossey chateau in Celigny, Switzerland, on Feb. 23, 2006.

Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam’s chief negotiator Anton Balasingham during the press conference at the Bogis-Bossey chateau in Celigny, Switzerland, on Feb. 23, 2006.

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho for The Intercept, Francois Mori/AP

Facebook Adds to Government Pressure

In January 2021, following two years of vanishing posts and requests for more information from Facebook, Nandakumar was able to secure a meeting with the team responsible for DIO enforcement. “The meeting was cordial, with Facebook acknowledging that … their policy can sometimes be bluntly applied and that mistakes can occur,” Nandakumar said. “They encouraged us to send examples, assuring us that this was an issue of importance and one that they would look into.” Nandakumar says the outlet then submitted an 11-page brief documenting the removals and hoped for the best.

Meanwhile, the deletions kept coming. “We continued to send over examples, ensuring Facebook was kept almost constantly aware of the number of times our news coverage was being unfairly removed,” said Nandakumar.

Despite Facebook’s suggestion that the posts had been removed in error, Nandakumar says that in February 2021, the DIO team flatly told him that the Tamil Guardian account had in fact been properly punished for its “praise, support, and representation” of terrorism. “It was extremely disappointing,” recounted Nandakumar in an email to The Intercept. “We had what seemed like a productive meeting, sent over a detailed brief and repeatedly emailed extensive examples, yet received a curt and blunt response which failed to address any of the issues we had raised. We were being brushed off. We highlighted once more that some of the events we covered were actually taking place in the [U.S.], legally and with full permission, but were still inexplicably being removed. Their reasoning just did not hold.”

“We had what seemed like a productive meeting … yet received a curt and blunt response which failed to address any of the issues we had raised.”

The deletions continued apace: When Kittu Memorial Park in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, burned to the ground in March 2021, the Tamil Guardian wrote an article accompanied by an Instagram post reporting on the suspected arson attack. The park was named for a Tiger colonel who killed himself in 1993, and Facebook deleted the Instagram post associated with the Guardian article. Two months later, when the outlet published a series revisiting the 2009 destruction of a civilian hospital, believed to have been perpetrated by the Sri Lankan government and described by Human Rights Watch as a war crime, the accompanying Instagram posts were removed.

A photo of Kittu Memorial Park posted to Instagram by the Tamil Guardian in March 2021 and removed later that month.

Tamil Guardian

A photo of Australian MP Hugh McDermott attending a Sri Lankan civil war memorial event in Sydney posted by the Tamil Guardian’s Instagram account, removed by Facebook in July 2020.

Tamil Guardian

During the weekend of Maaveerar Naal this past November, the account was reopened with an automated Facebook message saying that the suspension had been a mistake and then banned once more within the same 24-hour period. Though the account is currently reactivated, Nandakumar says the Tamil Guardian’s editors decided that using it to reach and grow the publication’s audience of about 40,000 monthly readers isn’t worth the risk.

Facebook’s Hayes wrote, “We removed the Tamil Guardian account in error but we restored it as soon as we realized our mistake. We apologize for any inconvenience caused.” The company did not answer questions about why the Tamil Guardian’s deleted posts had been removed if its overall suspension had been an error.

The Tamil Guardian obtained a second meeting with Facebook this past October after a pressure campaign from Canadian and British parliamentarians and Reporters Without Borders. At that meeting, Facebook cited its obligation “to comply with U.S. government regulation,” Nandakumar said, and stated that “our content may have continued to breach their guidelines.”

Experts say there is no law on the books in the U.S. stopping Facebook from letting journalists or ordinary users freely discuss or even praise LTTE figures, commemorate the war’s victims, or depict contemporary remembrances of the dead. “I know of no obligation under U.S. law, no requirement that they remove such material,” Electronic Frontier Foundation Civil Liberties Director David Greene told The Intercept. “For years they would say, ‘I’m sorry, we are required by law to take that down.’ And we would ask them for the law, and we wouldn’t get anything.”

The Daunting Job and “Human Error” of Moderators

It appears then to be Facebook, not the federal government of the U.S., that is collapsing the LTTE and Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism into a single entity, the consequences of which make exploring the country’s painful past and uncertain future from the perspective of the war’s losing side a near impossibility on an internet where a presence on the company’s platforms is crucial to reaching an audience.

Nandakumar said that the history of the Tigers and the future of Sri Lanka’s Tamils are impossible to untangle. “For newspapers and media organizations reporting on the conflict and the Tamil cause, it was impossible to avoid the LTTE – just as much as it would have been to avoid the Sri Lankan state,” he continued. Today, Nandakumar said, “alongside highlighting of the daily repression faced in the Tamil homeland, our role is to reflect and analyze the variety of Tamil political voices and opinion. We report on commemoration of historical or significant events as these remain important to the Tamil polity, who continue to mark these dates despite Sri Lanka’s attempts to stop them.”

Tamil Guardian reporters, along with staff from other outlets, are frequently harassed and detained by Sri Lankan police, sometimes on the grounds that they’ve violated national anti-terror laws, according to a Reporters Without Borders report. In 2019, the Tamil Guardian’s Shanmugam Thavaseelan was arrested for “trying to cover a demonstration calling for justice for the Tamil civilians who disappeared during the civil war,” as the report put it.

Nandakumar says he’s convinced that the Sri Lankan government has a hand in the Facebook deletions, in part because he’s learned that it has attempted similar tactics on other platforms: In December 2020, Twitter informed the Tamil Guardian that the Sri Lankan government had lobbied, unsuccessfully, to have the outlet’s tweets deleted on the platform. “This coincided with a ramping up of media suppression across the island and with the removal of our content on Facebook and Instagram.”

“What is one person’s dangerous individual or organization is someone else’s hero.”

“The action taken against The Tamil Guardian account was not in response to any government pressure or mass reporting,” said Facebook’s Hayes, adding that each of the two Instagram suspensions “was a case of human error.”

Greene said that the Tamil Guardian’s treatment is illustrative of a fundamental parochialism behind the DIO policy: “What is one person’s dangerous individual or organization is someone else’s hero.” But before values come into play, there is the question of basic facts; a moderator overseeing Sri Lanka must know “who the Tamil Tigers were, what the political situation was, the fact that they don’t exist, what their ongoing legacy might be,” Greene said. “The amount of expertise that a company like Facebook is required to have on every single geopolitical situation around the world is really startling.”

According to Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the rigidity of Facebook’s DIO roster risks causing what she described as “cultural and historical erasure,” a status quo under which one can’t publicly and freely discuss a group designated as an enemy by the U.S., even after that enemy ceases to exist. “We’ve seen this with some groups in Latin America that are still on the U.S. [terror] list, like FARC,” the Colombian guerrilla army that dissolved in 2017 but remains banned from free discussion under Facebook policy. “At some point, you have to be able to talk about these things.”

Update: January 19, 2022
This article has been changed to reflect a decision by the Tamil Guardian this week to resume posting on Instagram in a limited fashion.

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