Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today broadsheet newspaper on 29 March 2014
“We have to start asking not what is wrong with Facebook but what is wrong with our society?”
Those words, by Dr Harini Amarasuriya, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the Open University of Sri Lanka, sum up neatly the debate that has been going on for some weeks in Sri Lanka on the pros and cons of social media.
In an interview with Ceylon Today on 16 February 2014, Dr Amarasuriya also noted: “Social media is here to stay whether we like it or not. It is only a tool and it can be either liberating or exploitative. A young person’s life is mostly on social media today; we simply need to teach them how to manage it.”
First, how big is social media in Sri Lanka?
Most Lankan Internet users – estimated to be at least 3 million people or 15% of the total population – are actively using at least one social media platform. Facebook is the most popular among them, but the microblogging service Twitter, video sharing YouTube and blogging platforms like Blogger and WordPress are gaining more users and activity every passing month.
Last year, ReadMe.lk online magazine and Loops Solutions collaborated in an online survey on social media trends and patterns in Sri Lanka. (Although they sought responses from all social media users, they heard mostly from Facebookers.)
According to them, there were 2,300,000 Facebook users in Sri Lanka by late 2013 – not counting fake profiles. Of them, 1.4 million were male and 720,000 were female. Those in the age group of 25 to 34 years made up a third of this group.
The survey found that 42% of Facebook users communicate in two languages (English + mother tongue) and 38% check their account eight times a day. The typical Lankan user spends approximately 34 minutes per day on Facebook.
With smartphones spreading fast, more than half (1.3 million) of Facebook users access the service through mobiles. Worryingly, 8% of users admitted to using both Facebook and twitter while driving.
More survey findings at: http://readme.lk/sri-lankans-social-media-out/
With social media now occupying a significant part of our public and private discourse – and not limited to those who regularly get online – it is also drawing attention and criticism. Our big challenge is to avoid both romanticisation and demonisation of the relatively new medium.
On March 11, Unicef Sri Lanka invited a few dozen young and cyber savvy Lankans to their Youth for Children (Y4C) forum on ‘Online safety for children and youth in Sri Lanka’. The wide ranging discussions at the event and online (on both Twitter and Facebook) would feed into ongoing debates.
Software engineer and social media trend-setter Gayan Wijewickrama urged for constant vigilant in social media platforms, “just as we always do in the physical world”. The basic principle: engage with caution!
“Sharing too much personal information, images or videos on social media can be misused by some. Many of our web users don’t pay enough attention to safeguarding their privacy,” he said.
Sri Lanka’s Computer Emergency Readiness Team (SL-CERT) was set up as a subsidiary of the ICT Agency to provide cyber security. It receives around 2,000 complaints a year – most related to privacy breaching and hackings in social media like Facebook.
Identity theft is a cyber crime, which is often (but not always) the result of a legitimate user sharing access information with others, or being careless about passwords, or failing to log out of shared devices.
As Gayan emphatically said, “Keep personal details personal!”
When individual users take higher responsibility for their own cyber behaviour, CERT will have more time for its core mission: to protect the country’s information infrastructure and coordinate protective measures.
Password management is particularly poor among most web users in Sri Lanka, said Sanjana Hattotuwa, founder editor of Groundviews.org. “Most of our users simply neglect the most basic precaution of having proper passwords that are not easy to guess. It is important not to use a common password for multiple accounts, and certainly never share it.”
There is plenty of online advice on improved passwords. Increasingly, services like Google and WordPress (blogging platform) encourage users to sign up for an ‘amazingly simple yet significant safeguard’ called two-step verification, Sanjana said.
In this, when a user enters the correct password, it requires another level of verification through another device. In most cases, the system generates an automatic SMS sent to the user’s designated mobile. That randomly-generated (and never-reused) number is allows access the service.
“Social media is also instant messaging. Some users have a false sense of security in services like SnapChat, not realizing that a recipient can take a screen-grab before the message disappears,” Sanjana added.
There is no such thing as complete online security: it is usually a race between protection and breaches. Facebook, in particular, is simply not made for privacy.
As the Y4C forum recognized, a major challenge in improving cyber safety in Sri Lanka is lack of awareness among adults over a certain age (40? 50?). Some of them naively trust their children to figure things out for themselves, or fear the unknown so much that they block access.
Social media illiteracy is common among Lankan school teachers and principals, leading to blanket demonisation based on a few fleeting impressions (or worse, none at all).
The forum heard how a ‘highly conservative’ international school in suburban Colombo bans its students from having any presence on Facebook. One (former) student related her experience of being suspended from the school…for simply having a Facebook account.
Can our schools and society at large afford to exclude our youth from the ever-expanding world of social media? The information society is increasingly sharing knowledge, experiences and opportunities through social media – a veritable bazaar where so much is happening.
Yes, it’s a very noisy, chaotic and sometimes hazardous place. But so are our roads: we take precautions and some chances each time we step out.
What we really need with social media is cautious and confident engagement — not bans or deprivation. Are a majority of our parents and teachers able to provide informed guidance and monitoring for young users?
If social media are a many-headed dragon, we just need to figure out how best to tame and ride this fascinating creature. Dragon slaying or dragon denial won’t help anyone.