Everything else.. Sri Lanka Wins Prestigious Common Ground Award for Media

Sri Lanka Wins Prestigious Common Ground Award for Media

2021 Dec 27

The Common Ground Award is annually awarded in recognition of the outstanding accomplishments in conflict resolution, negotiation, community building and peace building. Some of the most notable awardees include Her Excellency Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Her Majesty Queen Noor, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and President Jimmy Carter. A team led by Kiruthika Thurairajah was able to mark Sri Lanka’s name once more amidst all these legendary names. This year, at the Common Ground Award ceremony in New York, Search for a Common Ground Sri Lanka’s digital peacebuilding initiatives received the Common Ground Award for Media.

Common Ground Award for Media. How do you feel about this?

When we heard that Search for Common Ground Sri Lanka has won the award for significant contributions towards bridging divides among youngsters and bringing them together to find solutions for intractable problems, we felt honoured and very excited. Especially because this is a very prestigious award not only for us, but for Sri Lanka as well.


We Lanka is a massive project that ran for months. Could you explain about this project?

Project We Lanka has 2 phases. The initial stage was conducted in 2019. We introduced countering hate speech and promoting positive content generation in social media by gathering up youngsters from all around the country. They were mobilised through gaming activities, and they were educated on how to counter hate speech. During this 8-month long project, we realised that all youngsters knew social media, but unfortunately, they lacked knowledge on cyber security, how to fact check, recognise hate speech and how to counter hate speech.

That’s how phase 2 came up. Aiming to strengthen peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka by raising youth’s capacity to recognise hate speech, we gathered up 350 – 400 youth between the ages of 18 – 25 from 5 provinces – Northern, Western, Central, Southern and Eastern. We gave them a structured capacity building programme that had topics like digital security, basic and advanced editing tools, how to identify hate speech, citizen journalism, digital advocacy and strategies to counter hate speech. Out of them, 34 groups were selected for innovation grants based on their proposals for social media products with the thematic area of promoting peacebuilding or countering hate speech. These products included videos, memes, comic strips, campaigns and more. These products can be seen on Facebook even today.

After a thorough evaluation, 10 groups were selected as the winners who were later awarded with prizes at an awards ceremony. We also came up with social media monitoring reports, and I believe the trend analysis report will soon be available as an open source.


How did you develop this project idea?

Search for Common Ground Sri Lanka has had more than 10 years of experience in working towards peacebuilding. Everybody at Search Sri Lanka has also worked in the media sector either producing movies or other media related messages. They have also worked with youngsters. So as a team, we were able to strategise the whole project incorporating the expertise and experience each of us has.


Tell us about your team.

As I mentioned earlier, Search for Common Ground Sri Lanka consists of people who have expertise and experience in different backgrounds. Some are familiar with the human rights field, some with gender-based violence and some with research monitoring and evaluation. Each of us had some sort of exposure in thematic areas such as gender, LGBTIQ+ community, digital peacebuilding and social media. So, we come from all sorts of backgrounds with a plethora of experience, expertise and exposure. Search gives prominence to this kind of diversity.

What interested you to enter this field?

I have worked in the human rights field for the past 12 – 15 years. I personally have gone through domestic violence as a child at home caused by my parents. Also, I have faced hate speech, harassment and bullying by peers at school and at home because of my sexual orientation and gender identity, being a cis female. This background made me want to work with youngsters on topics such as hate speech, domestic violence and LGBTIQ+ rights. I joined Search for Common Ground with the hopes of making a positive impact in the right way as a peacebuilder.


Tell us about the hardest challenge you faced during this project?

Well, the pandemic was the hardest challenge we faced. We weren’t able to implement the project according to our initial plan, and we had to postpone work a couple of times. So, my team and I had to re-strategise and rethink the whole programme. With the pandemic, we saw hate speech originating from COVID-19 affected areas. This made us realise how important it is for us to get a move on and not pause the work we had planned.

Therefore, in order to face this challenge, we re-strategised, and connected with youth from all 5 provinces online through our We Lanka social media pages. Finally, we were able to reach our target by getting 379 youngsters with us for the programme. This was the hardest challenge we faced as we had to start from zero in a matter of days.


What message would you like to give the youth in terms of tackling hate speech on social media?

Realistically, we can’t eradicate hate speech 100%. However, everybody should have the capacity to recognise hate speech. It is also important to verify and understand the conflict context and why such comments are coming from them. Always think twice before commenting or interacting on social media and whether your words can be triggering. Even when you are countering hate speech, remember what you do can ignite more and more hatred within the party involved. So, the best solution is to come to a dialogue with the involved party and come to terms with their differences by focusing on the similarities. I request from all the youth to be aware of these things and always try to find some common ground with everybody.


Any future plans in this area?  How can people follow your work?

We have more projects coming up. At the moment, we are developing a lexicon within the context of Sri Lanka in Sinhala and Tamil languages. This includes key words and phrases that are used in hate speech. Next, we are hoping to initiate an ecosystem, gathering all the youngsters to monitor hate speech trends and identify what more we can do to establish peace in the digital space.

Anybody who is interested can check our work and updates on “We Lanka” Instagram page and Facebook page. Also, they can refer to the Search for Common Ground Sri Lanka website.