DIGANA, Sri Lanka — When the Sri Lankan government temporarily blocked access to Facebook last month amid a wave of violence against Muslims, it seemed like a radical move against new technology.

But in fact, government officials saw it as a last resort. It came after Facebook ignored years of calls from both the government and civil society groups to control ethno-nationalist accounts that spread hate speech and incited violence before deadly anti-Muslim riots broke out this year, BuzzFeed News has found.

Government officials, researchers, and local NGOs say they have pleaded with Facebook representatives from as far back as 2013 to better enforce the company’s own rules against using the platform to call for violence or to target people for their ethnicity or religious affiliation. They repeatedly raised the issue with Facebook representatives in private meetings, by sharing in-depth research, and in public forums. The company, they say, did next to nothing in response.

Ethnic tensions run deep in Sri Lanka, particularly between the majority Sinhala Buddhists and minority groups, and the country has seen a troubling rise in anti-Muslim hate groups and violence since the end of its decades-long civil war in 2009. Many of those hate groups spread their messages on Facebook. The problem came to a head in March when Buddhist mobs in central Sri Lanka burned down dozens of Muslim shops, homes, and places of worship. In response, the government blocked social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, in a decision it says was made to prevent the violence from…

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