The government of Sri Lanka responded to the horrific Easter Sunday bombings by restricting access to social media sites such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat. Officials said they would keep the sites blocked until the counter-terrorism investigation concludes.
The official reason for the social media block was preventing the spread of “disinformation” and “speculative and mischievous attempts to spread rumors,” but Sri Lankans suspect their government is even more worried about extremists provoking each other with inflammatory posts and causing further bloodshed in a country with a long history of sectarian violence.
“We are aware of the government’s statement regarding the temporary blocking of social media platforms. People rely on our services to communicate with their loved ones and we are committed to maintaining our services and helping the community and the country during this tragic time,” Facebook said in response to the ban.
Critics of the measure pointed out that Internet bans are fairly easy to circumvent with virtual private networks, a technique widely used in authoritarian countries like Iran and mastered by many Sri Lankans during previous social media blocks. Extremists tend to be highly motivated to work around website blocks so they can keep communicating, and their influence might even grow as online blackouts make the public more apprehensive.
The New York Times cited sentiments among Sri Lankan officials, and others around the world, that Western social media companies do not respond quickly enough to demands for more aggressive content moderation. These officials have come to distrust platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp and are quick to ban them outright in moments of civil unrest.
Ivan Sigal of digital advocacy group Global Voices saw the Sri Lanka ban as evidence of a rising tide of worldwide disgust with social media:
“A few years ago, this would have been outrageous,” Mr. Sigal said.
That digital rights and press freedom advocates might now sympathize, if not agree, with Sri Lanka’s action “is a damning indictment” of companies that once portrayed the platforms as vehicles for liberation, he said. He called it “a signal of the lack of trust that’s built up around their practices.”
“It’s no longer the presumption that they are effective, benevolent or possibly positive,” Mr. Sigal said. “That was true once upon a time.”
That rising tide of disgust is lapping at the shores of Europe as well:
European officials are putting more pressure on the companies to address what is seen as a tendency to drive dangerous speech. Germany imposed rigorous legal restrictions last year mandating that the networks rapidly remove hate speech. A recent study in Germany found that higher rates of Facebook usage corresponded with more attacks on refugees.
Curiously, the Sri Lankan government does not appear to have restricted access to Twitter, often criticized as one of the worst platforms for spreading “disinformation” and “hate speech.”
Recode noted on Tuesday that Facebook is under fire for allowing the Myanmar military to spread “lurid photos, false news, and inflammatory posts” about the Rohingya Muslims to whip up public sentiment against them, while Indian officials are worried about social media serving as a disruptive force during its lengthy election process.
Social media is enormously popular in Asian countries, where many users essentially think Facebook is the Internet. Recode brought up the delicate problem that Asian users often rely on social media as a news source because they have learned to distrust state-controlled media organs.