A necessary move. An indictment on the state of social media. A warning for Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg to get his house in order.
There was plenty of praise for Sri Lanka’s shutdown of many internet services in the wake of terrorist attacks which rocked the country on Easter Sunday. But little of it came from Sri Lankans, many of whom were cut off from means of communicating with relatives and forced to rely on a government-friendly media for information.
Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, a Colombo-based data and social media researcher, told CNN Business that journalists, activists and policymakers were acting “like hammers looking for nails.”
“The government block of social media is seen as some kind of positive response to curb Zuckerberg’s empire, instead of what it actually is — an undemocratic knee-jerk reaction that helps spread fear, uncertainty and doubt.”
While the Sri Lankan government has justified the ban on the grounds of tackling “false news reports” and preventing the spread of material which could inflame ethnic tensions, Wijeratne and others have pointed to the role of traditional media in inflaming such tensions in the past. The ban was announced soon after the blasts, and it is unclear exactly what reports the government was concerned about.
The government has also admitted that it failed to act on multiple warnings received in the days before the attacks. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said Tuesday that Sri Lanka “certainly could have prevented many of the attacks” if the intelligence had reached his office sooner.
“As facts are developing it’s becoming clearer that the government of Sri Lanka has a lot to explain owing to its failure in keeping its citizens secure,” said Mishi Choudhary, legal director at the Software Freedom Law Center. “Shutting down social media at such a time when people whose loved ones have died are seeking answers seems selfish and politically motivated,” she added.
Wijeratne said that social media allowed for “the democratization of information in a country where government and politicians have tightly controlled much of traditional media.” Many foreign commentators supporting the ban may not be familiar with how the country’s traditional media — scarred by a civil war that ended only a decade ago — has been censored and, in some cases, used to spread propaganda, he added.
Many Sri Lankans (and foreign media in the country to cover the aftermath of the attacks) have turned to virtual private networks to get around the blocks on services such as Facebook and WhatsApp. One of the major fake news stories that appeared to be spreading this week was actually about the internet controls. The article incorrectly claimed that VPN usage would be classed as terrorism under the state of emergency which went into effect Tuesday.
The government should have “stayed on top of rumors and aggressively fact-checked stuff on social media. Instead, what’s happening is rumors and misinformation are flying left, right and center,” said Wijeratne.
A Facebook (FB) representative told CNN on Sunday, “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 it had been working to support law enforcement in Sri Lanka and to identify content that violates the company’s standards.
The Internet Association, a trade group that represents companies such as Facebook, Twitter (TWTR) and Google (GOOGL), cited the industry’s role as a communication tool and in coordinating rescue and relief efforts.
“Government mandated blocking of online platforms is not the right solution and could do more harm than good,” the group’s spokesperson Noah Theran said in a statement.
Internet shutdowns have become increasingly common across the world in recent years, especially Asia, particularly in the wake of protests or other anti-government activity. Other governments have moved to legislate greater internet controls in the wake of terrorist attacks or violence such as that in Christchurch, New Zealand earlier this year.
Yet there is little evidence to support justifications for the bans, which experts say do not hinder terrorists and may increase the amount of fake news and rumors being spread because they can’t easily be rebutted.
“Nationwide internet restrictions accelerate the spread of disinformation during a crisis because sources of authentic information are left offline,” Netblocks, a group which tracks internet shutdowns worldwide, said in a statement. “This allows third parties to exploit the situation for political gain and profit.”
Adrian Shahbaz, a researcher at Washington-based Freedom House, said that “shutdowns are a blunt instrument for interrupting the spread of disinformation online. Citizens are denied access to communication tools at a time when they need them the most to dispel rumors, check in with family, or avoid dangerous areas.”
“It’s alarming to see the practice of blocking communication apps become normalized around the world as a policy tool,” he said, adding that at least 21 countries blocked social media in 2017 and 2018. The world’s largest democracy, India, is the worst offender, with almost 60 shutdowns in 2018 alone, according to monitor Access Now.
In a paper in February, Jan Rydzak, an internet policy expert at Stanford University, found that internet shutdowns and social media blocks in India were followed by “a clear increase in violent protest (and) have very ambiguous effects on peaceful demonstrations.”
Major questions are still hanging over the Easter Sunday attacks, as the families of victims began burying their dead and beginning the mourning process. Attempting to find the answers online however, remains a difficult process for many ordinary people.
Rishi Iyengar and Donie O’Sullivan contributed reporting