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Sri Lanka bombings: Is banning social media after a terrorist attack for the best?

Global News with Maite Taboada 23 April 2019

Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram went dark on Easter Sunday shortly after terrorist attacks killed hundreds in Sri Lanka.

It was a deliberate albeit controversial decision on the part of Sri Lanka’s government in an effort to crack down on “false news reports,” which often run rampant in the wake of the shootings, bombings and other deadly attacks that happen with alarming frequency across the globe. Officials say they will end the blackout after their investigation is complete.

The reaction has been decidedly mixed, with some decrying the worrisome precedent such a blanket blackout sets and others welcoming the smothering of potentially incendiary rumours.

While many agree there is a need to balance the harm and benefit of social media –– which has become ubiquitous in people’s lives –– as of yet there’s no real agreement on how. A good start, at least in the case of Sri Lanka, says Alexandra Samuel, a Vancouver-based technology writer and author of Work Smarter with Social Media, would be for the western world to butt out.

“North America, in particular the United States, has given the world this mixed blessing of large platforms like Facebook and Twitter,” Samuel said.

“We enjoy the overwhelming share of its financial benefits but we unleash on the rest of the world the consequences of the platform’s very significant under-investment in moderation, policy and community management.”

That hasn’t kept Americans from weighing in.

“Good… it could save lives,” wrote New York Times technology opinion writer Kara Swisher of her initial thoughts on the ban. “Good because the companies that run these platforms seem incapable of controlling the powerful global tools they have built. Good because the toxic digital waste of misinformation that floods these platforms has overwhelmed what was once so very good about them.”

The Washington Post’s editorial board was less favourable: Sri Lanka’s decision “might be understandable” in the context of the brutal bombings, however it “sets an alarming precedent.”

The block is “the latest rebuke of platforms once seen as a great hope of the democratic world,” the editorial reads.

“Sri Lanka has shut down access without any evidence that rumors or rhetoric on the site led to harm. The justification, presumably, is that once evidence has emerged, it is already too late. But a moratorium on Facebook and other essential services in Sri Lanka is also a moratorium on easy communication.”

Therein lies one of the benefits. Beyond ticking yes on Facebook’s Safety Check feature (which isn’t without controversy) and providing a measure of relief to family and friends abroad, many rely on social media to communicate with their loved ones. That’s partly why Samuel, who grew up in a Toronto neighbourhood that is home to many Sri Lankans, measures her critiques of social media.

“In moments like this, of course, everyone wants to hear about their families… and social media allows us to do that in ways that (would otherwise be) very complicated,” she said. “Social media has become, for better and for worse, a very profoundly embedded part of our lives.”

It is unsettling not to know what’s happening now in Sri Lanka, says Viji Devadas, whose nephew reached out via WhatsApp to tell her he was OK after the blasts but hasn’t been heard from since the social media blackout.

“In one way, it’s good because so many rumors and so many things, everybody gets scared,” Devadas told the Associated Press, but at the same time, she hopes it won’t be in place for long, since “people like to see what’s going on and happening.”

A short-term ban makes sense, says Maite Taboada, a linguistics professor at Simon Fraser University who is also an expert on the language of hate.

“When the government of Sri Lanka felt that there was danger from social media, then it was the right decision to ban it,” she said. “In cases where you think there’s a threat to the public, you may limit personal and individual freedoms.”

Worries about safety and social media, Facebook in particular, are not wholly unfounded, Taboada says. Think about the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar. More than 10,000 people are estimated to have been killed, while more than 70,000 people have fled the country since Myanmar’s military began attacking the Muslim minority group more than a year ago. It took substantial criticism before Facebook banned Myanmar leaders who’d used the platform to fan the flames of ethnic and religious conflict.

“Social media can inflame conflict,” Samuel said.

“It can contribute to violence, it can normalize violence, it can very rapidly spread both accidental and — increasingly — deliberately weaponized information.”

Still, Taboada cautions against long-term blackouts. A long-term ban on social media is like a long-term ban on anything else, she says: people find a way around it. Indeed, when Sri Lanka blocked social media a year ago over concerns it was being used to bolster anti-Muslim violence, some were able to circumvent the ban using virtual private networks that mask their computers’ location.

Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, a researcher in Sri Lanka, did an analysis of thousands of Facebook posts during the ban, concluding that many had successfully circumvented it.

“The fundamental problem is that social media is a Wild West right now, and it needs a bit more order,” Taboada said.

Until then, Samuel says, North Americans should hit pause on their dramatic pronouncements about what precedent Sri Lanka’s ban will or won’t set.

“Whatever side you come down on, it’s really important that we acknowledge there is a real trade-off here,” she said. “It is not an easy decision.”