After coordinated Easter Sunday bombings of church buildings and inns in Sri Lanka killed at the very least 290 individuals, the Sri Lankan authorities shortly did what many governments now do in occasions of disaster — it cited the specter of misinformation and quickly shut down social media.
Fb, WhatsApp, YouTube, and Viber have been among the many platforms quickly blocked by the federal government. However although commentators and journalists all over the place from the New York Occasions to the Guardian advised the choice was a direct consequence of Fb’s failure to curb the unfold of misinformation, and even praised the federal government’s determination to censor the web, there may be overwhelming proof that social media blackouts usually are not an efficient resolution to the unfold of fabricated data in Sri Lanka.
For one factor, the nation has an extended historical past of heavy-handed media controls, and journalists have routinely confronted violence and intimidation over their work. This implies many Sri Lankans depend on social media for up-to-date data, together with posts that debunk false claims circulated on each social and conventional media.
Strain on journalists had considerably let up since President Maithripala Sirisena entered workplace in 2015. However when a constitutional disaster broke out final fall, supporters of the nation’s former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, seized management of state newspapers and stormed the workplaces of a state-owned TV station, quickly forcing them off the air.
The occasions have been a reminder of the fragility of freedom of data in Sri Lanka — a proper that’s now being threatened as soon as extra by the federal government’s determination to dam Fb.
“Media in Sri Lanka is owned by a literal handful of individuals, all tightly interwoven into the political cloth,” Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, a knowledge scientist and public coverage researcher based mostly in Colombo, informed BuzzFeed Information. “When the Constitutional disaster occurred final October, information channels have been the very first thing they went for. I used to be proper subsequent to a sure station when its lights went off simply because the coup was taking place.”
“We acquired the information through WhatsApp and Twitter a full 15 minutes earlier than it went on dwell TV,” he added.
Sri Lanka has mentioned a little-known Islamist militant group is accountable for the bombings and police have arrested 24 individuals, although no group has claimed accountability for the assaults.
Fb has come below heavy fireplace in Sri Lanka, in addition to in international locations from Myanmar to South Sudan, for doing too little to curb the unfold of harmful misinformation, together with content material inciting violence. BuzzFeed Information discovered final yr that researchers and activists in Sri Lanka had tried to tell Fb that posts from extremists might spark communal violence from as early as 2014, and the platform did little in response. Extremists on Fb infected ethnic tensions forward of anti-Muslim riots and arson assaults within the nation final yr.
Fb mentioned this week it’s working with legislation enforcement authorities in Sri Lanka to take away content material violating the platform’s guidelines.
However in Sri Lanka, a fragile political system, deep-rooted tensions between ethnic teams and social fissures left over from practically three many years of civil warfare are issues that far predate social media. Sri Lankan technologists, journalists, and activists say some American commentators have centered Fb in a dialogue of violence with much more complicated causes.
VPN use can also be widespread in Sri Lanka, tech researchers say, which suggests well-organized extremist teams may have no downside getting across the blocks and persevering with to unfold disinformation. In the meantime, these with out the funds or the technical know-how to entry VPNs are those who will really feel the consequences of the ban.
“The extremist teams are IT savvy; lots of them have turned on VPNs,” Nalaka Gunawardene, a know-how author and analyst, mentioned in an interview final yr. “It is the typical social media consumer who’s unable to attach.”
Impartial media organizations like Groundviews, whose writers commonly flag and proper misinformation spreading in Sri Lanka, additionally depend on social media to disseminate their work.
Sri Lanka briefly blocked social media platforms after the riots final yr, which focused Muslim-run companies, mosques, and houses. Fb despatched a delegation to the nation in response, and the ban was lifted after a couple of days.
Web shutdowns, significantly in occasions of disaster, have grow to be more and more routine world wide, and governments have continuously cited the specter of misinformation or “pretend information” as justification for this measure. In Zimbabwe, the federal government blocked the web in January amid a violent crackdown on protesters. And in India, there have been greater than 100 studies of web shutdowns in 2018 alone.
Governments usually do that as an emergency measure, with none legislative course of or exterior oversight. Digital freedom advocates say web shutdowns do not essentially tackle the issue of misinformation and violate individuals’s rights to freedom of speech.
“Web shutdowns do not assist clear up a violent state of affairs. They solely intensify the strife of the harmless caught within the violence and take away their primary human proper to speak,” Naman Aggarwal, Asia coverage affiliate for Entry Now, informed BuzzFeed Information after Sri Lanka’s social media shutdown final yr.
Fb and WhatsApp, that are overwhelmingly common within the nation, are additionally utilized by individuals to speak with their family members. Some Sri Lankans have mentioned the blocks made it troublesome or inconceivable to seek out out whether or not their family and friends have been secure throughout a terrifying day.