Sri Lanka social media ban leaves tough questions

Sri Lanka social media ban leaves tough questions
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Sri Lanka's decision to block all social media following deadly bombings on Easter Sunday is reigniting the debate over how to combat online disinformation.

A government official called the move a "unilateral decision" and said they blocked the platforms over concerns that tech companies could not adequately stop the spread of disinformation about the attacks, according to The New York Times.

Officials feared that social media could provoke more religious violence after bombings which targeted Christian worshippers at churches on Easter Sunday killed over 300 people.

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The ban has been wide ranging with digital rights group NetBlocks reporting that Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube and Snapchat have all been blocked in the country.

It’s not the first time that Sri Lanka has suppressed tech platforms. The government also blocked social media for more than a week in March of last year after a spate of violent attacks on Muslims.

But the latest blackout comes with sites like Facebook and YouTube under fire over their handling of disinformation and extremist content.

Last month, when a gunman livestreamed his massacre of Muslims at a pair of mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, the companies struggled to keep the images off their platforms and were harshly criticized by the country’s leaders.

One New Zealand official, Privacy Commissioner John Edwards, called Facebook’s executives “morally bankrupt pathological liars.”

Facebook has also been criticized for its role in Myanmar, where pro-government forces have been carrying out an ethnic cleansing campaign against the country’s minority Rohingya Muslims. Critics say that effort has been helped along by a sophisticated disinformation operation on Facebook that has incited ethnic tensions.

Tech industry critics say that Silicon Valley’s longstanding problems with content moderation has made it harder for governments facing crises to trust them to crack down on disinformation. But many of those critics have also questioned whether Sri Lanka's blanket ban is the appropriate response.

Hany Farid, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and an adviser to the Counter Extremism Project, said social media bans are not always effective and raise concerns about free speech.

Farid, though, added that he believes the “abdication of responsibility on behalf of social media companies” forced the government of Sri Lanka's hand.

“I think given the repeated failures of social media companies to deal with the weaponization of disinformation, it's an understandable response,” Farid told The Hill on Tuesday in a phone interview. “I think this was a proportional response to the horrific violence.”

A spokesperson for Facebook pointed to a statement it issued over the weekend promising to work with authorities in response to the attacks.

“We are aware of the government's statement regarding the temporary blocking of social media platforms,” the company said. “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.”

Google, which owns YouTube, did not respond when asked for comment.

Some advocates argue that blackouts are actually ineffective at combating disinformation.

“Nationwide internet restrictions accelerate the spread of disinformation during a crisis because sources of authentic information are left offline,” the group NetBlocks said in a tweet. “This allows third parties to exploit the situation for political gain and profit.”

In many developing countries, Facebook is often inextricably linked with the internet, serving as the main method of communication for many. In such places, a social media blackout can have an outsized impact on the public's ability to contact their friends and family.

Some civil libertarians also argue that social media blackouts can be abused by regimes, looking for any opportunity to target free speech.

Sri Lankan leaders have often had a contentious relationship with the press, particularly during the country's nearly three-decade civil war. Freedom House, a U.S.-government funded non-profit, on its website describes Sri Lanka's press as "not free."

On Tuesday, Sri Lanka's ban was in its third day. The government has said that the ban will remain in place "until investigations were concluded," according to the BBC. Officials have blamed Sunday's bombings on an Islamist extremist group and made nearly two dozen arrests.

Despite concerns about the social media ban, though, speech and civil rights groups have been largely muted in their criticism, as have tech companies.

Farid said he thinks the issue highlights the growing lack of faith in tech platforms and increasing understanding of the government's response.

“I think now everyone is waking up to the fact that this is a really unhealthy ecosystem,” he said.