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Sri Lanka blocked Facebook after the Easter bombings. Should it have?

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Imagine for a moment that you run a small country prone to outbreaks of sectarian violence. Terrorist
 
April 22 · Issue #319 · View online
The Interface
Imagine for a moment that you run a small country prone to outbreaks of sectarian violence. Terrorist attacks hit a series of churches and hotels in your country on a major religious holiday, prompting fears that violence will spread. Your citizens are using social networks to get in touch with their loved ones and yo coordinate disaster response efforts — but they also appear to be using those same networks to plan further violence. It’s your job to bring the situation under control in a way that balance speech rights with safety. Do you leave Facebook online, or do you shut it off?
That was the dilemma faced by Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, when at least 290 people died in a series of bombings. The government decided to take the more restrictive approach: it blocked access to Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp, Viber, and YouTube. It was the second time in as many years that Sri Lanka temporarily blocked access to social media sites. (Last year, it came in response to anti-Muslim violence.)
To some observers, the shutdown was a welcome move. Kara Swisher writes in the New York Times:
It pains me as a journalist, and someone who once believed that a worldwide communications medium would herald more tolerance, to admit this — to say that my first instinct was to turn it all off. But it has become clear to me with every incident that the greatest experiment in human interaction in the history of the world continues to fail in ever more dangerous ways.
In short: Stop the Facebook/YouTube/Twitter world — we want to get off.
But two questions present themselves whenever a government acts to restrict speech in this way. First, who will be harmed by the unexpected breakdown in communication infrastructure? And second, does it even solve the problem you want it to?
We’re still in the immediate aftermath of the Sri Lanka attacks, so it’s very difficult to say who may have been harmed by the social media ban. We often hear that in some developing nations, Facebook is synonymous with the internet itself. The company also makes tools designed to help disaster victims coordinate their response, including its safety check feature. For families who primarily communicate using Facebook’s infrastructure, a service interruption can introduce more chaos into an already fraught day.
Moreover, social media gained popularity in Sri Lanka and elsewhere because it was more trustworthy than official government sources. As Megha Rajagopalan reported in BuzzFeed, Sri Lankans have good reason to doubt official sources of information:
For one thing, the country has a long history of heavy-handed media controls, and journalists have routinely faced violence and intimidation over their work. This means many Sri Lankans rely on social media for up-to-date information, including posts that debunk false claims circulated on both social and traditional media.
Pressure on journalists had somewhat let up since President Maithripala Sirisena entered office in 2015. But when a constitutional crisis broke out last fall, supporters of the country’s former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, seized control of state newspapers and stormed the offices of a state-owned TV station, temporarily forcing them off the air.
It’s clear that extremists really have been using social networks to spread misinformation in the wake of the attack. It’s also clear that Sri Lanka’s government has itself been an unreliable narrator over the years.
But say you’ve made peace with the government blocking access to Facebook and its peers. Will that stop the spread of misinformation? There’s reason for doubt. Last year, the Times reported that Sri Lanka’s previous social media ban was easily circumvented:
One official estimated that nearly three million users in Sri Lanka continued accessing social media via Virtual Private Networks, which connect to the internet from outside the country.
Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, a Sri Lankan researcher and author, did a forensic analysis of the blockade and told BuzzFeed’s Jane Lytvynenko that it was largely ineffective.
Wijeratne studied over 60,000 Facebook posts to understand whether a social media block imposed by the government in 2018 was effective. Ultimately, he found that it wasn’t.
“Not only did people circumvent it in a flash, anecdotal evidence suggests it did significant damage to tourism and e-commerce, both of which rely on Facebook ads,” he said.
None of this is to suggest that social networks deserve the benefit of the doubt. Last April, civil society groups in Sri Lanka wrote an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg outlining the company’s failure to enforce its own community standards in the country, a likely consequence of hiring too few moderators who speak Sinhala, one of Sri Lanka’s native languages.
But we ought to be wary of dramatic “solutions” that have no clear benefit. Instead of intermittently blocking access to social networks, Sri Lanka could always try … regulating them? Develop standards around the identification and removal of harmful content, and hold companies accountable to them, the way Europe is now doing. Or, if you’re worried that regulation will simply entrench incumbents, then take antitrust action that promotes competition. Both moves would likely do more to promote trust between the government and its citizens than simply shutting off Facebook whenever some cabinet minister gets nervous. (My colleagues Adi Robertson and Makena Kelly will have more to say soon about how groups can advocate government internet shutdowns.)
If the current US government blocked all access to social networks after a terrorist attack, we would rail against the move as an authoritarian outrage. When other countries do it, we ought to be just as suspicious.

Democracy
Facebook’s new chief lawyer helped write the Patriot Act
After Social Media Bans, Militant Groups Found Ways to Remain
How WhatsApp, FaceTime and other encryption apps shaped the outcome of the Mueller report
36 Days After Christchurch, Terrorist Attack Videos Are Still on Facebook
How Facebook Fights Fake News in the World's Largest Election
Federal investigation of Facebook could hold Mark Zuckerberg accountable on privacy, sources say
The Antitrust Case Against Facebook: a turning point in the debate over Big Tech and monopoly
Stock Images of Beautiful Women and Border Wall Propaganda: The Trump Campaign’s Facebook Ad Strategy
EU tells Facebook's Nick Clegg to rethink ad rules for elections
China Bans the Word 'Leica' on Social Media
Elsewhere
Silicon Valley Came to Kansas Schools. That Started a Rebellion.
What it's like to be a female founder in the Instagram era
Launches
Byte, the follow-up app from Vine co-creator Dom Hofmann, is out in beta and he shared a preview on Twitter.
dom hofmann
the byte beta we’ve been running with friends and family *feels* exactly like the vine friends and family beta, down to the weird but appealing randomness of the videos. that’ll change as we expand, but it’s a pretty good sign https://t.co/rBbQrNtTJ7
1:41 PM - 22 Apr 2019
Takes
“I, too, am Contrarian”
And finally ...
The CIA is joining Instagram
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and ideas for what the CIA can do on Instagram. I mean other than surveilling all of us in real time: casey@theverge.com.
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