After bombings, Sri Lanka is caught between the good and evil of social media

Blocked Facebook window in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photo: AP/Eranga Jayawardena.

On April 21, Easter Sunday, a series of coordinated bombings killed hundreds in Sri Lanka. In the tense hours following the attacks, a social media blackout left much of the country barred from major communication channels—Facebook, Viber, WhatsApp—in the interest of “national security.” The ISIS-supported attack marks the most violence the country has faced since its brutal, 25-year civil war came to a close in 2009— during which suicide bombings at banks, bus stations, and other public spaces were common. The ban on major social networks—instituted by the Sri Lankan government to curb misinformation and hate speech—is is now on its eighth day and continues to interrupt communication, blocking access to family and friends. It’s also a burden to journalists trying to keep up with sources and follow what is an ongoing terrorist threat.

Hearing of the ban, I couldn’t help but think of how much I relied on these platforms when I was living in Sri Lanka during last year’s constitutional crisis. When a sudden shift in power in the highest branch of government was overlooked by international media and local coverage became politically motivated, I looked to reporter friends on Facebook who were posting regular updates, journalist messaging groups on WhatsApp, and Twitter lists curated by Groundviews, a local media organization. And when, ultimately, the political party leading the coup seized the Sri Lankan newspaper I had been working at and forced out one of my editors when she refused to cede editorial control, I found out through social media.

For Western journalists who are physically distant from Sri Lanka, it is easy to use this violence and the ban that followed as another data point in their ongoing battle against Facebook. Kara Swisher wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times that her first reaction when she heard the site had been blocked was, “Good.” “When you traffic in outrage, you get death,” she wrote. “Stop the Facebook/YouTube/Twitter world—we want to get off.” Turning off Facebook and other social media, Swisher argues, is one of the only ways to protect against further violence. Sure, users do traffic in outrage on these platforms, but vital information also circulates—information that can only flow outside the political constraints of mainstream Sri Lankan media. And while there is a case to be made that Sri Lanka’s history of ethnic tension makes it particularly susceptible to flare-ups in violence, journalists and people seeking information will be hurt by the ban.

Free-speech advocates have railed against the ban as needless censorship, condemning the Sri Lankan government for taking draconian measures. But Sri Lanka’s tragedy is neither a footnote in an American list of grievances against big tech nor a straightforward instance of authoritarian censorship by the government. Instead, the ban on social media should be seen as a desperate, albeit haphazard, attempt by a government inept at handling sensitive information—it’s said to have known about the attacks in advance—to tame social media networks that have gotten wildly out of hand.

Social media blocks have now become something of a routine in Sri Lanka during emergencies, though no real research has been done into their effectiveness. Even with the ban, misinformation spreads. Many have managed to get around the block with VPNs. Fake news is still running rampant on Facebook—including rumors about additional bombs and misleading photos repurposed from previous tragedies. Still, Sri Lanka’s ban will set a harrowing precedent for information freedom in the years to come. And the likes of Facebook and Youtube, in creating a situation ripe for government overreach, have become de facto accomplices.

The ban on social media should be seen as a desperate, haphazard attempt by the Sri Lankan government to tame social media networks that have gotten wildly out of hand.

 

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Sri Lanka is extremely online. Throughout the country, the red Dialog logo sticker (Sri Lanka’s most popular phone service) can be spotted on even the smallest of shops. According to some estimates, there are as many as 27 million mobile connections in Sri Lanka— more than there are people in the country—and of those mobile connections, 55 percent have 3G or 4G capabilities. WhatsApp and Facebook are staples for communication—the latter had 6 million active users in the country as of 2018.

In September of last year, I met Roel Raymond, a tech-savvy editor at Roar Media, on a press trip to the Northern Province. Together, we listened to speakers speculate about how to make Jaffna, a city still very much bearing the scars of the civil war, more “Instagrammable” to attract tourists. A month later, Raymond became one of the first journalists to post when the president ousted the sitting prime minister and appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa, a former leader accused of human rights violations and violent attacks on the press, in his place. Raymond painstakingly documented the ensuing crisis, which would span two tense months, until the Supreme Court finally deemed the move unconstitutional. “I just kept updating my Facebook and Twitter with information as I received it and before I knew it, it took over my life,” she said.

During the crisis, Raymond quickly became my go-to for information. I was on a fellowship at the state paper, and the sudden political switch-up left me in a particularly precarious situation. I’d sometimes catch myself refreshing Facebook and Twitter several times a minute desperate for any kernel of truth amidst a flurry of propagandistic messages from my former employer. The paper I worked at had come under control of the new government, and even the building I worked in was sporting banners with Mahinda Rajapaksa’s smiling, mustached face.

Raymond has been documenting the Easter bombings in the same meticulous fashion. She was restrained in her opinions about the recent ban. “I would normally be incensed at the idea of a social media ban,” she said, “but in both instances that the government imposed it [the first, during mob violence in 2018], I have understood why and think it isn’t too much to ask in the interest of national security.”

Marianne David, deputy editor of Sri Lanka’s DailyFT newspaper, echoed that sentiment. On her fifth night of working double shifts, she wrote to me via Twitter (which is not banned) from a barebones newsroom of three reporters: “I believe the press can work around it. . . if it helps the security situation, media must find other ways to manage—and it will.”

Sri Lanka Press Institute CEO Kumar Lopez emphasized the particularities of Sri Lanka’s situation, which often aren’t taken into account by Western reporters in search of an anecdote for a big tech or anti-censorship rant. “We need to take this in the right context,” he wrote to me via email. “Sri Lanka is a multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-communal society, which has gone through 30 years of war. The issue is very sensitive.”

 

Social media companies have done little to respond to those sensitivities. Amantha Perera, South Asia coordinator for Columbia’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, remembers visiting Facebook’s Singapore headquarters in June. He saw an interactive map with data about each country on the platform, and yet, when he clicked on Sri Lanka, no information came up. “The impression it gave was that Sri Lanka was not important enough to be tracked or displayed in real time,” he says. Because Sri Lanka does not generate as much revenue as other, larger countries, he explains, putting resources toward the country might not make sense from a business perspective. “Facebook has to pay more attention to markets like Sri Lanka where [it doesn’t] generate a lot of money for the company, but [its] impact is huge,” he says.

Like many other countries around the world, Sri Lanka’s social media is full of suspicious fake accounts, and plenty of mis- and disinformation. Last spring, a similar social media ban followed mob violence fueled by online rumors that the Muslim minority was trying to sterilize the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. In June, a manufactured memo spread on Twitter, claiming the writer of a controversial New York Times article had left the Times in the aftermath (she had not), while a member of parliament tried to spread an online rumor that the government had poisoned milk packets at a protest led by his political party. After the recent violence, Sri Lanka’s police department even tweeted out a photo of a Brown University student, mistakenly identifying her as a suspect in the terrorist attack investigation. The risks of these falsehoods online are compounded by poor digital literacy.

Digital platforms give a space for journalists that doesn’t exist in Sri Lanka’s traditional media. Western media should not blindly praise what could very well be overreach by the Sri Lankan government; instead, we should double down on our criticism and demands of the platforms. What makes these platforms so liberating in a tight media environment are also what presents the greatest dangers: they cannot be regulated locally and they offer an open space for discussion. “For me, social media is the best thing that happened to media,” Raymond says. “I have only cliched praise for it.”

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Kelsey Ables is currently based in New York writing about tech, art, and media at Artsy. She was formerly an editorial assistant for CJR. Follow her on Twitter @ables_kelsey.