After Sri Lanka bombings, a social media shutdown

On Easter Sunday, massive, coordinated attacks rocked Sri Lanka. Near-simultaneous explosions ripped through three churches and three luxury hotels across the cities of Colombo, Negombo, and Batticaloa; later, two further explosions hit a low-budget inn and a residential complex in Colombo. To date, the death toll stands at nearly 300 people, with around 500 more reported injured. According to the AP, the church and hotel attacks were collectively executed by seven suicide bombers. No group has yet claimed responsibility, though a Sri Lankan official blamed the National Thowheeth Jama’ath, a radical Islamist organization, for the casualties.

After the bombs went off, authorities in the country blocked major social networks—a bid to stanch misinformation in a country where online falsehoods have been known to exacerbate intercommunal tensions. Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram went dark; so did YouTube, Snapchat, and Viber. The shutdown featured prominently in foreign reporting on the attacks: as several outlets pointed out, platforms that were seen, a few years ago, as important “emergency response institutions” are no longer trusted with that function. The coverage added to an incessant negative news cycle for big tech. Ivan Sigal, executive director of Global Voices, told The New York Times that the Sri Lanka blackout was a “damning indictment” of the platforms; The Guardian, in a headline, said it reflected the sense “that online dangers outweigh benefits.”

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Yesterday, Sigal wrote on Twitter that where we’d once have viewed “the blocking of social media sites after an attack as outrageous censorship,” we now see it as an “essential duty of care, to protect ourselves from threat.” Other observers, however, maintain that state-backed internet shutdowns set a dangerous precedent. “We know based on the past that in crises, everyone goes online to find information,” Joan Donovan, a researcher at Harvard Kennedy’s Shorenstein Center, told The Guardian. “This really puts people who already have vulnerable access to communication in a much worse position.” Alp Toker, executive director of NetBlocks, added, to the AP: “When social media is shut down, it creates a vacuum of information that’s readily exploited by other parties. It can add to the sense of fear and can cause panic.” And Sanjana Hattotuwa, of the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo, told The Washington Post that “while a ban on social media helps to contain the spread of rumors, it also hampers efforts by journalists to push back on them.”

It is undeniable that major platforms have failed to get to grips with junk information, particularly during fast-moving news events. In some countries—including Sri Lanka—targeted online lies have escalated into shocking physical violence. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t let our (justified) anger at Facebook et al blind us to the risks of top-down censorship in countries with troubling records on freedom of speech. In Sri Lanka, members of the then-prime minister’s party stormed several media outlets, in October, in a bid to take control. Reporters Without Borders ranked the country 126th (out of 180) in its 2019 World Press Freedom Index.

Nor should we let debates about social media consume our focus in the aftermath of atrocious acts. Violence often spawns necessary conversations about our online communities, as happened last month, following the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand. But hate predates the internet, and has different roots in different parts of the world. Facebook-bashing should not overshadow the exploration of those causes. Nor should it diminish the centrality of innocent victims.

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Many outlets did a solid, varied job in their quick-turn Sri Lanka coverage. Nonetheless, in our current news cycle, the social media question always looms particularly large. On Twitter yesterday, Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower who helped break open the Cambridge Analytica scandal, assailed Mark Zuckerberg over Facebook’s role in spreading hate in Sri Lanka. Zeynep Tufekci, a prominent techno-sociologist, called him out. “Oh come on. This is Sri Lanka, an actual country with a real and complex history,” she wrote. “All this is too important to use as generic projection about Facebook or social media.” It was an important reminder.

Below, more on the Sri Lanka attacks:


Other notable stories:

  • After Lyra McKee, a young journalist in Northern Ireland, was killed during violence in Derry on Thursday night, tributes to her life and work poured forth across the media. On Galley, CJR’s Mathew Ingram collected many of them. “Lyra was eight years old when the Good Friday Agreement, the peace treaty which marked an end to Northern Ireland’s bloody conflict, was signed,” Siobhan Fenton writes in The New Statesman. “She developed a voice as one of the most talented writers of Northern Ireland’s post-conflict generation, writing intelligently and compassionately about intergenerational trauma, and the lingering effects of the Troubles among younger generations.”
  • Fallout from the Mueller report continued through the weekend. Channeling many pundits’ thoughts, The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins wrote that coverage of its release has existed in “two separate news universes… In one, the special counsel’s report was presented as a smoking-gun chronicle of high crimes and misdemeanors. In the other, it was heralded as a credibility-shredding blow to the president’s opponents.” In the first universe, the documented lies of Trump and senior officials are still driving much of the discussion: on CNN, Brian Stelter asked, “Why does Sarah Sanders still have a job?” ICYMI on Thursday, CJR liveblogged the top media takeaways from Mueller day.
  • This morning, CJR and The Nation jointly published a piece, by Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope, arguing that media coverage of climate change has been shockingly complacent. “At a time when civilization is accelerating toward disaster, climate silence continues to reign across the bulk of the US news media,” they write. “Especially on television, where most Americans still get their news, the brutal demands of ratings and money work against adequate coverage of the biggest story of our time.” On April 30, CJR and The Nation will partner for a climate-coverage conference at Columbia Journalism School. Speakers include Chris Hayes, Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, and Margaret Sullivan. You can find more information here.
  • In Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, an actor and comedian who played a fictional president on TV, was elected leader of the country in real life, ousting Petro Poroshenko, the incumbent president, in a landslide. In a campaign that blurred the lines between the real and the fictional, Zelensky pledged to curb the influence of oligarchs in Ukrainian politics—but many observers are concerned that he is a puppet of Ihor Kolomoisky, who owns the TV channel that broadcast Zelensky’s show.
  • The Supreme Court will today hear a case involving the Argus Leader, a newspaper in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which sued for records about the government’s food assistance program under the Freedom of Information Act after parts of a 2010 request were denied. The US government stopped fighting the request after it lost in a lower court, but a supermarket trade association took over, arguing that store earnings from the program are confidential business information and thus exempt from FOIA. (The Trump administration is backing the trade group.) The stakes are high for both national and local media. Avi Asher-Schapiro explains for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
  • In what would amount to a “rare rebuke,” regulators at the Federal Trade Commission have discussed sanctioning Mark Zuckerberg personally for Facebook’s recent data lapses, The Washington Post’s Tony Romm reports. “The agency considered, then backed down from putting Zuckerberg directly under order during its last settlement with Facebook in 2011,” Romm writes. “Had it done so, Zuckerberg could have faced fines for future privacy violations.”
  • KOSA-TV, a CBS affiliate in Texas, came under fire last week after Ali Breland, a reporter with Mother Jones, tweeted a segment the channel aired in March that uncritically amplified Islamophobic rhetoric. The segment covered an event in Midland attended by Katie Hopkins and Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff—far-right figures from the UK and Austria, respectively—and featured an interview with an attendee who said, “Obviously, Islam is very stealthily trying to take over every country it can possibly take over, and it’s part of their religion to do so.” In a statement to Insider, Don Davis, general manager of KOSA-TV, conceded the segment did not meet journalistic standards.
  • Last month, C-SPAN celebrated its 40th birthday. Now Brian Lamb, the man who founded the network in 1979, is retiring. In an exit interview with The Wall Street Journal’s Kyle Peterson, Lamb reflects on telecasting Congress, and argues that Supreme Court proceedings should be next.
  • And for CJR, Karina Sturm argues that newsrooms should employ more journalists with disabilities. “I am not saying journalists outside of a minority community shouldn’t write about it,” Sturm writes. “But I believe it is hard work to represent an unfamiliar topic far away from one’s own experience, and journalists working under pressure might not have the time to fully immerse themselves in a complicated subject matter like disability.”

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Correction: A previous version of this post identified Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff as being from Sweden—she is from Austria—and misspelled her first name.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.