After a series of bombings killed over 300 people in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, the country’s government blocked access to social media sites including Facebook, instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp, and YouTube, along with the chat app Viber, according to state media and independent organizations that monitor internet blocks. A number of tech commentators, from The New York Times to The Guardian, quickly expressed support for Sri Lanka’s decision, citing it as evidence that Facebook has failed to stop the spread of misinformation and hate speech in the country and elsewhere.
Yet civil rights experts and researchers within Sri Lanka worry that the practice of shutting down entire swaths of the internet—which has become increasingly common around the world—can do more harm than good. “Curbing civil liberties and civil rights doesn’t make people more safe,” says Allie Funk, a research analyst at the nonprofit Freedom House, which publishes annual country reports on internet freedom. “These are societal issues that are going to take long-term solutions.”
There’s little doubt that misinformation circulating on sites like Facebook and on messaging platforms like WhatsApp has helped stoke violence in countries like Sri Lanka, but in the aftermath of the attacks, local reporters and researchers warned international journalists not to hastily draw conclusions about Facebook’s role in the violence. Sri Lanka is a country, after all, with a complex and recent history of civil war that predates the introduction of Mark Zuckerberg’s invention. Internet penetration remains low, and experts have noted that much of the hateful rhetoric continues to circulate the old-fashioned way: through word of mouth.
Nevertheless, having access to sites like Facebook can be critical in the aftermath of an emergency. “Many in Sri Lanka rely on social media platforms and messaging apps to reach out to their families,” Berhan Taye, a campaigner at the digital rights nonprofit Access Now, wrote in a blog post. “For those in danger, and for those who want to help, not being able to connect or confirm that a loved one is safe can be devastating.”
Taye also noted that during a January terrorist attack in Kenya, victims similarly used platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp to communicate vital information.
“With the lack of official information sources and clear-cut channels of communication, social media was the only way for people to properly keep in touch and spread news.”
Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, LIRNEasia
Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, a Sri Lankan researcher at the technology think tank LIRNEasia, said that Facebook’s Safety Check feature helped people quickly discover whether their friends and family were OK after Sunday’s bombings. He notes that fake news did also begin to spread, but not solely due to Facebook’s shortcomings. Official information disseminated by the government was haphazard, and traditional media outlets in Sri Lanka, like newspapers, are not always accurate due to government censorship. (Reporters Without Borders has consistently ranked Sri Lanka in the bottom half of its annual World Press Freedom Index.)
“With the lack of official information sources and clear-cut channels of communication, social media kind of was the only way for people to properly keep in touch and spread news,” Wijeratne says. “And then it became a double-edged sword afterward.”
What’s more, restricting access to social media can make it harder for Sri Lankans to see valuable independent news stories shared online. “Digital media remains a greater space of freedom than more traditional media in the country,” says Funk, who edited Freedom House’s report on internet freedom in Sri Lanka. In 2018, the organization rated the country’s internet as only “partly free” as a result of government censorship and limited access.
With the Sri Lankan government, experts warn, there’s danger in Facebook becoming a scapegoat for longstanding tensions between ethnic and religious groups. Just 10 years ago, the country ended a decades-long civil war between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil populations. “Successive governments in Sri Lanka have flagged Facebook and social media as the sole or primary progenitors of violence, ignoring the fact that government itself has done little to uphold the rule of law or address the root causes,” Sri Lankan researcher Sanjana Hattotuwa wrote in a policy brief for the nonpartisan Toda Peace Institute last year, after the government blocked access to social media following anti-Muslim riots.
These blocks aren’t always effective in stamping out misinformation either. Thanks to the rise of virtual private networks, which can circumvent bans within an individual nation, Sri Lankan people can find their way around shutdowns. WIRED spoke with someone who lives just outside of the capital city Colombo, and who used a VPN to continue accessing Facebook and WhatsApp uninterrupted after the attacks.
The person, who asked to remain anonymous, said that even after the shutdown, she continued to receive misleading reports from friends on social media. One message included a news report about a man who had been arrested in connection with the attacks, but on further inspection, it turned out the story was several years old. Another report, which was circulating Monday afternoon, suggested that the water supply in the country had been poisoned—a rumor officials have since debunked.
Still, she said she believes blocking social media may be more effective in rural parts of the country: “People who are using social networks in rural areas might not be going to the extent of using VPNs. There’s still misinformation, but I think it must be reduced to a certain extent.”
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Multiple countries have passed laws in response to online misinformation and hate speech in recent years, which critics say can also be used to silence political opponents and mask dissent. Internet authoritarianism more broadly is on the rise, and has been for years. What’s perhaps most concerning is the emerging evidence that internet shutdowns can help incite more violence. One working paper published in February by Jan Rydzak, a researcher at Stanford’s Digital Policy Incubator, looked at the effects of shutdowns in India. The research suggested that information blackouts “compel participants in collective action in India to substitute nonviolent tactics for violent ones that are less reliant on effective communication and coordination.”
That doesn’t mean Facebook shouldn’t do more to stop the proliferation of fake news and hate speech in countries like Sri Lanka. There’s ample evidence that the company prioritized growth around the world without putting the necessary safeguards in place to monitor its platform once it entered new regions. Of course, it’s not a simple problem to solve. In Sri Lanka alone, the Sinhalese language has four different versions. Algorithms that Facebook has designed to detect hate speech in English don’t necessarily map to that linguistic structure, says Wijeratne.
“Teams from across Facebook have been working to support first responders and law enforcement, as well as to identify and remove content which violates our standards,” Facebook spokesperson Jen Ridings said in part in a statement.
It may be easy to applaud when a government like Sri Lanka’s pushes back against a company historically hell-bent on taking over the world with little regard for the consequences. But the chosen method of doing so—completely restricting access during a time of crisis—should be cause for concern as well.