After Sunday's deadly suicide bombings that killed nearly 300 people, the government of Sri Lanka shut off nationwide access to most social media sites and apps citing safety concerns and the spread of false news reports.
The Sri Lankan government on Sunday said it was temporarily shutting down access to Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, WhatsApp, and Snapchat, much as it did last year in the wake of deadly violence that was spurred by false rumors about the Muslim community there. As CNN reports, Twitter remains functional in the country, because it is not nearly as popular as the other platforms — and the Red Cross in Sri Lanka was using Twitter on Sunday to address the issue of false rumors.
The government is wary of social media's power after rumors that were widely forwarded on WhatsApp in early 2018 led to a wave of anti-Muslim riots and attacks. And the move to shut the sites and apps down entirely reflects the country's distrust of Facebook and Google and their ability to stem the spread of such dangerous content themselves. As journalism advocate Ivan Sigal said on Twitter, the move is the clearest sign to date that there is broad distrust in these companies.
A few years ago we’d view the blocking of social media sites after an attack as outrageous censorship; now we think of it as essential duty of care, to protect ourselves from threat. #facebook your house is not in order. #EasterSundayAttacksLK @globalvoices @groundviews— Ivan Sigal (@ivonotes) April 21, 2019
The current social media ban, while ostensibly intended to keep more of such violence from being stirred up through hate speech and misinformation, has the secondary effect of disallowing the population from spreading news about the government's own failure to stop the terror attack. As the New York Times reports today, the Sri Lankan police and security officials appear to have known that an attack was coming, and failed to act to prevent it. A memo warning of pending attacks on Catholic churches and identifying some of those responsible was sent by Sri Lankan police on April 11, and yet members of the Sri Lankan government claim that no security failure occurred. "Everyone has done their job,” said a senior advisor to Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena. "These kinds of alerts are coming time to time. Even U.S. or anyone will not try to panic people." Meanwhile multiple ministers have spoken out publicly denouncing the failure of the country's intelligence services.
On the social media blackout, Sigal writes further on Global Voices that it marks a decided shift in the last several years when it comes to the larger picture of the role social apps play in society. Sigal writes:
The response in Sri Lanka, from both the government and many residents, suggests some collective ambivalence on the question of whether these platforms can have a net positive effect in a situation of emergency.
This is a markedly different narrative from what seemed dominant just a few years ago, when social media platforms were lauded as a powerful way to coordinate assistance in times of crisis. Facebook's safety check tool even became a subject of controversy when it was not made available to residents of cities like Beirut, in the aftermath of bombings in 2015.
Facebook issued a statement Sunday, to TechCrunch:
Our hearts go out to the victims, their families and the community affected by this horrendous act. 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. We are aware of the government’s statement regarding the temporary blocking of social media platforms. 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.
Sri Lanka remains on edge Monday, as the Times reports, with President Sirisena declaring "a conditional state of emergency that gave the security services sweeping powers to arrest, interrogate, search and seize."
The radical Islamist group National Thowheeth Jama’ath has been blamed for the attacks, and the group itself emerged in 2015 following attacks on Muslims in the Buddhist-majority nation. According to terrorism experts who spoke to the Times, the group is unlikely to have acted alone — the choice of the targets, Catholic churches, and the coordination of the bombings suggest that the group had help from a more experienced terrorist organization outside the country.