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Authoritarian Tech

In the aftermath of Easter Sunday’s attacks, researchers criticize Sri Lanka’s block on social media

In the four days since more than 320 people died in a series of coordinated Easter attacks which targeted churches and luxury hotels in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa, the response of authorities in Sri Lanka has been characterized by initial wariness, blame and then control.

Initial reports suggested national intelligence agencies had been warned about the attacks, which have been blamed on a radical Islamist group called National Thowheeth Jama’ath. The reports also opened a political crisis between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe over allegations the latter had been kept in the dark. Earlier today, Sri Lanka’s minister of state for defense told parliament the attacks were a response to last month’s mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Aside from enforcing a temporary curfew which lifted on Tuesday, one of the government’s first responses was to block social media services like Facebook, Facebook Messenger, YouTube, Instagram and WhatsApp. A statement from President Sirisena’s office said that “the decision to block social media was taken as false news reports were spreading through social media.” (The block does not currently extend to Twitter).

In the nearly four days since services like WhatsApp, Facebook and its Messenger app were blocked, many Sri Lankan users have managed to circumvent the temporary ban by using virtual private networks, which can be easily installed on phones, laptops and tablets. According to researchers, Facebook is Sri Lanka’s most popular social media platform, with 6-7 million users and a growth rate of around 300-400,000 per year.

According to Yudhanjaya Wijeratnem, a researcher at LIRNEasia, a regional think tank, fake news posts have spread with ease on Facebook and WhatsApp since social media services were blocked on Sunday. Rumors have included hoax warnings about a further attack, wild allegations of contaminated drinking water as well as claims that anyone caught using a VPN will be arrested by police.

“Unless you are prepared to build a great firewall and spend millions of dollars like China, blocking social media is not the answer,” said Wijeratnem. “In a country like Sri Lanka, which has a long history of cracking down on the press, social media is a democratic force and not the simplistic narrative we sometimes read about elsewhere. The Sri Lankan government’s shutdown of Facebook is undemocratic and not really effective.”

Sri Lanka’s decision to tackle false news means the country joins the group of nations who seek to regulate digital spaces. Earlier this month, Australia passed the Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material bill which cracks down on violent videos on social media. Later this year, Singapore is rolling out a new anti-fake news law which will allow authorities to remove articles which are considered in breach of government regulations. Critics worry the law’s loose definition of “fake news” is open to abuse.

Sri Lanka has sought to control social media during previous chapters of violence—last year, the government temporarily blocked Facebook and other online services after days of anti-Muslim violence in the central district of Kandy saw clashes between the country’s mostly Sinhalese majority and police. The government blamed hardline Buddhist groups who were alleged to have transported supporters to Kandy to fuel the violence.

Wijeratne said the government’s previous blocking of social media had already been shown to be ineffective. In his research on the ban during the March 2018 anti-Muslim violence, Wijeratne said he found Facebook activity only decreased to January-February pre-violence levels.

“There are at least theoretically or conceptually, reasons why blocks don’t work,” said Sanjana Hattotuwa, a communications expert and founder of Sri Lanka’s first citizen journalism website, Groundviews. “Blocks don’t work for a number of reasons; they strengthen the very news they were intended to contain or control. In the context of Sri Lanka, given the bitter experience we have had with censorship of the media and dictatorial rule, those who somehow circumvent social media blocks, continue to do so. Those who push back on rumor and strengthen truth telling and truth seeking and maintain civil discourse, we are at a disadvantage.”

We would also like to draw your attention to a recent story we published in Coda’s Authoritarian Tech section, about two Saudi sisters who have fled the kingdom and have issued a message to Apple and Google about the use of a controversial app called Absher.

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