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Authoritarian Tech

Fearing more communal violence, Sri Lanka reinstates a block on social media

For the third time in less than a month and the fourth time in about a year, Sri Lanka has blocked major social media platforms in the wake of communal violence which authorities worry has been inspired by hate speech and fake news posts.

The latest blocks saw the government order a temporary ban on Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and a number of other social media platforms on Monday as a means to counter some of the worst anti-Muslim violence seen in Sri Lanka in the wake of last month’s Easter bombings which killed more than 250 people.

In the latest round of violence, mosques and Muslim-owned businesses in the northwestern Christian-majority town of Chilaw were vandalized or set on fire on Sunday in anger at a Facebook post by a shopkeeper, according to police. While officials have yet to provide more details, Agence France-Press reported that one Muslim man died of stab wounds after he was attacked at his workplace in Puttalam.

Tensions have been high since Islamist militants attacked churches and hotels three weeks ago.

The digital platforms were blocked to prevent “social unrest via hate messages and false information,” Nalaka Kaluwewa, director general of Sri Lanka’s Department of Government Information, told CNN.

On Tuesday morning, Sri Lanka partially lifted a night curfew which had been enforced across the country the day before. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said the government had introduced the curfew to prevent unidentified groups destabilizing Sri Lanka by orchestrating communal violence. Karu Jayasuriya, the speaker of Sri Lanka’s Parliament, took to Twitter and appealed for calm. The future of Sri Lanka “will be decided by the way people behave in the next few days,” he wrote.

Sri Lanka first blocked social media services like Facebook, Facebook Messenger, YouTube, Instagram and WhatsApp for ten days in the aftermath of last month’s attacks in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa. Another temporary ban was introduced on May 5 after inter-ethnic tensions erupted in the city of Negombo.

In 2018, Sri Lanka blocked Facebook and other online services after days of anti-Muslim violence rocked the central district of Kandy.

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