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Turning the Tap Off: The Impacts of Social Media Shutdown After Sri Lanka’s Easter Attacks

Turning the Tap Off: The Impacts of Social Media Shutdown After Sri Lanka’s Easter Attacks
5th March 2021 Dr. Amarnath Amarasingam

This blog post is a summary of key findings from research published by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism as part of wider project on mitigating the impact of media reporting on terrorism, funded by the European Commission’s DG DEVCO.

On Easter Sunday 2019, eight coordinated explosive devices went off at popular hotels and historical churches across Sri Lanka, resulting in the death of more than 250 people. Soon after, Islamic State (IS) claimed the attacks.

In the immediate aftermath, the Sri Lankan government decided to temporarily shut down social media platforms. They argued that these platforms could be used to spread disinformation and perhaps, even facilitate the planning of further attacks on citizens. Affected services were Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, as well as messaging applications like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

In March 2018, the Sri Lankan government also temporarily restricted access to social media platforms after the Kandy riots. Since then, the Sri Lankan government has blocked key social media platforms on three separate occasions. A primary reason for the shutdown cited by the government was to limit the spread of fake news and misinformation online, particularly narratives targeting the Muslim community. The role of social media in spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories in Sri Lanka, which often spurred on this kind of communal violence, is not new. Online platforms have played a particularly harmful role in amplifying this sentiment and causing retaliatory violence in the country.

The spread of disinformation and incitement of violence via social media has been well documented and many of the journalists we spoke with do agree that harmful information has not only been spread online, but has also produced real violence offline. WhatsApp and Facebook have previously been used by Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists and extremist groups like the Bodu Bala Sena to galvanise supporters, rile up communal sentiment, and spark several episodes of violence. Some of our respondents noted that communal violence in Sri Lanka far predates social media platforms, and that simply blocking social media is not a quick fix to what are, at base, historical and structural issues.

When user-generated information over social media started to dry up, it had a major impact on receiving stories, verifying and fact-checking incidents, and reporting on them in usual ways. Journalists noted that they routinely used a wide-ranging network of colleagues on social media to piece together an authentic news story. This is a common practice in Sri Lanka, as the mainstream media is often heavily influenced by government interests and interference. While social media is often framed as a site where terrorism and violent extremism is fostered through disinformation, social media platforms also allow independent journalists to hold state-influenced news organisations accountable. As such, user-generated content directly from the ground is enormously valuable to Sri Lankan journalists.

The shutdown posed substantial challenges for journalists, academics, and activists who are dependent on social media platforms for accurate information. As such, shutdowns can come with social costs as the spread of accurate information, produced by journalists and researchers, is limited and is presented along with misinformation.

Following the March 2018 shutdown, in order to tackle this, all respondents noted that they became quite adept at using virtual private networks (VPNs). This workaround, which became commonplace after the Kandy riots, ensured that the blockage following the Easter attacks a year later did not have the same impact on the flow of information.

The use and reliance on VPNs in case of a government social media shutdown do not, however, limit the spread of misinformation nor improve public digital hygiene. Therefore, the government should support civil society and other groups that educate the public on misinformation and disinformation and establish best practices to perform their own verification checks. Post-incident misinformation and disinformation does not spread in a void, but rather, in a media culture without strong media ethics, freedom of the press, and fact verification.

Currently, only a minority of social media users are aware of the increasing amount of misinformation that they are exposed to daily. All of our respondents called for the creation of a stronger fact-checking culture amongst journalists and the public. This needs to be supplemented with important changes in media culture as well—pushing back against government control of the news, not reporting viral social media posts as if they are factual news stories, and being cognisant of how certain stories are being used by extremist groups in the country to bring about violence against minority communities. This broader shift in media culture would also reduce the proliferation of misinformation and hatemongering in the aftermath of crises.

Amarnath Amarasingam is an Assistant Professor in the School of Religion at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, an Associate Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, and an Associate Fellow at the Global Network on Extremism and Technology.

Rukshana Rizwie is a journalist and editor based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. She is presently the News Editor at the Daily News, which is Sri Lanka’s national daily newspaper.