Originally appeared on Daily FT
By Aneetha Warusavitarana
In the immediate aftermath of the devastating Easter attacks, one of the first steps taken by the Government was to announce a social media ban. This ban was ostensibly to protect us; the rationale being that this would stop the spread of hate, stop the spread of misinformation and fake news, and prevent the inciting of violence. In the Government’s eyes, this ban was the all-encompassing panacea to these problems.
Was the social media ban effective?
Rumour is a powerful weapon at any given time. In the context of a nation that is wracked with grief and fear it was a veritable weapon of mass destruction. Fear is also one of the most effective drivers of hate. If the objective of a social media ban was to prevent further violence, then in retrospect, the first step the Government should have taken would be to speak to the country addressing the fear that would drive retaliatory violence. Instead, the main method of communication was banned, even before the President or Prime Minister of the country addressed the nation. Effectively, the Government followed the precedent of the CEB, and left the entire country in the dark – with no reassurance that anyone in a decision-making position had a grip on the situation.
In practicality the social media ban was ineffective, as VPNs were immediately downloaded, and people were active on Facebook and WhatsApp. This meant that fear mongering, fake news and hate was prolific. The irony is that if this ban was not in place, the Government would have been able to better monitor and address the slew of fake news.
Does the Government have the mandate to ban social media?
The right to freedom of expression can arguably be curtailed in instances of hate speech. However, if one group of students organise a rally in campus grounds, and this rally is used to spread hate and incite violence against a different group of students, the answer is obviously not to ban rallies on campus grounds. Banning rallies on campus grounds would first, punish a majority for a crime they did not commit, unfairly infringing on their freedom of expression. Secondly, it would not address the problem. Rallies that incite violence are not exclusive to campus grounds – it could simply be organised elsewhere.
This analogy stands for the ban on social media. Banning social media at such a crucial point meant that the Government officially shut down communication lines among individuals, and importantly cut people from an important source of information.
This goes completely against the mandate of the Government. What would have been effective was if the Government maintained clear, open lines of communication with constant, timely updates from verified Government sources. As the ban was ineffective, social media was rife with fake news, and the only effective method to combat it proved to be the counter-sharing of verified news alerts or first-hand reports from credible journalists, which disproved the fake news.
A small but effective group of individuals took up this task, and spent hours sharing verified information and addressing the fake news which incidentally ranged from ‘there’s a tsunami heading this way’ to ‘my neighbour’s aunt’s brother-in-law said that another bomb has gone off’. The Government failing its mandate, restricting the country’s right to expression, and limiting access to information just exacerbated an already volatile situation.
Who deals with the consequences?
A dangerous precedent has now been set. Last year, during riots in Digana, the Government imposed a similar ban on social media. The Government’s first reaction to the Easter Sunday attacks was to re-introduce the ban.
According to the OECD, when the Egyptian Government blocked internet for 5 days in 2011, it cost the national economy $90 million. As the internet was still running in Sri Lanka, we can hope that the economic fallout from this disastrous decision will be less in our case. However, this is important. According to Statista, $88 million was spent on social media advertising in 2018 alone. The social media ban negatively affected the plethora of businesses which use Facebook or Instagram as platforms to run on, of which it is safe to assume that small and medium enterprises would have been hit hard. While Government officials are clamouring to propose plans to revive our tourism, they are silent on this front.
Moving beyond these immediate, short term losses, the long-term consequences are worrying. This ban sends a negative signal to the international community. The Government mismanaged the crisis, to say the least, and the social media ban was the cherry on the top. It is clear that the Government favours this ban in times of crisis, even after the first ban came under criticism and scrutiny. This disregard of individual rights in the face of crisis, the fact the Government clearly has no qualms in compromising these rights, even when they do not translate to increased security or safety is not a message a country wants to send to investors or donors.
The attacks were a national tragedy, and as a country we need to grieve and recover from this. However, once we do, and once a semblance of normalcy returns, the impunity with which the Government blocked social media with complete disregard for individual freedoms is not something we can ignore or forget.