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Facebook blocks could open the door to online censorship

Facebook blocks could open the door to online censorship


‘In that chaos and confusion, people don’t know what to believe’

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Multiple Explosions Hit Sri Lanka On Easter Sunday
Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

On Easter Sunday, in the wake of devastating attacks that killed over 300 people, Sri Lanka shut down a large portion of its internet. President’s secretary Udaya Seneviratne said officials had decided to “temporarily block” sites and apps like Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, and Viber until investigations concluded — something they claimed was a precautionary measure to curb misinformation. In a statement, Seneviratne said that they “decided to temporarily block social media sites,” and planned to reinstate them as soon as investigations into the events were completed.

It’s part of a larger pattern of censorship

It’s part of a larger pattern of censorship and media coercion in Sri Lanka and abroad. The country has spent years blocking news sites, and it shut down social media briefly in 2018 after mob violence broke out against Muslim minority groups. Sri Lanka’s moves against press outlets have been widely condemned, but the social media shutdowns are less controversial. After years of escalating warnings about misinformation running wild on Facebook, shutting the site down in an emergency doesn’t seem so unreasonable. It’s a new understanding of the government’s role online — and for anti-censorship activists, a scary one.

Initial media reactions to Sri Lanka’s shutdown largely focused on the well-established dangers of unmoderated platforms. An article from The Guardian noted that the situation demonstrated how “US-based technology companies’ failure to rein in misinformation, extremism, and incitement to violence has come to outweigh the claimed benefits of social media.” Recode co-founder and New York Times columnist Kara Swisher confessed that when she first heard about the blocks, her reaction was: “Good.”

Not everyone cheered on the decision, but there’s a clear trend toward emergency limits on the flow of information, which worries many activists. “It’s alarming to see the practice of blocking social media become normalized around the world as a policy tool,” says Adrian Shahbaz, research director for technology and democracy at the nonprofit Freedom House, a US organization that conducts research on political freedom and human rights.

“We’re seeing a growing acceptance of broad censorship”

Julie Owono, executive director of Internet Without Borders, agrees: “We’re seeing a growing acceptance of broad censorship as a response to hate and misinformation” — whether through full-scale service shutdowns or regulation.

Censors are responding to real problems: social media has increasingly been “weaponized,” in Owono’s words, to attack minority groups in countries like Myanmar, India, and Sri Lanka. “Two years ago, it was easy to dismiss the justifications of fake news and hate used by repressive regimes, because democracies showed the example by not doing it, and both weren’t that challenging at that time,” she says. “Things are different now: recent legislations in the EU, and the genocide in Myanmar, are giving more confidence to governments worldwide to censor in the name of the fight against ‘fake news’ and hate.”

Concerns over online misinformation have already made it into law in many countries. Sri Lanka isn’t the only country to block Facebook during a crisis. Facebook’s transparency report shows that other countries like Cameroon, Indonesia, and Iran have seen internet disruptions as well, according to a Facebook transparency report. France, Singapore, and Russia have passed laws designed to curb “fake news” on social media. The UK recently proposed a fine on internet platforms that don’t remove harmful content. And after a mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, the government blocked a handful of sites that hosted video of the attack.

Danny O’Brien, international director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, acknowledges that propaganda and misinformation is amplified by social media’s vast scale. “In terms of the sheer numbers of people involved in that, then it’s definitely a sort of quantitative difference,” he says. At the same time, he notes that hatemongers have always taken advantage of mass communication systems, and repressive governments don’t draw a line between harmful misinformation and legitimate criticism.

Now, governments can make these arguments with less fear of international pushback

“The arguments about blocking particular websites or silencing particular voices are always framed in terms of misinformation, counter-terrorism, and protecting the safety of the population,” says O’Brien. Now, governments can make these arguments with less fear of international pushback.

More broadly, however, there is overwhelming evidence that social media blackouts can make the situation worse, leading to increased violence in parts of the world that already struggle with limited media freedom and access to non-state-sponsored news and media resources.

According to Jan Rydzak, Stanford research scholar and associate director of the university’s Global Digital Policy Incubator (GDPi), blackouts are more often than not counterintuitive when implemented as a measure to combat misinformation or prevent riots or violence. “This [mis]information, for one, still travels in the situation of an information vacuum and at the same time, shut downs actually exacerbate or increased levels of violence and not just for a single day, but for several days in a row,” Rydzak said. “In combination with all the other arguments that have been made, if a measure like this, which is draconian in its nature, has this much impact on a society and violates numerous fundamental human rights ... why implement it at all?”

Rydzak said that last year there were nearly 200 instances of internet shutdowns, primarily in India, and that number has been steadily increasing annually with instances occurring around the world. In March, Rydzak compiled one of the largest reports researching the effects of internet shutdowns and discovered that they do little to extinguish the violence and misinformation that governments use them to combat. Extremist groups often circumvent shutdowns by using VPNs, according to BuzzFeed News, and continue to post the false news. In turn, these shutdowns just leave older people and those who don’t know how to use VPNs in the dark.

The Sri Lankan government has a long and tattered history when it comes to press freedom

The Sri Lankan government has a long and tattered history when it comes to press freedom. Journalists have frequently faced intimidation and violence, and the government itself has control of other media resources in the country. Shortly after the Sri Lankan 2015 election of President Maithripala Sirisena, media freedom improved, despite being deeply limited, according to Freedom House. Yet in 2019, Sri Lanka still ranks low on the World Press Freedom Index.

“It’s a media issue rather than a social media issue,” says Shahbaz. “That’s why people feel like they have to go to WhatsApp and Facebook to get the real news. Because they can’t trust what the more traditional forms of media are saying.”

According to, Rydzak, a variety of changes need to be made by platforms and governments in order to stop the spread of misinformation in times of crisis. Content moderation is key, and Rydzak cited a decision from Facebook last summer that limited message forwarding on WhatsApp. These forwarding limits stop the spread of false information by limiting the times one person can send off a message.

Both Rydzak and Shahbaz agreed that digital media literacy education should be more widespread in order to combat misinformation. However, Shahbaz said, “Media literacy is very important, but at the same time, the reason people are so reliant on social media in a lot of these countries is because the traditional media ... is so restricted. The government or other political actors play a very negative role in shaping public discourse.”

But internet freedom groups believe there’s a solution that doesn’t give governments direct control over the web. Last year, the nonprofit Article 19 proposed an independent “Social Media Council” that would make recommendations to platforms based on a charter of ethics. Owono points to a symposium that Internet Without Borders helped organize last year in Cameroon, bringing together government officials, private companies, and local civil society organizations.

False news is difficult to thwart, and experts suggest that one change won’t solve the greater threat at large.“There’s this idea that shut downs are one instrument for interrupting the spread of misinformation, but by cutting off service in such incidents, governments are denying their citizens access to communication tools at a time when they need them most,” Shahbaz said.