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Sri Lanka lifts social media ban after 10 days; some issues

Sri Lanka’s president yesterday ordered the “immediate” lifting of the country-wide social media ban which was imposed 10 days ago in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings. The Sri Lankan government has urged the general public to be responsible while sharing information on social media. Internet monitoring site Netblocks.org confirmed that access to all services was fully restored yesterday; access first returned on leading internet providers including Dialog Axiata, Sri Lanka Telecom, and Mobitel, followed by others.

The government confirmed that Facebook, WhatsApp, Viber, and YouTube were banned “taking into consideration the security concerns which remained high” after the attacks which resulted in the death of an estimated 290 people. The ban was brought in as “false news reports were spreading through social media”; it said the blockage will be in effect until investigations into the attack concluded.

Some notes on the social media ban

1. The government was going to lift it on the sixth day: On the sixth day of the ban, some internet providers in Sri Lanka briefly lifted the ban and reinstated it. According to Netblocks, the president changed his mind about ending the temporary ban and considered banning the platforms permanently. MediaNama cannot confirm this independently.

2. The Sri Lanka government also blocked some VPN services: On the fourth day of the ban, Netblocks noted a wave of new VPN restrictions apparently targeted to those trying to circumvent the ban. Only a few other nations including Bahrain, Iran, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and UAE among others restrict VPN services. VPN usage is common among journalists and in consulting and financial sectors since they offer enhanced security and privacy.

3. The ban was preemptive, was ordered before any social media violence was known to have occurred.

4. Misinformation did spread between the bombing and the ban: Its worth noting, however, that right after the bombings, there was widespread speculation online about who the perpetrators were although the Sri Lanka officials had not named any suspects and no group had claimed responsibility for the attacks. Many observers say inaccurate information shared on social media after last week’s attacks risks inflaming tensions in the country, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists. A day after the bombings, panic spread in several towns after rumors that water supply was poisoned. More on the misinformation that spread here.

“The gravity of the situation is such that people are understanding of the ban, but the question is, how long will it go on?” Sinha Ratnatunga, editor of The Sunday Times, told CPJ.

5. The impact, whether effectiveness or harm, of the social media ban is unknown and not measurable: There is no accurate way to know whether a social media ban is effective in achieving its intended goal: controlling the spread of misinformation. In fact, Sri Lanka’s ban on Facebook in March 2018 was ineffective in restricting access as people simply used VPN services.

6. Blanket social media bans are disproportionate: The first reaction by several governments world-over to an attack or emergent situation is to block access to the internet, especially social media websites, to prevent the spread of misinformation. While this is done for safety, it also forfeits the opportunity to counter rumours through reliable, verified speech. A total shutdown of social media to internet services restricts everyone including for example, public requests for blood donors, fundraising for those in need of help, and allowing friends and family to check on each others safety.

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7. Journalists, and hence information dispensation suffers: Netblocks noted a particular impact to journalists and media workers who rely on the internet and on safe and secure communications platforms to do their job,”. Journalists in Sri Lanka did use VPNs to circumvent the block.

8. People are unable to check on the safety of their families and friends:

Concerns have been raised over the impact to citizens’s ability to communicate and impart information in the midst of crisis. Many Sri Lankan internet users are complaining about difficulty checking up on friends and family following the attacks.
Netblocks.org, immediately after the ban

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MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.

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