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Sri Lanka banned social media again overnight after ethnic tensions in Negombo; ban now lifted

The Sri Lankan government temporarily banned access to social media services again to control the spread of misinformation following ethnic tensions in Negombo, one of the cities targeted in the Easter Sunday bombings last month. However, according to a Sri Lankan government news portal, the ban was lifted this morning: “The temporary ban on social media platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook has already been lifted, Nalaka Kaluwewa Director General of the Government Information Department announced short while ago.” Internet monitoring site Netblocks had confirmed at 10:30 pm last night that social media services Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, YouTube, and messaging services Messenger, WhatsApp, and Viber were inaccessible. The social media ban lasted a little over 10 hours this time, and access was restored at 8:45 am today.

Sri Lanka had earlier banned access to social media to control misinformation after the Easter Sunday bombings, and lifted the ban after 10 days on April 30th. The government did not block VPN services in last night’s social media ban. Further, other services including Twitter, Telegram, and less prominent social media platforms were available. NetBlocks reports that internet providers Sri Lanka Telecom, Dialog Axiata, Mobitel, Airtel, Etisalat, and Hutchison were each implementing the restrictions, with filtering implemented at the ISP level. There were minor variations in implementation of the ban, with Snapchat and some of the CDN backend servers used by mobile apps remaining available on some providers. Some things to note:

1. Can Sri Lankans expect more social media bans? Though this would be mere speculation at this point, the government blocked social media access following violence in Negombo, a Catholic-majority city and one of the six sites attacked in the Easter Sunday bombings that killed 257 people, per Al Jazeera. Curfew was imposed in the city following ethnic tensions between Sinhalese and Muslims, in which vehicles were burned.

2. 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.

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3. Misinformation did spread after the Easter Sunday bombings: It’s worth noting 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 rumours that the water supply was poisoned. More on the misinformation that spread here.

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