Part II: Blackouts

Over Easter break, I, like most IS6621 students, causally scrolled through twitter looking for interesting topics to write my blog on.  As of Holy Saturday, I had my topic secured and had a full blog written on the cryptocurrency and its use in environmental green energy.  

On Easter Sunday, a different story conquered social media and due to my latest blog on the social media crisis in Chad, I felt the need to create a part II.  The event was the horrific coordinated bombings in Sri Lanka over Easter Sunday. As of Monday, April 22, the death count was at 320 people and still rising. At least six suicide bombers were involved in six separate attacks on three hotels and three churches.  ISIS has claimed responsibility, but there has been no direct evidence discovered that the group actually coordinated the bombings.

Immediately following the confirmed reports of the bombings, Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe announced a ban of all social media.  The government did disclose some concerns about the spread of misinformation as their statement is as follows: “The decision to block social media was taken as false news reports were spreading through social media.”  

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe additionally addressed the population of Sri Lanka asking them to “please avoid propagating unverified reports and speculation.”

As of Monday, April 22, the ban on social media was still in place in Sri Lanka.  Obviously, the ban has been met with varying opinions and perspectives. Some have called this a necessary move in the wake of confusion and initial panic.  Other have seen this as a condemning indicator of the current state of social media. The praise for the ban was very limited in Sri Lanka however. Many Sri Lankans are currently in a state of blackout, relying on an antiquated government-friendly media for information about friends and families.  

Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, a Colombo-based data and social media researcher, told CNN Business, “”The government block of social media is seen as some kind of positive response to curb Zuckerberg’s empire, instead of what it actually is — an undemocratic knee-jerk reaction that helps spread fear, uncertainty and doubt.”  His criticism is mirrored by Mishi Choudhary, legal director at the Software Freedom Law Center. For Chourdhary, this ban is a denial of open communication, a necessary tool during the time of chaos such as these bombings. Chourdhary claimed “Shutting down social media at such a time when people whose loved ones have died are seeking answers seems selfish and politically motivated.”  

Social media shutdowns have become a major tool in the recent years during various protests and major events in countries.  As I wrote two weeks ago, this is especially prevalent in Africa. Any major event that occurs in a country with the ability to be labelled as “anti-government” activity has been used as a motive in shutting down social media.  With this knee-jerk reaction fairly commonplace in countries of conflict, the negative effects are rarely immediately considered or even worse, accepted. People at ground zero of protests and terrorism are often affected the worst.  Adrian Shahbaz, a researcher at Washington-based Freedom House stated,”shutdowns are a blunt instrument for interrupting the spread of disinformation online. Citizens are denied access to communication tools at a time when they need them the most to dispel rumors, check in with family, or avoid dangerous areas.”  He and many other express the clear concern and issue with a social media ban.

Communication breakdown is one of the biggest issues during a time of conflict or crisis within a country.  Memories of the cell phone blackout on the East Coast during 9/11 are still ingrained in the minds of people with loved ones in the Greater Manhattan area on that fateful day.  The communication blackout of 9/11 was a service malfunction and cell overload, but not a policy enacted by the government. Yet, this inability to communicate left many individuals paralyzed with fear as they feared the worst for their loved ones.  The same is occuring in Sri Lanka right now with the current social media ban, but as a result of government influence.

So what is the right policy?  Banning communication apps seems to be an overstep and potentially dangerous action.  Even with this concern, this has been commonplace in countries of conflict. 21 countries have blocked social media and communication apps in 2017 and 2018.  India is one of the most frequent of these countries. Even with 1.4 billion people, India banned social media and communication apps 60 times in 2018 alone due to various “anti-government” concerns.  Governments often phrase this as a protection of citizens safety. Jan Rydzak, an internet policy expert at Stanford University, has research that suggests otherwise. In a paper published in February 2019, the study found that internet shutdowns and social media blockades in India were responsible for a “ clear increase in violent protest (and) have very ambiguous effects on peaceful demonstrations.”

With this evidence, I leave you to contemplate the question: “When terrorism has created chaos and instability within your country, what policy would you choose to enact for the safety of your citizens?  Would you fully ban all communication and create an internet blackout or enact resources elsewhere in hope of allowing open communication to connect loved ones?”

The answer seems to be somewhere in the grey middle.  And as the future of social media – it seems to be our job to figure that out.

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9 comments

  1. I think there is something to be said for eliminating the opportunity to spread potentially dangerous false information in the midst of an emergency. But of course, banning social media is a slippery slope and certainly has the potential to do more harm than good by cutting off communication. It could be cool if there were bare-bones versions of all the major social media sites that would allow you only to communicate only with your friends and family i.e. blocking news outlets other than government alerts. I’m sure there are plenty of problems with that too, but just a thought.

  2. Ok. Great article post. I understand how social media has enhanced our society. It has enabled firms to grow, built awareness around new sustainability efforts, and allowed news to be available immediately. However, when events such as the one above happen, that is when we need to put limits on social media. If we look back to why SM was created it was for networking and establishing your connections with friends and family. I agree with Caroline. Maybe we need to go back to the original use of it and make sure it stays that way. Is that possible though?

  3. I personally oppose the banning of social media during times of crises. This reminds me a lot of a tragic incident that happened in South Korea five years ago, when the Sewol Ferry sank and killed 300+ high school students and teachers. Communication through online platforms was the only way students were able to say their final words to their families, or let them know that they were rescued. I can’t imagine having to go through an event like this, not knowing if my loved ones are safe. Social media certainly has its flaws with the potential for misinformation, but I believe that its benefits outweigh its cons, especially in a time of crisis.

  4. I’m with Deb on this way – I don’t think banning social media in times of crisis is effective. Facebook often uses a feature that allows users to let their friends know that they are safe during a crisis, and I’ve used it to check on friends during instances like hurricanes, etc., when they might not have cell phone service, but do somehow have internet access.

    I think that there are other ways to limit the spread of fake news, or harmful news – I’m reminded of the New Zealand shooting in March, and the fact that the video was livestreamed on Facebook. The telecom companies decided to block access to certain websites if, and only if, they posted the video and did not take it down.

    Blocking any and all access to a specific channel of communication likely points to other, greater problems. While I applaud Sri Lanka for wanting to limit the spread of fake news, I’m skeptical of how effective a tactic like this is, and concerned that it can lead to bigger censorship problems.

  5. Great post – thank you for continuing to use your posts to focus on this critically important topic. Reading this reminded me a lot of the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013 – at the time, my sister was a freshman at BC. During the manhunt for the Tsarnaevs, the cell phone signals in the area were scrambled, and nobody could place or receive mobile calls. It was extremely difficult to get in touch with my sister to make sure that she was ok (she had been watching from the marathon route with her friends and had said in the morning that they were considering going into the city toward the finish line)- since social media was not nearly as dominant as a means of communication, we eventually resorted to email to check in. I can’t even fathom the psychological effects that a statewide social media ban would have in a similar or worse crisis situation. While I can logically understand the government’s desire to halt the spread of misinformation, I don’t think that blocking social media is the most effective way of doing so – even if people cannot access Facebook or Twitter, they can still very easily see chatrooms, comment sections on news and media sites, and other digital spaces where misinformation is likely to be spawned and repeated. The cumulative effect of the social media ban, then, might simply be slower misinformation (not less), with the additional cost of heightened panic attributable to limited access to true information and information about affected loved ones and friends.

  6. Great post ! I thought you articulated the benefits and drawbacks of each side pretty well ! I personally think that while misinformation can be bad, no information is worse. At least with misinformation people online can correct try correct it. With only one source, I would fear that misinformation is more likely to propagate, especially when that source is not necessarily reliable in the first place. I also think that social media has proven itself extremely valuable in helping with disaster situations previously as it can inform people at a must faster rate than traditional media.

  7. In my opinion, the biggest problem of this move is that there is little to no fallback infrastructure for communication in places like Sri Lanka. If this type of situation were to happen in the US (which it couldn’t due to our freedom of speech rights), people would easily be able to find a landline with which to call people. In places with poor infrastructure, this option doesn’t exist. By removing platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp, the government is taking away major communication methods. Misinformation can definitely create new problems during a crisis, but I agree with Deb that in these types of crises the benefits of these platforms far outweigh the cons.

  8. Really great topic. I have family in Honduras, and social is really the best way to keep in touch with these family members. And it’s become truly the only way to get a semblance of news in times of political confusion. There was a pretty contentious presidential race in 2017, where there were national cries of rigging and corruption favoring the supposed winner that led to nation wide riots and protests. Most of the news I was sourcing from keeping up with twitter, I remember looking for american news coverage on the topic at the time and it was pretty sparse. Social media gave this story, for me anyways, the equitable coverage I thought it deserved and was a good resource to identify what areas were impacted by riots. So I am pretty against these shutdowns. We’ve seen them be misused to much by governments and suppresses the voice of the people.

  9. Great topic and post! I agree with most of the other commenters that I don’t believe a social media ban is ever a good idea. While I understand the intent behind it, no information and no way to communicate to loved ones and get updates of the situation just further spreads the fear and panic that is the intention of these terror attacks in the first place. My uncle lived in New York at the time of 9/11 and my mom still talks about how scary it was to have no way to know if he was okay, so to intentionally remove at times the only way some people have of communicating to their loved ones they they are okay is I believe a mistake.

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