How Sri Lanka Shut Social Media Out of the Country

And why such censorship efforts usually backfire

NNot long ago, social media giants like Twitter and Facebook were soaking up praise for playing an essential role in supporting democratic revolutions in the Middle East. But less than a decade later, these same platforms are now widely derided as hotbeds of hate speech and disinformation, so much so that even some prominent tech journalists are supporting one country’s decision to temporarily ban social media sites.

After more than 300 people were killed in a series of coordinated bombings last weekend, the Sri Lankan government moved to do just that, starting with a temporary ban on Facebook. In a statement, the Sri Lankan Defense Ministry proclaimed that the internet blockade would remain intact for the duration of the investigation. In a separate statement, Udaya Seneviratne, secretary to the Sri Lankan president, said access to social media services had been restricted in the wake of the attacks to counter “false news reports.”

The country is no stranger to employing such restrictions in the wake of violence. Last March, Sri Lankan authorities demanded that ISPs block access to Facebook and the company’s other services after members of the majority Sinhalese ethnic group launched a series of brutal attacks against Muslims in the city of Kandy. The country’s government has frequently criticized Facebook for doing too little to rein in disinformation and hate speech directed by Sinhalese nationalist groups against the country’s minority Muslim population.

There’s not much data to suggest that banning access to platforms would solve the underlying issues driving these problems.

But data from NetBlocks, a London-based digital rights group, indicates that this latest Sri Lankan ban goes much further, targeting not only Facebook and subsidiaries like Instagram and WhatsApp, but also additional services including YouTube. NetBlocks told OneZero that Sri Lankan ISPs are using domain name server (DNS)–level bans to render the sites and services inaccessible.

While Facebook’s role as an amplifier for hate speech and disinformation has plagued numerous countries, including the United States, the problem is compounded in many developing nations, where Facebook isn’t just a website, but a direct conduit to the internet itself. In many of these nations, Facebook offers a restricted version of the internet known as its Free Basics program. In partnership with local mobile providers, Free Basics provides low-income users free access to a curated collection of Facebook-approved content. Users often conflate this service with the internet itself, a practice that has come under fire from activists for distorting the open internet and amplifying already problematic hate speech and disinformation.

Absent more elegant solutions to these problems, tech journalists like Kara Swisher applauded the Sri Lankan government’s decision to ban these platforms, insisting that Silicon Valley giants have become, in her words, “incapable of controlling the powerful global tools they have built.” But while it’s true that Silicon Valley giants have failed to effectively predict and police the rise of hate speech and disinformation on their platforms, there’s not much data to suggest that banning access to them solves the underlying issues driving these problems.

A report last year by Human Rights Watch, for example, found that while South Asian governments had the highest rate of internet shutdowns in 2018, “there remains no substantive data or evidence to prove that internet shutdowns can scale down violence.” And while banning these platforms outright may feel like a productive solution, bypassing such restrictions can often be trivial for bad actors, defeating the entire purpose.

Such blockades usually rely on ISPs blocking either a website’s URL or its DNS record, but both can be circumvented with a virtual private network (VPN). Some Sri Lankans noted that while disinformation operators may have little trouble using VPNs to bypass the ban, the less tech-savvy members of the public — those who could actually benefit from access to news via social media — may be unable to get around the restrictions.

Alp Toker of NetBlocks told OneZero that such government-mandated blockades may actually make the underlying problems worse.

“In our experience, tracking more than 60 social media and internet shutdowns over the last four years, we’ve observed that far from reducing harm, restricting internet access can actually amplify disinformation,” Toker said. “Once authentic voices are gone, there’s a vacuum that’s readily filled by those who seek to spread false narratives. Troublemakers invariably have better technical capabilities, and we’ve seen them turn blackouts to their advantage almost every time a nation goes offline, through use of VPNs and social media bots. When you switch off communications, the adversary ends up owning your narrative.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, similarly warned that such restrictions are a slippery slope, especially for governments already inclined to censor legitimate speech.

“When governments block internet speech, they are suppressing free expression, the sharing of ideas, and ability to communicate and connect with loved ones — essential human rights,” an EFF spokesperson told OneZero. “Legitimate concerns about misinformation and manipulation are often misconstrued or distorted to entrench the power of established voices and stifle dissent.”

“When governments block internet speech, they are suppressing free expression, the sharing of ideas, and ability to communicate and connect with loved ones — essential human rights.”

None of this is to suggest that social media giants aren’t culpable for the toxic vitriol and information gamesmanship now plaguing their platforms. Shortly after last year’s riots in Sri Lanka, the New York Times noted that despite Facebook being the primary online portal for many in the country, the company had done virtually nothing to address the problem.

(In response to a question from OneZero, a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement, “Our hearts go out to the victims, their families and the community affected by this horrendous act. Teams from across Facebook have been working to support first responders and law enforcement as well as to identify and remove content which violates our standards. We are aware of the government’s statement regarding the temporary blocking of social media platforms. People rely on our services to communicate with their loved ones and we are committed to maintaining our services and helping the community and the country during this tragic time.”)

Many technologists have been quick to argue that moderating such platforms at scale is difficult if not impossible, especially in foreign countries with complex cultures and histories — though it has become increasingly clear that, for years, many of Silicon Valley’s self-proclaimed innovation giants weren’t even really trying.

While censoring these platforms may seem like an obvious answer, in reality there are multiple overlapping issues at play, none of which have easy answers. Facebook’s domination of local advertising in the United States, for example, has helped erode quality local reporting, something data suggests has made the public less informed and more divided than ever. Similarly, its often cavalier treatment of private consumer data has led to misuse by political operatives in the United States and abroad, as journalist Carole Cadwalladr argued in a recent TED Talk.

None of the solutions will be easy. Banning these platforms may be an understandable response in the face of platform apathy, but it doesn’t address the underlying problems — problems created in part by modern internet giants with more ambition than common sense, often wielding incredible power in cultures they only fleetingly understand.

Seattle-based freelance writer with a focus on tech, tech policy, and consumer rights.

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