As news broke Sunday that multiple blasts in Sri Lanka had killed and injured hundreds, the country's officials announced that social media would be blocked to avoid the spread of rumors and disinformation.
Facebook and Instagram were among the platforms temporarily shut down, according to the Sri Lankan government news portal. Websites that track blocked platforms said the ban extended to Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Snapchat, and Viber.
Netblocks, a non-profit organization that tracks internet outages, tweeted that 24 hours after the bombings the social media channels remained down. A VPN called TunnelBear that could help circumvent the ban has also been blocked.
A statement from the Sri Lankan president's office posted to the country's official news website said that "the decision to block social media was taken as false news reports were spreading through social media." It's unclear how long the ban will last, but authorities said it will be in effect until the investigation is done.
Officials made 24 arrests following the bombings so far, but haven't released names of any suspects. The international investigation is ongoing.
But online, there was widespread speculation about the person or group behind the bombings.
News outlets published names of suspects that had not been verified by officials. One video that named a man in connection with the bombings, and showed a photograph, received hundreds of thousands of views across Twitter and YouTube.
Websites that used years-old photos with incendiary headlines to promote those same names contributed to the spread of unverified information. Rumours also spread on WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.
Sri Lanka’s Minister of Defense, and other officials, asked reporters to not publicize any potential names of the suspects to avoid inflaming tensions.
Sanjana Hattotuwa, a senior researcher at the Centre for Policy Alternatives, told BuzzFeed News over email that a ban on social media could be effective in the short term, "but depends on how much they ban or block.” Hattotuwa also confirmed that both Twitter and Facebook “are proactively monitoring their respective platforms.”
Twitter did not respond to questions about the social media ban or whether the company is taking proactive steps in fighting online disinformation. “We have no comment and nothing to share,” a spokesperson for the company told BuzzFeed News. YouTube did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
In a statement emailed to BuzzFeed News, a Facebook spokesperson said that teams were "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,” the Facebook spokesperson said.
In the past, Facebook has been accused of inaction by activists and academics when its platform was used to incite anti-Muslim violence. Officials were forced to cut off access to the website in 2018 because of the violent content it helped spread.
Sri Lanka also has a history of controlling the media. Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, a Sri Lankan researcher and author, told BuzzFeed News in an email that social media is essential when governments control the message.
"Social media remains a vital force for the democratization of information, for evading government censorship — filling a greater role than the blogosphere used to do in 2004 or so," he said. "This is not to say it is a force entirely for the good. Hate speech spreads, and Facebook has been utterly terrible at countering it here."
In the past, Wijeratne studied over 60,000 Facebook posts to understand whether a social media block imposed by the government in 2018 was effective. Ultimately, he found that it wasn't.
"Not only did people circumvent it in a flash, anecdotal evidence suggests it did significant damage to tourism and e-commerce, both of which rely on Facebook ads," he said.
Wijeratne added that social media remained one of the best ways for worried friends and family members to check in after the attack and get ongoing information.
Officials maintain that they are worried about the sowing of divisions following the attacks, which come nearly ten years after a violent, decades-long civil war between the Tamil Tigers, a separatist militant organization, and the Sri Lankan government. It's estimated that 70,000 people were killed during that conflict, which ended in 2009. But the violence in the country has largely subsided since then.
In a statement, Minister of Finance Mangala Samaraweera said the attacks are "a diabolical attempt to create racial and religious tensions in this country yet again, thereby pulling the country backwards." He called on Sri Lankans to unite, and thwart "this heinous attempt to drag our country back into the dark past."
"You have to understand the magnitude of this incident," Wijeratne said. "Colombo is really the one true city on this island — and even then it's a tiny place. And these bombs went off in the heart of the city."