After coordinated Easter Sunday bombings of churches and hotels in Sri Lanka killed at least 290 people, the Sri Lankan government quickly did what many governments now do in times of crisis — it cited the threat of misinformation and temporarily shut down social media.
Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, and Viber were among the platforms temporarily blocked by the government. But though commentators and journalists everywhere from the New York Times to the Guardian suggested the decision was a direct consequence of Facebook's failure to curb the spread of misinformation, or even praised the government's decision to censor the internet, there is overwhelming evidence that social media blackouts are not an effective solution to the spread of fabricated information in Sri Lanka.
For one thing, the country has a long history of heavy-handed media controls, and journalists have routinely faced violence and intimidation over their work. This means many Sri Lankans rely on social media for up-to-date information, including posts that debunk false claims circulated on both social and traditional media.
Pressure on journalists had somewhat let up since President Maithripala Sirisena entered office in 2015. But when a constitutional crisis broke out last fall, supporters of the country’s former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, seized control of state newspapers and stormed the offices of a state-owned TV station, temporarily forcing them off the air.
The events were a reminder of the fragility of freedom of information in Sri Lanka — a right that is now being threatened once more by the government's decision to block Facebook.
"Media in Sri Lanka is owned by a literal handful of people, all tightly interwoven into the political fabric," Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, a data scientist and public policy researcher based in Colombo, told BuzzFeed News. "When the Constitutional crisis happened last October, news channels were the first thing they went for. I was right next to a certain station when its lights went off just as the coup was happening."
"We received the news via WhatsApp and Twitter a full 15 minutes before it went on live TV," he added.
Sri Lanka has said a little-known Islamist militant group is responsible for the bombings and police have arrested 24 people, though no group has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Facebook has come under heavy fire in Sri Lanka, as well as in countries from Myanmar to South Sudan, for doing too little to curb the spread of dangerous misinformation, including content inciting violence. BuzzFeed News found last year that researchers and activists in Sri Lanka had tried to inform Facebook that posts from extremists could spark communal violence from as early as 2014, and the platform did little in response. Extremists on Facebook inflamed ethnic tensions ahead of anti-Muslim riots and arson attacks in the country last year.
Facebook said this week it is working with law enforcement authorities in Sri Lanka to remove content violating the platform's rules.
But in Sri Lanka, a fragile political system, deep-rooted tensions between ethnic groups and social fissures left over from nearly three decades of civil war are problems that far predate social media. Sri Lankan technologists, journalists, and activists say some American commentators have centered Facebook in a discussion of violence with far more complex causes.
VPN use is also widespread in Sri Lanka, tech researchers say, which means well-organized extremist groups will have no problem getting around the blocks and continuing to spread disinformation. Meanwhile, those without the funds or the technical know-how to access VPNs are the ones who will feel the effects of the ban.
"The extremist groups are IT savvy; many of them have turned on VPNs," Nalaka Gunawardene, a technology writer and analyst, said in an interview last year. "It's the average social media user who is unable to connect.”
Independent media organizations like Groundviews, whose writers regularly flag and correct misinformation spreading in Sri Lanka, also rely on social media to disseminate their work.
Sri Lanka briefly blocked social media platforms after the riots last year, which targeted Muslim-run businesses, mosques, and homes. Facebook sent a delegation to the country in response, and the ban was lifted after a few days.
Internet shutdowns, particularly in times of crisis, have become increasingly routine around the world, and governments have frequently cited the specter of misinformation or "fake news" as justification for this measure. In Zimbabwe, the government blocked the internet in January amid a violent crackdown on protesters. And in India, there were more than 100 reports of internet shutdowns in 2018 alone.
Governments often do this as an emergency measure, without any legislative process or outside oversight. Digital freedom advocates say internet shutdowns don't necessarily address the problem of misinformation and violate people's rights to freedom of speech.
"Internet shutdowns don't help solve a violent situation. They only accentuate the strife of the innocent caught in the violence and take away their basic human right to communicate," Naman Aggarwal, Asia policy associate for Access Now, told BuzzFeed News after Sri Lanka's social media shutdown last year.
Facebook and WhatsApp, which are overwhelmingly popular in the country, are also used by people to communicate with their loved ones. Some Sri Lankans have said the blocks made it difficult or impossible to find out whether their friends and family were safe during a terrifying day.