Sri Lanka on Monday temporarily banned social networks Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube and instant messaging apps Snapchat, Viber, WhatsApp, and IMO after a Facebook post sparked attacks on mosques and Muslim-owned businesses across several towns on Sunday.
The move comes three weeks after jihadist bombers killed at least 300 people in the country, sparking fears of sectarian violence against the country’s minority-Muslim population.
On Twitter, Sri Lanka’s largest mobile carrier, Dialog Axiata, confirmed that it had restricted the websites and apps according to a directive from Sri Lanka’s telecom regulator. NetBlocks, a nonprofit organization that tracks internet outages, tweeted that this was the third time in weeks the country had banned social media in the wake of religious tension.
On April 21, Sri Lanka banned social media for 10 days after the Easter Sunday bombings. They did so once again on May 5 after ethnic tensions erupted in the city of Negombo.
“Social media blocked again as a temporary measure to maintain peace in the country,” Nalaka Kaluwewa, director general of Sri Lanka’s government information department, told Reuters.
According to Reuters, the violence on Sunday was sparked after a 38-year-old man posted a Facebook comment: “1 day u will cry,” which was interpreted as a threat. Attackers reportedly attacked a large mosque, dragged a copy of the Qur'an along the ground, and burned two parked motorbikes. They also threw stones at mosques and Muslim-owned shops, according to a report by Al Jazeera.
A Facebook spokesperson issued the following statement to BuzzFeed News:
People rely on our services to communicate with their loved ones and offer help to those in need, and we remain committed to helping our community connect safely during difficult times. There is no place for hate, violent or extremist content on our services, and we are taking all steps to remove content that is violating our policies. This includes working with partners in the region to help identify misinformation that has the potential to contribute to imminent violence, identifying content which violates our policies, and ensuring language support for content review.
Google, YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp, Viber, and IMO did not immediately respond to BuzzFeed News’ requests for comment.
American technology companies like Facebook have been blamed for sparking riots in countries like Sri Lanka by not doing enough to police volatile speech and misinformation on their platforms. Hate groups in Sri Lanka, for instance, have exploited the social network to incite violence and spread misinformation that targets minorities in the country.
Some commentators have praised countries like Sri Lanka for shutting down social media after riots.
But others have argued that banning social media in the country entirely amounts to censorship.
They argue this is especially true because Sri Lankan media is restrictive and tightly controlled, and most citizens depend on social media for news and for communicating with friends and family.
This story was updated with a statement from Facebook.