Theme: National Security
More than 200 people were killed and hundreds more were injured in nine bombs on Easter Sunday 2019 in Sri Lanka, the country experiencing its bloodiest violence since a terrible civil war ended there 10 years ago.
After Easter Sunday assaults on churches and hotels left hundreds of people dead, Sri Lankan authorities turned off most social media, a drastic response that reflects growing mistrust in the ability of American internet corporations to police damaging content.
The government’s official news portal made the announcement of the block on social media, citing the proliferation of “fake news stories” online, including Facebook and its WhatsApp and Instagram services.
Officials feared that the spread of disinformation may lead to additional carnage in Sri Lanka, an island nation with a majority of Buddhists that also has sizable minority of Hindus, Muslims, and Christians as well as a long history of interethnic and interreligious strife.
Social media had previously been prohibited in Sri Lanka. Because of worries that WhatsApp and other platforms were being used to incite anti-Muslim violence in the country’s central area, the government enacted a weeklong ban in March 2018.
The government of Sri Lanka announced that the ban would continue until the investigation into the bombings that rocked churches, opulent hotels, and other locations was completed.
The action, according to writer Kara Swisher, was “a pre-crime measure, if you will, and a dramatic one, given much essential information in that nation travels through these platforms.” Kara Swisher has previously accused social media companies of “weaponizing civic discourse.”
Others worry that the government would decide on the spur of the moment to halt the free flow of information online, particularly in Sri Lanka where there is a history of media censorship.
However, there were spread of disinformation after the attack circulating throughout the social media. For instance, multiple posts on Facebook and Twitter have shared photos that they claim show one of the suicide bombers responsible for the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka in April 2019. The claim is false; the man circled in the photos is actually a Malaysian Muslim preacher who was arrested in Malaysia a week after the Sri Lanka attacks over an unrelated case.
The photo can be seen in this April 28, 2019 post on Facebook, where they have been shared more than 3,300 times.
The caption says: “Sri Lanka suicide bomber with Zakir Naik.”
Photo: The caption says: “Sri Lanka suicide bomber with Zakir Naik.”
But the claim is false; the man circled in the photos is not one of the Sri Lanka suicide bombers.
A reverse image search on Yandex and keyword searches enabled AFP to establish the man circled in the photos is actually Malaysian Muslim preacher Zamri Vinoth.
|Prime actors: Sri Lankan GovernmentSecondary actors: Social media users||Intent: suggests aspersive intent||I. Sri Lankan authorities blocked most social media services in the country following the Easter Sunday attacks stating they are doing so to curtail the spread of false information and ease tensions.II. Furthermore, disinformation regarding the suicide bombers spread on social media.Truthfulness:I. The ban did not have any impact rather was restrictive of freedom of expression online. II. The dis-informative content was forged and faked.||Target audience: Sri-Lankan populationPlatforms: Social media – Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram.||Human rights:Right to information, freedom of expression.|
ABCDE Framework Analysis:
Actor: The actors were the Sri Lankan authorities and defence ministry imposing a ban on social media in the name of stopping spread of disinformation and national security. In case of the disinformation relating to the suicide bombers, it was social media users who initiated the same.
Behaviour: The Sri Lankan government—in an approach it had also taken with prior incidents of violence and communal unrest—decided to temporarily shut down social media platforms. They argued that these platforms could be used to spread disinformation and perhaps, even facilitate the planning of further attacks.3 Affected services were Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, as well as messaging applications like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. In addition, network data showed that the associated backend servers of each platform were blocked by some providers.
The content on suicide bombers were created to mislead and deceive people.
Content: The social media shutdown was more harmful than helpful, making the events on the ground and the government response less transparent, making it harder to keep those in power accountable.
The content on suicide bombers carried the element of harm in terms of right to information.
Degree: The content ban was targeted against the Sri Lankan population in general and Social media platforms were blocked and used.
Effect: The content ban and the content on suicide bombers violate right to information and freedom of expression.
Diagnosis: The first case has been identified as influence operation and the second case has been identified as disinformation.
While there is no questioning the fact that social media networks are used to spread misinformation, they are also crucial communication platforms for families desperate to check on relatives.
Dr Claire Wardle, an academic who founded First Draft, a non-profit organisation that researches misinformation, told the BBC: “While it’s understandable to want to do something after such a serious event, evidence from the impact of social media shutdowns in other contexts show that they don’t have the impact people expect.”
The increasing use of social media platforms in Sri Lanka—especially Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp groups—means that any disruption in their service has impacts not just for journalists and writers, but citizens as well.