Banning social media is not an option

Illustration of a forbidden signal with hash tag

Illustration of a forbidden signal with hash tag

Following the terror attacks on multiple sites on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka , it was commendable to see the country’s leaders take responsibility for the tragedy and the failure of the state in protecting its citizens, especially since no one in India has taken responsibility for recent attacks, including in Pulwama in February. The Sri Lankan leaders also went a step further. On April 28, in a fine gesture of unity, which is absent in the polarised polity of India, President Maithripala Sirisena from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, Prime Minister Ranil Wickermesinghe from the United National Party, and Opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa from the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna attended a Mass led by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo.

A strategy learnt from India

However, what the Sri Lankan authorities did not do right was to ban social media. Daniel Funke and Susan Benkelman, researchers at Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network and the American Press Institute’s Accountability Project, point out that turning off the Internet has become the Indian government’s favoured strategy to slow the spread of misinformation. They say that Sri Lanka has borrowed that strategy from India. According to a Freedom House study, ‘ The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism ’, India leads the world in the number of Internet shutdowns, with over 100 reported incidents in 2018 alone.

I am no fan of social media; I am a critic of platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat. But my criticism of these platforms flows from their inability to deliver when required and their reluctance to accept that they are publishing companies. I have argued that they need to follow the rules that govern media houses because a substantial amount of information flow is now determined by these platforms. It is also true that these platforms contribute to the amplification of fake news. But that does not mean that the problem will disappear if these platforms are banned.

Meera Selva, Director of the journalism fellowship programme at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford, explains that Sri Lanka has a “long history of censoring the press, by killing journalists, blocking websites and using draconian laws to fine and imprison reporters”. She draws our attention to the fact that the country’s media remains largely divided by language and geography. She points out that there are no outlets that are used and trusted equally by the Sinhala-speaking majority in the south and west, and the Tamil-speaking minority in the north and east.

She writes: “Social media, therefore, became a way to share stories and comment on current affairs. This hasn’t always been positive — it has also been used to spread ethnic and religious chauvinism, echoing the language used by politicians and mainstream media over the decades. Nevertheless, it has been crucial for promoting intra-ethnic dialogue in Sri Lanka.” Ms. Selva argues that by shutting down social media, “the government now risks preventing Sri Lankans from finding out the truth about what is happening in their fragile country”.

Social media can be useful

Disinformation is indeed a menace. For instance, the international news agency AFP published a story headlined, “ No, this is not a photo of the youngest victim of the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka ”. Its fact-check team not only proved that the claim was false, but also established that the image was posted online nearly a year prior to the April 21 attacks. It is in this context that Sanjana Hattotuwa’s observation gains credence. Mr. Hattotuwa, an expert on digital media, told the BBC that as time goes on, the ban could actually hinder the useful role that social networks could play. “The longer the block is in place, the more debilitating it becomes for families grieving in this unprecedented time to communicate with each other,” he said.

Banning social media is an easy option, indeed a lazy one, that leaves no room for innovative approaches in crisis management.

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Printable version | Jun 5, 2022 2:56:17 am |