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Why Sri Lanka’s social media ban won’t help

  • Published at 12:04 am April 24th, 2019
Social Media
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The ban may serve to hide the truth about what is happening

Sri Lanka has temporarily banned social media and messaging apps in the wake of the coordinated Easter Sunday attacks on churches and hotels across the country, which killed at least 290 people.

The ban is ostensibly to stop the spread of misinformation -- and the move feeds into the wider debate about how Facebook and other platforms are used to incite violence and spread hate speech.

In Myanmar, for example, Facebook was heavily criticized for allowing groups to use its pages to incite violence against the Rohingya community. In New Zealand, it came under fire after it was used to live-stream the Christchurch massacre.

But in Sri Lanka, as in many other countries, Facebook and social media platforms generally have created a positive space for public conversation that did not exist before.

The country has a long history of censoring the press, by killing journalists, blocking websites, and using draconian laws to fine and imprison reporters. The media that remained was divided by language and geography -- there were no outlets used and trusted equally by the Sinhala-speaking majority in the south and west of the country and the Tamil speaking minority in the north and east.

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.

During, and indeed after, the country’s long civil war there have been few opportunities for young adults from different communities to talk to one other and exchange views. Facebook and Twitter were beginning to provide a space for this. Websites such as Groundviews also publish citizen journalism from across the island, and have used social media to reach audiences within Sri Lanka and overseas.

The biggest division in the country is a linguistic one between the Sinhalese, who are mainly Buddhist, and the Tamils, who are mainly Hindu. Muslims and Christians can speak either or both languages.

The various groups have a long history of conflict and it is difficult to create a simple narrative of villains and victims. Nevertheless, social media offered a way for the various communities to build bridges between one another.

By shutting down social media, leaving its citizens reliant on state messaging and a weak and beaten down form of journalism, the government now risks preventing Sri Lankans from finding out the truth about what is happening in their fragile and delicately balanced country.

And that can only lead to suspicion and division, presumably the very thing the perpetrators of the Easter Sunday atrocity wanted. 

Meera Selva is the director at the Journalism Fellowship Program, RISJ, University of Oxford. A version of this article previously appeared on The Conversation UK.