Freedom of information — online and off — isn’t something that only Western countries deserve.
The citizens of Sri Lanka are suffering through an unspeakable tragedy this week, as more than 300 people were killed in multiple terror attacks on Easter Sunday. Yet on Monday, much of the conversation centered around the Sri Lankan government’s decision to block Facebook, WhatsApp, and Google services in response to the attacks, saying the companies are responsible for sowing misinformation and that their use could lead to more violence.
In what is an emblematic shift in how the public views internet censorship, instead of protesting, many people — including, surprisingly, many journalists — gave this authoritarian decision their tacit or explicit approval.
These views were crystallized by prominent tech journalist Kara Swisher, who wrote the following Monday in an op-ed for the New York Times, “So when the Sri Lankan government temporarily shut down access to American social media services like Facebook and Google’s YouTube after the bombings there on Easter morning, my first thought was ‘good.’”
Swisher made the argument that Facebook and other platforms are so poisoned with misinformation that her first instinct is that censorship is now an acceptable recourse. This sentiment is both wrong and dangerous.
In what is an emblematic shift in how the public views internet censorship, instead of protesting, many people — including, surprisingly, many journalists — gave this authoritarian decision their tacit or explicit approval. This sentiment is both wrong and dangerous.
First, there’s a giant assumption buried in here that cutting off modes of communication — no matter how vital to a country’s citizenry — will prevent violence. Let’s put aside for a minute that the Sri Lankan government is now stifling the country’s citizens from easily contacting their friends and family members, preventing them from getting real news about the events, and keeping them from being alerted about other safety concerns.
Research shows that internet blackouts like this will have the opposite effect, even if you believe that a country’s motives are entirely wholesome. Just one month ago, Stanford’s Jan Rydzak released a working paper looking at India’s attempts in 2016 to shut down portions of the internet, which was carried out with the state intention of stopping violence. “Bottom line,” Rydzak said about his study’s conclusions, “shutdowns are followed by a clear increase in violent protest and have very ambiguous effects on peaceful demonstrations.”
Furthermore, the idea that we should trust the Sri Lankan government — let alone any government — in wholesale blocking of social media sites is terrifying. Sri Lanka doesn’t exactly have the most stellar human rights record to begin with. And we know “safety” concerns are at the heart of literally every excuse any government makes when attempting to censor the internet. Journalists should look at these sentiments skeptically, not swallow them whole without a second thought.
It also is a convenient excuse for the Sri Lankan government, which has successfully diverted scrutiny away from its own negligent and potentially complicit actions. As the New York Times reported the same day it published Swisher’s op-ed, in the days leading up to the attack, “the country’s security agencies had been closely watching a secretive cell of the National Thowheeth Jama’ath, a little-known radical Islamist organization that security officials in Sri Lanka now say carried out the attacks and may have received help from abroad.”
They knew the group was dangerous. They had collected intelligence on the whereabouts of its leaders in the April 11 security memo, which warned of Catholic church bombings. They had been warned even earlier by India that the group, also known by the spelling National Thowheed Jama’ath, was plotting church attacks. They knew as far back as January that radical Islamists possibly tied to the group had stockpiled weapons and detonators.
For her part, Swisher went on to imply that other countries would be smart to undertake similar censorship. “New Zealand,” she wrote, “under the suffer-no-foolish-techies leadership of Jacinda Ardern, will be looking hard at imposing penalties on these companies for not controlling the spread of extremist content. Australia already passed such a law in early April. Here in the United States, our regulators are much farther behind, still debating whether it is a problem or not.”
Really? There’s certainly no shortage of reasons to criticize Facebook and other tech company giants (in fact, I do so all the time here at Medium), but let’s imagine for a minute that there was a large-scale terror attack in the United States. What if Donald Trump declared he was going to wholesale censor Facebook, YouTube, and WhatsApp across the country in response? Would Kara Swisher be saying “good” then? It’s probably safe to say she would be horrified — as she should be.
The idea that we should trust the Sri Lankan government — let alone any government — in wholesale blocking of social media sites is terrifying.
In any such case, there would certainly be some level of misinformation spread about it online, as there was in the pre–social media age about 9/11, and which society has experienced with every mass communications medium in the past century. But as the Verge’s Casey Newton wrote this morning, “If the current U.S. government blocked all access to social networks after a terrorist attack, we would rail against the move as an authoritarian outrage. When other countries do it, we ought to be just as suspicious.”
Arguments like Swisher’s smack of “otherism” and paternalism — ordinary Sri Lankans aren’t sophisticated enough to deal with these problems, we know better than they do, and we must trust their political leaders. It’s akin to the tired arguments made by many in the U.S. national security community that people in the Middle East “can’t handle” democracy. It’s insulting.
That’s not to say the reaction was uniform across Twitter on Monday. In a widely shared Twitter thread, BuzzFeed international correspondent Megha Rajagopalan eloquently explained that “shutdowns like this have become normalized all over the world from India to Zimbabwe. [Governments] are using misinformation as a rationale to cut people off from communicating in times of crisis. This shouldn’t be taken at face value.”
Sri Lankan science fiction author Yudhanjaya Wijeratne also wrote, “Dear #American journalists: For the love of whatever you hold holy, stop twisting this incident to serve your anti-Facebook technovalley politics. Right now, in a country with tight government controls on trad media, social media is a boon for us.”
Swisher admits at the end of her column that “shutting social media down in times of crisis isn’t going to work.” I’m glad she concedes that. But then why write an entire column in the paper of record suggesting otherwise? Freedom of information — online and off — isn’t something that only Western countries deserve.