ON APRIL 21, Easter Sunday, a series of coordinated bombings killed hundreds in Sri Lanka. In the tense hours following the attacks, a social media blackout left much of the country barred from major communication channels—Facebook, Viber, WhatsApp—in the interest of “national security.” The ISIS-supported attack marks the most violence the country has faced since its brutal, 25-year civil war came to a close in 2009— during which suicide bombings at banks, bus stations, and other public spaces were common. The ban on major social networks—instituted by the Sri Lankan government to curb misinformation and hate speech—is is now on its eighth day and continues to interrupt communication, blocking access to family and friends. It’s also a burden to journalists trying to keep up with sources and follow what is an ongoing terrorist threat.
Hearing of the ban, I couldn’t help but think of how much I relied on these platforms when I was living in Sri Lanka during last year’s constitutional crisis. When a sudden shift in power in the highest branch of government was overlooked by international media and local coverage became politically motivated, I looked to reporter friends on Facebook who were posting regular updates, journalist messaging groups on WhatsApp, and Twitter lists curated by Groundviews, a local media organization. And when, ultimately, the political party leading the coup seized the Sri Lankan newspaper I had been working at and forced out one of my editors when she refused to cede editorial control, I found out through social media.
For Western journalists who are physically distant from Sri Lanka, it is easy to use this violence and the ban that followed as another data point in their ongoing battle against Facebook. Kara Swisher wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times that her first reaction when she heard the site had been blocked was, “Good.” “When you traffic in outrage, you get death,” she wrote. “Stop the Facebook/YouTube/Twitter world—we want to get off.” Turning off Facebook and other social media, Swisher argues, is one of the only ways to protect against further violence. Sure, users do traffic in outrage on these platforms, but vital information also circulates—information that can only flow outside the political constraints of mainstream Sri Lankan media. And while there is a case to be made that Sri Lanka’s history of ethnic tension makes it particularly susceptible to flare-ups in violence, journalists and people seeking information will be hurt by the ban.