Sri Lanka social media shutdown raises fears on free expression

“Nationwide Internet restrictions accelerate the spread of disinformation during a crisis because sources of authentic information are left offline,” NetBlocks said in a tweet. (Shutterstock)
Updated 23 April 2019

Sri Lanka social media shutdown raises fears on free expression

  • By blocking Facebook, Sri Lanka also shut down the leading social network’s “safety check” feature that enables users to communicate with friends and family after a disaster
  • According to NetBlocks, a digital rights and cybersecurity group, the shutdown in Sri Lanka may prove counterproductive by taking down sources of authentic information

WASHINGTON: Sri Lanka’s decision to block social media following deadly suicide attacks highlights a growing distrust of online platforms, but critics said the move is likely to restrict the flow of important news and information as well as abusive content.
The move comes amid growing frustration by governments around the world with Internet platforms over the propagation of misinformation and incitements of violence.
According to the digital rights group NetBlocks, Sri Lanka blocked Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, Snapchat, Viber, WhatsApp and YouTube following the Easter bombings targeting churches and hotels.
Sri Lanka’s move was the second time it has blocked social networks, following similar actions after an outbreak of violence in 2018.
The decision highlights the troubled reputation of mostly American-owned social media companies, which several years ago had been seen as a force for freedom of information.
“Governments around the world, including those who exploit social media and state media... have come to realize the risks associated with platforms such as WhatsApp,” Jennifer Grygiel, a professor of communication at Syracuse University, said in an email.
“They are quick to take action now in the wake of terrorism to prevent rumors and social unrest, but the ease at which they are able to shut down platforms also unveils how much power and control governments have over these companies and the need to protect the free press.”
According to NetBlocks, a digital rights and cybersecurity group, the shutdown in Sri Lanka may prove counterproductive by taking down sources of authentic information.
“Nationwide Internet restrictions accelerate the spread of disinformation during a crisis because sources of authentic information are left offline,” NetBlocks said in a tweet.
“This allows third parties to exploit the situation for political gain and profit.”
Sri Lankan authorities’ pledge to maintain the shutdown until its investigation is complete is troublesome, said Amy Lehr, director of the human rights initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
“We all have some sympathy when there is a terrorist attack, but what if it were a democracy protest in Iran?” Lehr asked.
“Who decides what is an emergency?“

By blocking Facebook, Sri Lanka also shut down the leading social network’s “safety check” feature that enables users to communicate with friends and family after a disaster.
“These attacks are horrific. And people need social media platforms to obtain accurate information & to contact loved ones,” tweeted Allie Funk, a researcher with the human rights group Freedom House.
“The government’s decision to restrict these apps is a dangerous one.”
Emma Llanso of the Center for Democracy & Technology, a digital rights group, said there are no easy solutions to misinformation on social media.
“Blocking websites can fuel disinformation by leaving journalists and other credible sources of information with fewer avenues to reach people and to debunk falsehoods,” she said. “We need more nuanced solutions.”
Prior research has indicated that Internet and social media blackouts may lead to more, not less, violence.
Stanford University researcher Jan Rydzak said in a February 2019 paper based on findings from India that “shutdowns are found to be much more strongly associated with increases in violent collective action than with non-violent mobilization.”
Efforts to regulate social media have picked up since the mosque shootings last month in New Zealand livestreamed on Facebook and reposted on other apps. Facebook and others struggled to remove various versions of the video.
The missteps of social media, however, have put governments on alert and sparked efforts to control information flows.

Misinformation is often seen during moments of crisis, including during last week’s fire at the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris.
The ban in Sri Lanka “is the inevitable but unfortunate consequence of the platforms’ inability to stop the online amplification of conspiracy and outrage,” said Karen Kornbluh, a former White House policy director who now heads the Digital Innovation Democracy Initiative at the German Marshall Fund.
“This shows the false premise of the platforms’ mantra that any change in their practices will squash free speech... if they continue to turbo-charge disinformation this will lead to less online free speech.”
Lehr said one of the challenges for social platforms using algorithmic feeds is how to prevent false and abusive content from going viral.
“It’s not always a matter of blocking hate speech but also de-amplifying it,” she said.
“I’d like to see us get to a place where a shutdown isn’t necessary, but the social media platforms need to rebuild public trust.”


TWITTER POLL: UK decision to exclude Arab nations from COVID-19 quarantine ‘unjust’

Updated 07 July 2020

TWITTER POLL: UK decision to exclude Arab nations from COVID-19 quarantine ‘unjust’

  • Saudi Arabia's infection rate is similar to UK, Egypt is even lower
  • Poll reveals Arab News readers believe quarantine rule is unjust

DUBAI: The UK government’s decision to not include people traveling from any Arab nations in its waiving of the coronavirus quarantine requirements is unjust according to an Arab News Twitter poll.

The recent announcement that it was lifting quarantine requirements for people arriving in England from 59 different countries failed to include any Arab nations, despite many having significantly lower COVID-19-related fatality rates and similar proportions of infections.

Of the 1,039 people who took part in the poll, 56 percent said they did not believe that the United Kingdom’s decision was justified, while 27.3 percent said they did.

According to ourworldindata.org more than 15 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases lead to a fatality in the UK, while in the UAE that number was significantly lower at 0.62 percent, and in Saudi Arabia 0.91 percent.

People traveling from the countries not included in the list of 59 will still be required to self-quarantine on arrival into the UK for two weeks.

The UK currently has an infection rate of approximately 0.42 percent of its total population, while in France the rate is at 0.25 percent and Germany a slightly lower 0.23 percent – both the latter countries are included in the exemption list.

 

But Saudi Arabia’s infection rate is currently at 0.61 percent of its total population, Egypt is at 0.075 percent and Tunisia even lower at 0.01 percent – and yet none of these countries are included.

The UAE which has a significantly lower population  of less than 10 million, has an infection rate of 2.88 percent.

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