The debate over the Sri Lankan government’s decision to block social media platforms in the light of the tragic Easter Sunday bombings brings into sharp relief what has been evident for some years now — platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter transmit and amplify the currents of discord coursing through our societies.
Over the past 48 hours, social media researchers including those based in Sri Lanka, have made telling and sensible arguments against the ban: In many countries, including Sri Lanka, state media or government-friendly but privately-owned ones are often the biggest sources of misinformation. Also, blocking social media platforms doesn’t work and those determined to spread misinformation can still do so by accessing these platforms using virtual private networks, or VPNs.
Despite its many flaws, social media, these researchers point out, allows private citizens to coordinate with each other, particularly at moments of crisis and calamity when panic-stricken families are desperate to ensure their relatives are safe.
And finally, Sri Lankan society, like most societies, is complex and riots between communities are often a consequence of forces far greater than social media. Shutting down these platforms serves little purpose.
The researchers are right; fencing off parts of the internet is almost never a good answer — no matter the question.
Yet that is only one part of the story.
Examining the Sri Lanka shutdown as an “artefact” — the age of social media’s equivalent of an excavated shard of ancient pottery — offers a moment to assess just how rapidly the charms of social media have faded since the heady days of the Arab Spring. If internet shutdowns during that time were straightforward cases of oppression, it is not so easy to dismiss the Sri Lanka shutdown.
If social media was once a “weapon of the weak”, to borrow a phrase from anthropologist James Scott’s 1985 book on peasant conflicts in rural Malaysia, it is now a cudgel of the powerful.
Oppressive governments, nation-states, intelligence agencies and well-funded political parties have long since woken up to the unparallelled access that social media offers to the subjects of their control, and the trade-offs between the many ills of social media and the online alliances between social movements no longer appears as good a deal as it once was.
Across the Palk Strait in India, Sri Lanka’s northern neighbour, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) now runs sophisticated, well-financed misinformation campaigns across Twitter, Facebook, and Whatsapp. The BJP, as a recent HuffPost India investigation revealed, employs hundreds of paid consultants to spread blatantly communal and divisive content, and works with private companies to covertly run hundreds of WhatsApp groups — that bear no sign of being funded by the party — to bombard millions of Indians with propaganda.
Across the Palk Strait in India, Sri Lanka’s northern neighbour, the ruling BJP now runs sophisticated, well-financed misinformation campaigns across Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp.
Indian political parties take turns to influence Twitter trends by coordinated tweeting across thousands of bots. This practice is so prevalent that the activities of the “IT Cells” of political fronts constitute their own sub-genre of conversations on Twitter.
Indian state police departments use online sentiment-analysis software to analyse what citizens are saying on Twitter and Facebook, and are in the process of building ever-more intrusive tools for social media surveillance and tracking. The Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, one of India’s more tech-savvy politicians, has a wall-sized screen in his office that tracks every time he is mentioned on social media to assess if his government is spoken of in a positive light.
Social media, specifically Facebook and Twitter, are not great levellers as was previously assumed, but powerful amplifiers — the loudest and best-financed voices offline are also the loudest voices online as well.
In 2017, I reported through an internet shutdown spanning several days in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. A farmers’ agitation for better prices had turned violent after the police opened fire on protesters, killing five farmers. As the violence spiralled out of control, the government responded by shutting off the internet.
Indian state governments are amongst the most frequent deployers of internet shutdowns in the world, with 134 network shutdowns in 2018, and over a 100 in 2016-17 according to this paper by Jan Rydzak.
The protests that spanned several cities in adjoining states had been coordinated over WhatsApp groups, but these had been set up only after farmer representatives had held several face-to-face meetings in the months preceding the protests. Shutting off the internet didn’t shut off the protests — farmers reverted to their peer networks, where local leaders in each city coordinated with each other over ordinary telephones.
For the state government and police, shutting down the internet also carried great symbolic heft — it offered them an avenue to telegraph their power to the farmers they were trying to suppress.
The Sri Lanka shutdown is a reminder that all conversations about speech — online or offline — are ultimately conversations about power. And despite appearances to the contrary, social media platforms controlled by giant, unaccountable, American companies like Facebook and Twitter are likely to advance the causes of freedom only by accident and not by design.