Racial violence & censored social media: Digital Curfew in Sri Lanka

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Yesterday, in response to the racial violence in the Kandy District, an island-wide state of emergency was declared. Today (7th of March 2018) we noticed that our Internet was slow. At first, we thought it was simply typical SLT. But soon after we learned, that the TRCSL had issued orders to telecom operators to block social messaging networks. In other words, social media in Sri Lanka is now censored. Welcome to the digital curfew.

Internet access has been restricted in the Kandy district
Internet access has been restricted in the Kandy district

The orders issued by the TRCSL and why

On the 7th of March, the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL) announced that it would be blocking access to social media networks across Sri Lanka for three days. Some of the social networks that have been affected thus far are Facebook, Viber, and WhatsApp. The reason for this was to prevent the spread of communal violence.

As such, the TRCSL stated that it would be monitoring and filtering content on these social networks. A TRCSL official shared that this is being done as per instructions received from the Ministry of Defense. Therefore, you can expect a general slowdown of social media platforms over the course of this digital curfew.

Digital curfew. Government statement about the social network restriction in Sri Lanka after the tense situation in the Kandy district
Government statement about the blocking of social media access

And of all the social networks, Facebook has been listed as a priority. This is because much of the false information and incitement to violence was spread through it.

At the moment, the digital curfew isn’t as strict as the Great Firewall of China. There are ways to circumvent the measures put in place by the telecom operators and access the blocked social networks. However, the ethics of these ways are questionable. Nonetheless, those with the technical know-how are employing these countermeasures.

The double-edged sword of social media

When events like those in the Kandy district unfold, we can clearly see the power of social media. And that’s what puts this digital curfew in a morally grey area. Head to Twitter and you’ll easily find hundreds of tweets calling for unity and peace in these turbulent times.

Social media gives us all the power to amplify our prayers for peace. Yet, it also gives that same power to those that seek to burn down mosques, rampage across towns, and destroy communities. And so one can’t help but ask, “Did the government do the right thing?”

Digital curfew. Social media is a double edged sword in Sri Lanka as Kandy has taught us
Social media gives us all the power to amplify our prayers for peace. It also gives that same power to those that seek to do harm

It’s actually hard to say. It’s unlikely that the government can actually monitor and filter the content of encrypted WhatsApp messages. Nonetheless, this is without a doubt censorship. As such, one can argue that the government is infringing on our right to free speech. Yet, one can also argue that had such measures not been implemented, the Facebook pages spreading hate speech would still continue to operate without impunity. After all, reporting pages to Facebook isn’t known to be effective.

However, one can further argue that this sets a dangerous precedent. What’s to stop the government from censoring social media in the future? This is what we have to think about collectively as a society. But as we do so, we mustn’t forget that we too have a responsibility in fighting hate speech and fake news.

Whenever, you get that WhatsApp message warning you about something, take a moment to verify if it’s true or false. No matter how juicy or newsworthy you wish that message to be, take a moment and google it before sharing.

You might consider it to be a pain or even unnecessary. But this is the very reason why our country is in turmoil right now. When you spread fake news without verifying it, as Kandy has taught us, the only result will be chaos. So if you wish to live in a Sri Lanka that enjoys peace, then it’s up to you to fight fake news, rather than forwarding messages and saying, “Sent as received” because that isn’t a valid excuse.

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