A group that monitors internet censorship says Sri Lankan authorities have blocked most social media services in the country following the Easter Sunday attacks that killed more than 200 people.
The NetBlocks observatory said it detected an intentional nationwide blackout of popular services including Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat and Viber.
Sri Lankan officials said they were temporarily blocking social media to curtail the spread of false information and ease tensions. The defense ministry said the shutdown would extend until the government concludes its investigation into the bomb blasts that rocked churches and luxury hotels.
Telling moment: #srilanka blocks #facebook and #whatsapp after blasts, but not #twitter. A few years ago we’d be using these platforms to help each other and coordinating assistance. Now we view them as a threat.#SriLankaBlasts #EasterAttackSL @globalvoices @groundviews
— Ivan Sigal (@ivonotes) April 21, 2019
The government of Sri Lanka has finally shut down Facebook and WhatsApp after the company did nothing to stop their platforms transforming into weapons of hate and violence. How can Mark Zuckerberg’s conscience continue to let this happen? https://t.co/L9lsJFz9rM
— Christopher Wylie 🏳️🌈 (@chrisinsilico) April 21, 2019
NetBlocks cautioned that such post-attack blackouts are often ineffective.
“What we’ve seen is that when social media is shut down, it creates a vacuum of information that’s readily exploited by other parties,” said Alp Toker, executive director of the London-based group. “It can add to the sense of fear and can cause panic.”
The group said its monitoring of Sri Lankan internet connectivity found no disruptions to the fundamental infrastructure of the internet, meaning the blackout was directed at specific services. Some social media outlets, such as Twitter, appeared unaffected, but the blockage affected popular messaging services.
“That’s going to be a problem for people trying to communicate with friends and family,” Toker said.
This isn’t the first time Sri Lanka has blocked social media. The government imposed a weeklong ban in March 2018 because of concerns that WhatsApp and other platforms were being used to fan anti-Muslim violence in the country’s central region.
Facebook, which owns WhatsApp and Instagram, has struggled in recent years to combat the use of its platforms to incite violence and spread hate messages and political propaganda in countries including India, Myanmar and the United States.
The company said in a statement Sunday that it has been working to support first responders and law enforcement in Sri Lanka and identify and remove content that violates company standards.
“We are aware of the government’s statement regarding the temporary blocking of social media platforms,” the company said. “People rely on our services to communicate with their loved ones and we are committed to maintaining our services and helping the community and the country during this tragic time.”
Google didn’t respond to a request for comment about the disruption to its YouTube service in Sri Lanka. Requests for comment made to messaging services Snap and Viber were not immediately returned.