Read: A horrific flashback in Sri Lanka
In the United States, a social-media blackout would be impossible and illegal. It would also be morally indefensible. In Sri Lanka—as in other places where speech is abridged—the standard defense is that social media poses a threat to public order. Sri Lanka concluded its civil war, which killed one out of every 200 citizens, less than a decade ago, and the intercommunal violence could resume if the Bad-Idea Factory of Facebook is allowed to ramp up production. When mass violence occurs in the United States, we too risk stunning acts of retaliatory violence—torched churches, mass shootings. But the risks to Sri Lanka are much greater. You have not been stunned until you have been stunned by genocide.
Even in places like Sri Lanka, with one foot in a civil war, turning off social media is a decision with alarming implications. So far the decision seems to be receiving praise, mostly, on the grounds that no retaliatory killings have been reported. The history of such killings is fresh. The 26-year civil war began in 1983 with Black July, a series of anti-Tamil pogroms, in retaliation for a Tamil Tiger ambush of a government military patrol. The rioters, who were mostly Sinhalese Buddhists, killed hundreds—egged on by rumors spread by government-linked media. Today the Sri Lankan government needs no reminder of the potency of unrestrained rumor, because 36 years ago the fatal grapevines were cultivated in their own vineyards.
I know no reason to suspect that the government is now trying to suppress news of violence of its own. Some reports suggest that it might want to suppress news of its incompetence. But why trust any government with powers of censorship? To defend censorship, one might argue that the rule “no smoking in a fireworks factory” is important enough that even the most disreputable watchman is better than none at all. For the reasons outlined above, it seems appropriate to consider whether the Sri Lankan situation might differ from that of one’s own political culture, before resorting to reflexive defenses of freedom and openness. Still, information blackouts almost always turn into authoritarian tools, whether or not they start that way. After Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak tried to stop the Tahrir Square revolution by turning off the internet in Egypt, I assumed other governments would avoid this move, because it looked dictatorial—and because it didn’t work. Since then it has become a regular tool, and I expect more governments will reconsider it as a first resort.
Read: The women who are clearing the minefields in Sri Lanka
The question I am inclined to ask, though, is directed more at myself than at authorities. What have I lost from the sound of social-media silence? I have, perhaps, been deprived of fresh-kill images from the churches; of an anguished Sri Lankan voice; and of the usual cacophony of recriminations, rumors, hoaxes, and hearsay. Perhaps if I were in Colombo I would be desperate for news of a friend missing after the blast, or of reliable advice about where I should or should not go next. But newspapers and radio still work, as do telephones and email.