Why Sri Lanka Silenced Social Media

Information blackouts almost always turn into authoritarian tools, whether or not they start that way.

A crime-scene official inspects the site of a bomb blast inside a church in Negombo, Sri Lanka.
A crime-scene official inspects the site of a bomb blast inside a church in Negombo, Sri Lanka. (Reuters)

Today the Sri Lankan government named a culprit in Sunday’s coordinated bomb blasts, which killed almost 300 people at Easter services and in hotels in multiple cities. The group, called National Thowheeth Jama’ath, is a local variation on a jihadist theme, and according to the very sparse dossiers on it from before yesterday, it focused on desecrating Buddhist statues. Blowing up churches and hotels—in an attack more spectacular and well coordinated than anything Sri Lanka’s better-known terror group, the Tamil Tigers, ever accomplished—elevates the group to a new class of villain, similar in intent and scale to the Islamic State or al-Qaeda. The name, a peculiar mix of English and oddly transliterated Arabic, means National Monotheism [or Unity] Group. (One clue to its ideology, which may or may not be significant, is the word national: The Islamic State rejects nationalism on principle, so either the group is not IS-linked, or it needs a new name.)

That is all I know, and indeed all anyone knows. It is normal not to know much after massacres like these. But in this case, the ignorance feels greater than usual, and even well-informed observers of Sri Lanka sound baffled. Compounding the general lack of knowledge is a snap decision by the Sri Lankan government: no social media in Sri Lanka, not until the authorities figure out what happened, and can be confident in their ability to avert mass panic.

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.

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.

Overall the sound of silence is not only more dignified for the dead, but also more beautiful to my ears. What have I ever gained from social media during terror attacks? Nothing, I expect, that I couldn’t have obtained more easily and with greater certainty elsewhere. And if so: Why do we bother either consuming or producing social-media posts during these events? I know I am not alone in wondering whether social media are not so much a new means of communication as a novel form of mass psychosis, more like ergot poisoning than the invention of movable type. Using social media is a compulsive behavior that induces delusions about what is individually or collectively healthy. I hope that in the future we find more ways to mute Twitter and Facebook voluntarily.