When a Country Bans Social Media

Sri Lanka’s ban on social media forces a question nobody wants to ask: What if a global media network is impossible?

Mark Zuckerberg onstage with a microphone
Jeff Chiu / AP

In the aftermath of a series of coordinated terrorist attacks Sunday, Sri Lanka blocked social-media sites in the country. According to The New York Times, the move was “a unilateral decision” on the part of the government, made out of fear that misinformation and hate speech could spread on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram and sow confusion or even incite more violence. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe pleaded with Sri Lankans to “please avoid propagating unverified reports and speculation.”

This wasn’t the first time Sri Lanka had cut access to social media. Last March, after anti-Muslim riots struck the predominantly Buddhist nation, the government initiated a similar information blockade for the same reasons. Since then, scrutiny on the services and their global reach has only intensified. Last November, Facebook admitted that its service had been used to foment brutal ethnic violence in Myanmar. And last month, the Christchurch, New Zealand, shooter live-streamed his rampage on Facebook; it reappeared continuously on that service, YouTube, and elsewhere, stymieing tech companies’ efforts to stop the spread. These countries didn’t ban the services, but Australia and New Zealand did call for stricter regulation of social-media companies.

Sri Lanka’s ban on social media carries an implicit, and crucial, assumption: that the internet can produce good and ill effects, but its fundamental structure—a global information network that works more or less the same anywhere on Earth—is an unimpeachable given. But what if it’s not? What if the very fact of a global social network is impossible?

When tragedy raises concerns about technology, we typically weigh the technology’s benefits against its costs. There’s no question that Facebook, WhatsApp, and others have helped spread misinformation and incite violence. But as those services become communication infrastructures, they also help people find aid or connect with family in the aftermath of a tragedy. That reasoning is sound but also circular: It’s cold comfort to celebrate social media’s ability to help clean up the mess it also helped create.

In Sri Lanka, some people credit social media as an essential tool in sustaining democracy after the nation’s 26-year civil war between its Buddhist majority and Tamil minority. Democracy relies on a flow of information sufficient to allow citizens to make choices, after all.

But Sri Lanka’s social web has been indelibly shaped by Facebook and its internet.org effort, which brought access to certain internet services to developing nations—and effectively made Facebook-owned products, especially WhatsApp, the core of online access across vast swaths of the developing world. In the West, internet proponents accuse bans such as Sri Lanka’s of stripping away “internet freedom.” That notion is ideological under the best of circumstances, but it makes sense only in regions such as North America, Europe, and East Asia, where social media are just a part of the internet (even if an important one). In the developing world, they are nearly coextensive with the internet. Being online just means using Facebook or WhatsApp.

That makes an outright ban more significant, for good and for ill. As my colleague Graeme Wood argues, even well-meaning and seemingly justified government suppressions of speech risk deepening authoritarianism. In Sri Lanka’s case, past restrictions on the import of Tamil-language media helped deepen the separatism and isolation that incited the civil war in the first place. History and present circumstances make a media ban riskier in Sri Lanka than in Australia or the United States. As Wood puts it, “The risks to Sri Lanka are much greater. You have not been stunned until you have been stunned by genocide.”

Part of the problem with social media is that users in the West tend to construe them as a fixed and singular affair. Facebook is Facebook in Topeka, Kansas, and Los Angeles; Instagram works the same in Paris, France, or in Paris, Texas. Tech companies’ social and economic promise relies largely on the homogeneity of their offerings. The same smartphone operating systems deliver the same interfaces all around the world. The experience of posting updates seems identical, inspiring a common formal foundation for understanding someone utterly foreign. And the financial leverage associated with creating software in Silicon Valley and delivering it all around the world makes for enormous profits on historically tiny capital and human-resource investments.

It is a convenient myth that social media are monolithic. These services don’t really operate globally, even if the apps download and the posts upload anywhere. Paris, Texas, and Paris, France, aren’t the same, even if Instagram is. Social media are but one part of complex sociopolitical circumstances that demand more deliberate action. Calls for regulation of Facebook, YouTube, and others are really just desperate pleas from people on the ground everywhere, from Sri Lanka to New Zealand, for these global services to work as local ones too.

That’s a complex challenge. It doesn’t just involve bowing to local wishes, as risks in Sri Lanka, China, and elsewhere attest. But it does demand a lot more than just better monitoring for hate speech, false news, or incitements to violence, as Facebook promised to do in Myanmar, and after the Christchurch shooting, after the reports of Russian-election interference, and countless other times.

It’s hard to know whether such a challenge has any solution. Never before in human history have billions of people had direct access to one another in real time. Never before have governments had to preside over the instantaneous influx of media across their borders. Never before have corporations, no matter their wealth, had to address such a disparate and diverse set of people. Mark Zuckerberg has always called Facebook a “community,” but it isn’t and never was one. It intersects with communities—millions of them—and it creates thousands of others within its virtual walls. It’s easy to scorn the Sri Lankan government for censoring social media after the Easter attacks, an act that would be both illegal and impossible in the United States. But it’s also difficult to argue that a free flow of information has been an unalloyed good for that country, or the region.

Each time a problem arises for Facebook, the same solutions tend to arrive on its heels, along with the same obstacles to their realization. Better self-governance and accountability—so long as growth and profitability are not affected. More engagement with local stakeholders—so long as they embrace the underlying promise of social media. Openness to regulatory reform—knowing that the political quagmires that technology companies have helped establish reduce the likelihood that new policy will come to fruition, along with the threat that local regulation becomes de facto global policy.

This pattern shrouds an obvious question that nobody wants to ask, let alone answer. Bracketing for a moment the question of whether the internet is a tool for democratic good or not, is it even a viable one? A global information network—one that connects the world and all its citizens in more or less the same way, with minor tweaks through effective management—could simply be unattainable.