Shutting down social media to reduce unrest

Social media has been blamed for spreading false stories that can inflame tensions and has led to great violence in places like Myanmar and Sri Lanka. After the recent bombings that killed 253 people in the latter country, the government shut down nearly all the social media platforms to prevent retaliatory violence. It later lifted the bans but yesterday briefly re-imposed the bans following violence between different group in one of the regions where a church was bombed on Easter Sunday. Schools are due to re-open today but bomb scares, the heavy security presence, and ongoing searches have made the atmosphere tense and people are being urged to avoid gathering in large numbers.

But does shutting down social media help in such situations? It seems superficially plausible that temporarily removing a source of scurrilous rumors that are inciting people to violence would be a good thing even if it means giving the government the power to control and thus censor the flow of information. As is so often the case, governments are always eager to use turmoil to increase its own powers at the expense of the citizenry and measures that are initially declared to be temporary can sometimes turn into permanent ones.

Jan Rydzak argues that social media bans actually cause more harm.

In the wake of a series of coordinated attacks that claimed more than 250 lives on April 21, the government of Sri Lanka shut off its residents’ access to social media and online messaging systems, including Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Snapchat and Viber. The official government concern was that “false news reports were spreading through social media.”

Some commentators applauded the move, suggesting the dangers of disinformation on social media justified shutting down communication networks in times of crisis. Five years of research on the impact of shutdowns and other information controls on societies worldwide have led me to the exact opposite conclusion.

A diverse community of academics, businesses and civil society groups shares my view. The blackouts deprived Sri Lankans of impartial news reports and disconnected families from each other as they sought to find out who had survived and who was among the dead and injured. Most strikingly, recent research suggests that the blackouts might have increased the potential for protest and violence in the wake of the attack

In study after study, civil society organizations have documented the human rights problems caused by internet shutdowns and the economic damage they produce.

The article focuses mainly on governments shutting down social media during times of general protests or protests against the government itself. It is easier to argue against that because such measures so obviously serve the interests of the government. But the case is not so clear when there is a threat of violence between different groups in a country that is being fueled by people seeking to incite violence against others by spreading false rumors. Then shutting down social media, at least temporarily, to create a brief cooling-off period may be more justifiable.


  1. mark noble says

    This negative outcome seems perfectly illustrated by the Twilight Zone classic “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street.” How else could it possibly be, when people are left to imagine the worst? It’s a difficult choice, to be sure, but it seems obvious that restricting information will worsen outcomes. This of course circles back to the critical discussion of how to decrease spreading of false information by social media. You certainly can imagine a contemporary Twilight Zone update where false news reports, a la War of the Worlds, are used to fan the fires.

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