Why I’m OK With Censoring Facebook

How Facebook loads in Sri Lanka. If it loads.

Sri Lanka has called a digital curfew on Facebook Inc (Facebook, Messenger, Whatsapp, Instagram) and Viber. These services don’t work right now, for anybody.

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m OK with that. It’s 2018 and the digital world is no longer so separate from the ‘real’. If there’s a State Of Emergency on the streets it should be the same on the digital platforms where people are inciting and organizing violence.

Facebook Inc is a big part of the problem today and they won’t/can’t do anything about it. I’m fine with those platforms being temporarily blocked until things stop burning and people are safe.

What Happened

There was a road rage incident near Kandy where a driver was assaulted and killed. The victim happened to be Sinhalese, the killers happened to be Muslim. They were arrested. While there was tension within the town, the issue was reportedly being treated as a private quarrel.

Here’s a timeline from Roar on when shit began hitting fan:

4th March: Active ‘anti-Muslim’ campaigners, including Dan Priyasad Amith from the ‘Mahason Balakaya’ Facebook group, Ampitiye Sumana Thera from Batticaloa, and Gnanasara Thera from the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) arrived in Kandy. This coincided with the mobs which arrived by the busload from different parts of the country.

Gnanasara Thera visited the funeral house.

Attacks began a few hours later, targeting shops, homes, and mosques. A 27-year-old died inside his burning house, but an official report as to the cause of death has not yet been released.

Essentially, outsiders came in and aggravated and incited violence. Houses burned, people died and the risk grew that this could spread and destabilize the whole country.

Facebook Inc’s Role

Facebook Inc bears responsibility here because their platforms helped these mobs organize, incite and spread. That wasn’t Facebook’s intent, but they are guilty of a very dangerous level of neglect.

As people like Duminda Jayasena have been saying for years, Sinhala content isn’t moderated by Facebook at all. They won’t hire Sinhala moderators, even though they make more money here than any Sri Lankan publisher.

This means that you can say whatever you want in Sinhala. Death threats, rape threats, incitements to violence, whatever. The algorithm doesn’t care and Facebook doesn’t care. Facebook doesn’t care about Sri Lankans.

With WhatsApp, this neglect is simply built in. All chats are encrypted, and group chats are the ideal platform to organize busloads of people to come burn some random town in Kandy.

Instagram honestly doesn’t seem to be part of the problem. Poor Instagram.

Digital Curfew

In response to the violence near Kandy, the government called a physical curfew on the streets and a digital curfew on social media. 3G/4G service to the affected areas was cut and Facebook Inc and Viber were blocked nationwide.

The government took these actions under a declared State Of Emergency, which suspends a bunch of laws to protect public safety. This is by all accounts a temporary ban.

Any time a government is censoring speech citizens should be very vigilant and critical arguments are very important here. I’ll run through a few of the basic ones here, but please think critically for yourself.

Why This May Be Bad

There are a lot of arguments against this censorship, especially on Twitter. I’ll break them down into:

  1. this doesn’t help
  2. this harms victims
  3. this harms the average citizens, and
  4. it’s just wrong

1. this doesn’t help

Cutting off Facebook Inc does limit racist’s ability to quickly organize. They can still make phone calls and have meetings and stuff, but it’s no longer as simple as updating the Mahason Balakaya group with ‘burn here’.

Blocking images and video on WhatsApp also limits the spread of hate speech and incitement. WhatsApp groups are another thing, the block on them seems sometimes on, sometimes off. At the least the censorship has made them unreliable.

You could argue that this censorship doesn’t help enough, but I think it’s clear that it helps some.

2. this harms victims

There is an argument that blocking social media hurts the victims because they lose access to publicity and help, but practically I don’t think this is a very strong one.

I have been on the business end of a digital racist mob and my experience is that victims are sorely outnumbered and that Facebook Inc is just another place to get further victimized. If you’re facing a Sinhala Buddhist mob, the best thing to do is get off social media completely.

Viber, WhatsApp and Messenger, however, are useful at times like this, for just basic communication. But you can replace those basic functions with phone calls and SMS, which are anyways preferable in an emergency.

Victims certainly do bear some harm from losing communication options, but they also have working alternatives, and are able to avoid further digital victimization. I don’t see a catastrophic harm here.

3. this harms average citizens

Another good argument is that this blanket censorship restricts the ability of average citizens to get information, to communicate and to generally conduct business and live. This is true.

The question is whether the benefit outweighs the harm. In this case the risk is rioting across the country, weaponized by Facebook Inc, the AR-15 of communications technology. In order to mitigate that risk the government has temporarily blocked access to a few (albeit major) platforms. The Internet itself still operates, as do platforms like Twitter and, like, Tinder.

Not having FB does affect business, not having WhatsApp does affect communications and group organizing, and not having Messenger or Viber does affect basic keeping in touch. This is undeniable and there is harm, but there are alternatives for all these services and I think you can argue that the benefit (avoiding disastrous rioting) outweighs the harm.

4. this is wrong

The deeper argument is that any censorship is just wrong and the government can’t be trusted with this power.

One one hand, the government does have to censor some speech. Some speech is criminal. Threatening to kill someone or inciting personal or communal violence is criminal in Sri Lanka. As it should be.

Facebook Inc offers no real tools to enforce these important laws on Facebook (through neglect) or on its messaging platforms (by design). In a situation where hate speech, assault and incitement are happening, it makes sense to block the whole platform if the company that owns it won’t help.

In this case the government isn’t directly censoring people, they are just cutting off access to platforms, primarily owned by one company (Facebook Inc). There are alternatives and that company is hardly a responsible actor in society right now.

On the other hand, most governments can’t be trusted to censor judiciously. In most cases governments censor the Internet to protect themselves, not their citizens. In this immediate case I think they are being responsible, but who’s to say how a future government would use this power. That is a big risk and may, in hindsight, outweigh the immediate benefit.

Why I’m OK With It

Having thought through these considerations, I’m still OK with censoring Facebook right now.

There are mobs in the street and there are mobs on social media. In this day and age we need a curfew upon both.

It is not a terrible thing for Sri Lankans to be off most social media for a few days, but it is a terrible thing if race riots spread. I think Emergency powers logically and legally extend online, and I honestly think Facebook Inc needs to re-evaluate its place in a civilized society and Sri Lanka in particular.

I think we as citizens need to be very critical and questioning anytime our government takes an action like this, but in this case I’ve thought about it and I think it’s OK. But I’m just one citizen, so you should think about it too. Sri Lankans still have a right to free speech and thought and Facebook Inc isn’t the only platform for that. Feel free to express yourself, just don’t feel free to incite racial hatred and violence. We need to nip that shit in the bud.



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Indrajit Samarajiva is a writer from Sri Lanka, grumpily in Oxford for a while. Sign up for my newsletter at www.indi.ca, and you can reach me at indi@indi.ca.