Sri Lankan officials inspect St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, north of Colombo, after multiple explosions targeting churches and hotels across Sri Lanka.
Photo: Getty

Few countries on Earth have a relationship with Facebook that’s quite as complicated as Sri Lanka’s.

Within the span of a single year, the world’s biggest social network was linked to deadly religious riots in Sri Lanka as well as a successful democratic resistance that helped defeat an unconstitutional coup. Now in the wake of Easter morning terrorist attacks that killed nearly 300 people, the government is blocking social media to preempt the kind of hate speech that fueled violence almost exactly one year prior. Soon, the South Asian nation will gear up for a presidential election with an eye toward what social media will mean in Sri Lanka next.

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These incidents magnify the impossibly complex ways social media are challenging and changing the course of entire countries.

On October 26, 2018, the coup began. In Sri Lanka, a nation of 21 million that only rarely registers on Westerners’ radar, information was the weapon. President Maithripala Sirisena unconstitutionally fired the country’s prime minister and replaced him with Mahinda Rajapaksa, the country’s former authoritarian-bent ruler.

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Supporters of the coup physically took over the country’s main television stations. They forced newspapers to relinquish control. One of the world’s great opponents of free press, Rajapaksa, was back in power and, as he preferred, in control of information inside the country. Most of it, anyway.

Rajapaksa, who previously ruled the country for a decade, had successfully taken control of all the levers of power that mattered when he first became Sri Lanka’s president in 2005. But in 2018, he failed to take control of the space that may ultimately matter most: social media.

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With traditional journalists physically cowed into losing some control of their own voice, Facebook and Twitter became the place where critics, journalists, and activists of the coup could speak freely and organize a resistance that manifested itself in physical rallies, demonstrations, and the publication of leaked tapes proving the corruption of coup supporters.

“The only space that was there was the activism and advocacy ... on Facebook and Twitter,” said Sanjana Hattotuwa, a senior researcher at the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), a local think tank. “It ranged from the production of material critiques of the president to organization of physical rallies and demonstrations to the exposes of corruption. It was a medium the government couldn’t control.”

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When traditional media was in the grip of the coup, social media is where proof of multimillion dollar corruption leading into the coup was posted and spread around the country. News and organizing of protests percolated across Facebook and WhatsApp.

The coup was never successfully normalized thanks to continued criticism on online where the government lacked control. Twitter and most of all Facebook are the heart of the story of how Sri Lankans successfully defeated an unconstitutional coup d’etat in late 2018.

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The story recalls how at the beginning of the decade social media and Twitter, in particular, played a major role in protests and push back against Iran’s authoritarian rulers. Despite the fact that Sri Lanka’s protests were successful while Iran’s were not, the Western imagination is preoccupied with Iran and those incidents are still widely discussed today.

Sri Lanka rarely makes headlines in the West, and neither the coup nor its dismantling received significant mainstream attention even as the impact of social media is being hotly debated around the world.

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While last year’s coup attempt was thwarted in part due to social media, the platforms have also served to fuel hate, as they have in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world. Earlier in 2018 in Sri Lanka, Facebook was the site of false rumors and hate speech that sparked violence and murderous riots in which mobs burned mosques, shops, and homes of Muslim locals.

Today, major social media networks are blocked in Sri Lanka just a day after the Easter terrorist attacks killed nearly 300 people. To combat misinformation and potential further violence, the Sri Lanka government blocked social networks including Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and Viber, the internet monitoring group NetBlocks reported.

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“This was a unilateral decision,” Harindra Dassanayake, a presidential adviser in Sri Lanka, reportedly said. The stated goal is to prevent hate speech and misinformation to spark further violence similar to incidents a year ago.

In the West, the block plays into the idea that social networks are failing across the board to face dire global challenges. Deleting Facebook is a constant topic of conversation. But global feelings, including those in Sri Lanka, are more complex.

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“The Delete Facebook movement that started as a consequence of Cambridge Analytica simply never got traction in South and Southeast Asia for a simple reason: Facebook is inextricably entwined into the DNA of economy, society, politics,” Hattotuwa said. “There hasn’t been anything like it in our countries and I don’t think it will be replaced any time soon no matter the reporting on the negative consequences. Billions of people use it. The economy is reliant on it, politicians use it, women use it for single household businesses.”

As it did in many Asian nations, Facebook gained dominance in Sri Lanka with programs like Free Basics, an app crucial to the company’s plans for global expansion over the last decade. It brings Facebook capabilities usually reserved for smartphones to basic “feature phones” more common in less developed nations. The country has advanced technologically since Free Basics launched, and smartphones with full internet access are much more the norm today.

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Free Basics has been criticized as “digital colonialism” that violates net neutrality principles. In countries around Asia, it helped the social network muscle into new markets—whether or not the company was actually prepared to be there.

Last year, after deadly riots fueled by misinformation and hate speech online, Sri Lanka’s government blocked social media networks for a full week. In that situation, the riots were literally organized on social media. This time around, we have no indication of what role social networking may have played in the latest tragedy. Instead, the government appears to be blocking social media preemptively to prevent a repeat of last year’s violence.

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Although it sometimes feels like it might be simple—and increasingly, it is—the reality is rarely so cut and dry as to allow us to say social media is a net negative or benefit. The facts change day to day, country to country. And even within a single country in one year, the same platform can be responsible for amplifying both deadly hate speech and elevating democratic values.

“Facebook and Twitter was part and parcel of the democratic push back against the failed coup attempt against the president,” Hattotuwa said. “Whereby mainstream media and all state media was very quickly taken over, the only space for any kind of dissent, civil society activism, democracy, the planning of physical rallies and the production of content against the president’s move was all through the same platform that a couple of months prior had contributed to the violence. The picture on the ground is a complex one. You can’t simplify it.”

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