COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Darshini was able to use Facebook until 2 or 3 p.m. on Sunday — the day that explosions went off in three Sri Lankan cities, killing at least 321 people.
Then came the social media ban. Misinformation was spreading about the number of people killed and who carried out the attack. So Sri Lanka’s defense ministry announced it had “taken steps to temporarily block all the social media avenues until the investigations are concluded.” Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram and IMO (a video call and chat app) are all blocked; Twitter is still working.
"Facebook just stopped. I did not get any messages my friends might have sent,” said Darshini, who is 60 and did not reveal her surname. “I only used the phone after that.”
Darshini thought that, in light of what had happened and was still unfolding, the ban was probably for the best.
“It’s probably a good thing. When the wrong thing goes around, emotions can be triggered and it can be taken out on any man on the street,” she told The Washington Post by phone. A “temporary ban is good to cool everyone down,” she said.
"I feel that fake news and hate speech could be minimized. It has helped reduce the impact of the conflict,” echoed Shamika Kulasingham, a 22-year-old studying English at Colombo University — though she noted over the phone that many people expected a ban was coming and had downloaded virtual private network, or VPN, software.
Kulasingham and others anticipated a social media ban because they’d seen one put in place before: In early 2018, amid anti-Muslim riots, the government banned Facebook because the social media giant wasn’t regulating hate speech that was in turn inciting violence, as BuzzFeed News reported. People started using VPNs to access social media back then, and so were ready with VPNs this time around.
Some in Sri Lanka are concerned now that misinformation could turn to religious or ethnic violence.
“Wrong rumor mongers can instigate violence. We don’t want another 1983 Black July situation, which was enhanced due to wrong rumors,” said Darshini, referring to the riots against Tamils that many see as the true starting point of widespread violence between Tamil separatists and the Sri Lankan state that engulfed the country until 2009.
But not everyone agreed that the ban was such a good thing.
In Sri Lanka, where the government tightly controls traditional media, social media is “a boon for us,” tweeted Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, a Sri Lankan Internet researcher. “To a large extent much of race hatred is still [fueled] by print media in this country,” he added.
Others are concerned less with the principle of press and more with the practicalities of communicating with loved ones. Chalani Sulochana told The Post at the at the National Hospital near Maradana that she realized Sunday afternoon that she couldn’t reach her brother — whose wife was injured in Sunday’s attacks — by Facebook, and could only find out that he was safe when he called by phone. Sulochana, 24, lives two and a half hours away from her brother, and would normally use WhatsApp video calls to check in on her sister-in-law, who is in line for an operation. But WhatsApp — the go-to option for many who don’t have iPhones and can’t FaceTime — had been disabled.
The social media ban is also cause for concern for those who live still farther away. From Canada to the United States to Britain, people have said that the social media ban has made it difficult for them to contact loved ones and make sure they’re safe in the wake of the worst violence the country had seen since the end of its civil war.
“Anyway, the social media ban in Sri Lanka is definitely putting me on edge a bit. I understand why they did it but I just want to check in with my family,” tweeted one British-Sri Lankan university student. “Plus it’s not fun having my mum calling/texting me every hour asking why my cousins are inactive on Facebook.”