The Sri Lankan government blocked access to Facebook and other social networking sites on Sunday. This step was taken after suicide attacks killed more than 290 people. It is a move meant to stop misinformation from inciting further violence in a country where online mistruths have fomented deadly ethnic unrest.
But the blackout also had the effect on eliminating a key means of communication during a major terrorist event. It is a problem for both Sri Lankans and foreigners desperate to get information about security and check in with loved ones.
Officials made 13 arrests following the bombings by Sunday evening. But they did not release names of any suspects at that time. No group had claimed responsibility for the attack. And no details about the perpetrators have been released by authorities by then.
But online, there was widespread speculation about the person or group behind the bombings.
Speculations on Social Media
News outlets published names of suspects that had not been verified by officials. One video that named a man in connection with the bombings. And they also showed a photograph, got hundreds of thousands of views across Twitter and YouTube. Websites that used years-old photos with incendiary headlines to promote those same names contributed to the spread of unverified information.
A spokesperson for Facebook, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, told CNN Business, “We are aware of the government’s statement regarding the temporary blocking of social media platforms.” “People rely on our services to communicate with their loved ones and we are committed to maintaining our services and helping the community and the country during this tragic time,” he added.
Sri Lankan officials have a troubled relationship with social media, which many in the country credit with helping bring democracy after years of civil war, but also accused of fomenting racial fear and hatred.
Last year, the government briefly blocked social networks after viral rumours and calls to violence, circulating largely on Facebook, appeared to provoke a wave of anti-Muslim riots and lynchings.
Government officials had repeatedly warned Facebook, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, that the posts could lead to violence. Company officials largely failed to respond until the government shut down access. After which they promised to hire more moderators and improve communication.
Source – washingtonpost.com, buzzfeednews.com, nytimes.com, edition.cnn.com