April 24 2019

Sri Lanka Social Media Shutdown Part of Global Discontent with Silicon Valley

The Sri Lankan government’s decision to shutter access to social-media sites after Sunday’s deadly bombings may mark a turning point…

The Sri Lankan government’s decision to shutter access to social-media sites after Sunday’s deadly bombings may mark a turning point in how countries around the world perceive Silicon Valley – and their willingness act to stop the spread of falsehoods online.

A decade ago, Facebook, Twitter and their social-media peers helped spearhead pro-democracy uprisings that toppled dictators throughout the Middle East, and their services were seen as a way to help in catastrophes, allowing authorities a vehicle to convey crucial information and organize assistance.

Today, though, those same social-media sites appear to some as a force that can corrode democracy as much as promote it, spreading disinformation to an audience of millions in a matter of minutes and fueling ethnic violence before authorities can take steps to stop it.

That sense is heightened by tech giants’ seeming inability to strike a balance between free expression and protecting the public from harm.

“What happened Sunday with the government shutting down access to social media is part of a much larger picture that’s happening all over the world,” said Michael Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, a Washington-based think tank that measures political rights and civil liberties globally. “There’s much, much more major effort by government to regulate the internet, to restrict access to social media.”

Authoritarian-leaning countries have long worked to rein in social media when it challenged their ability to control information. But over the last year, more democratic governments have started to target social-media sites, considering new regulations to stamp out disinformation during elections and to prevent their use as rallying points for hatred and extremism.

Google and Twitter declined to comment. Facebook did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.

“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,” Facebook said over the weekend.

In Sri Lanka, government officials ordered the social-media blackout within hours after bombs exploded in churches and hotels, killing nearly 300 people.

Before the mandate took effect, researchers said they saw hoaxes spreading online that misidentified those behind the attack and the total number of people killed.

It marked the second time in as many years that Sri Lanka sought to prevent citizens from accessing social media out of fear that misinformation could stoke ethnic unrest.

For a week in March 2018, the government blocked access to Facebook and its apps, Instagram and WhatsApp, along with the messaging app Viber, as they sought to curb hateful posts against Muslims while riots spread across the central part of the country. (Read More)

IS Claims Sri Lanka Blasts in ‘Retaliation for Christchurch Massacre’

Islamic State claimed responsibility on Tuesday for the bomb attacks in Sri Lanka that killed 321 people in what officials believe was retaliation for assaults on mosques in New Zealand.

The claim, issued through the group’s AMAQ news agency, was made after Sri Lanka said two domestic Islamist groups with suspected links to foreign militants were suspected to have been behind the attacks at three churches and four hotels. About 500 people were also wounded in the bombings.

Three sources told Reuters that Sri Lankan intelligence officials had been warned hours earlier by India that attacks by Islamists were imminent. It was not clear what action, if any, was taken.

President Maithripala Sirisena said he would change the heads of the defense forces following their failure to act on the intelligence.

“We will be following up on IS claims, we believe there may be some links,” he said.

The government has said at least seven suicide bombers were involved.

In a statement, Islamic State named what it said were the seven attackers who carried out the attacks. It gave no further evidence to support its claim of responsibility.

The hardline militant group, who have lost the territory they once held in Syria and Iraq to Western-backed forces, later released a video on Amaq showing eight assailants, seven of whom were masked, pledging allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Earlier, junior minister for defense Ruwan Wijewardene told parliament two Sri Lankan Islamist groups – the National Thawheed Jama’ut and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim – were responsible for the blasts, which detonated during Easter services and as hotels served breakfast.

The first six bombs – on three churches and three luxury hotels – exploded within 20 minutes of each other. Two more explosions – at a downmarket hotel and a house in a suburb of the capital, Colombo – took place in the early afternoon.

Wickremesinghe said the militants had tried to attack another hotel but had failed.

The U.N. Children’s Fund said 45 children were among the dead.

Footage on CNN showed what it said was one of the bombers wearing a heavy backpack. The man patted a child on the head before entering the Gothic-style St. Sebastian church in Katuwapitiya, north of Colombo. Dozens were killed there.

‘RETALIATION’

Wijewardene said investigators believed revenge for the March 15 killing of 50 people at two mosques during Friday prayers in the New Zealand city of Christchurch was the motive.

“The initial investigation has revealed that this was in retaliation for the New Zealand mosque attack,” he said.

Tuesday was a day of mourning and more than 1,000 mourners gathered for a mass funeral at St. Sebastian church in the coastal city of Negombo, just north of the capital, Colombo, where more than 100 parishioners were killed on Sunday.

The government also said it had blocked online messaging services to stop the spread of inflammatory rumors that it feared could incite communal clashes.

“We blocked WhatsApp because we didn’t want to take a chance,” Wickremesinghe told reporters. (Read More)