After coordinated Easter Sunday bombings of churches and hotels in Sri Lanka killed more than 250 people, the Sri Lankan government quickly did what many governments now do in times of crisis: it cited the threat of misinformation and temporarily shut down social media.

But there's a complex debate to be had on the benefits of a social media shutdown versus the costs. Millions of people couldn't contact friends and family, because, in Sri Lanka, social media platforms are the internet itself. And such is the online reliance on Facebook or WhatsApp.

At first, there were "dozens of WhatsApp messages through various groups trying to figure out what had happened", says Dharsha Jegatheeswaran, research director, Adayaalam Centre.

But then, "around midday, one by one WhatsApp stopped functioning, Facebook was not loading, Instagram was not and also YouTube and Snapchat", adds Nalaka Gunawardene, author and media analyst. "Social media platforms were not working any more." 

Everybody has VPNs in the country ... So I'm not sure about the effectiveness of a block in a context where VPNs are so broadly debated and discussed.

Sanjana Hattotuwa, founder, Groundviews

Within six hours of the coordinated blasts across Sri Lanka, allegedly by a local group that had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), the social media shutdown came into effect.

Beyond the question of whether a social media blockage is in the societal interest is the question of how effective blockages are. The evidence suggests shutting off social media does little to check the spread of misinformation, particularly in a tech-savvy country like Sri Lanka, where the use of VPNs - virtual private networks - is widespread.

"Everybody has VPNs in the country," explains Sanjana Hattotuwa, the founder of Groundviews. "And so the first thing that people talk about when they get a hint that the government is trying to block social media is what VPNs you should download and that you should do it immediately. So, I'm not sure about the effectiveness of a block in a context where VPNs are so broadly debated and discussed."

Sri Lankans would be less dependent on social media if they had more faith in mainstream news outlets. But they do not. Call it the Rajapaksa effect.

Mahinda Rajapaksa was the country's president from 2005 to 2015. Under his watch, journalists faced heavy government pressure and some paid for their work with their lives. In 2009, Reporters Without Borders directly blamed the president and state-owned media for inciting hatred and violence against journalists. That's why more and more Sri Lankans turn to social media to access information.

Sri Lanka's social media blockage was supposed to be over by now. But on Friday, President Maithripala Sirisena said there is still too much misinformation out there and if the platforms fail to control it, they may be banned completely.

Under the declared state of emergency, the government also has the power to censor mainstream news outlets. Far from seeing the end of misinformation, Sri Lankans have been left with a lack of information.

Contributors:
Nalaka Gunawardene - author and media analyst
Sanjana Hattotuwa - founder, Groundviews
Yudhanjaya Wijeratne - author and researcher
Dharsha Jegatheeswaran - research director, Adayaalam Centre

Source: Al Jazeera