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Sri Lanka Shuts Down Most Popular Social Media Sites after Terror Attack

The government said it blocked access to the sites because false news reports were spreading through social media

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Facebook, the world's largest social network with 2.7 billion users, has faced criticism since the Christchurch attack that it failed to tackle extremism. VOA

People in Sri Lanka are experiencing a second day without access to some of the most popular social media sites within the country, after the government shut down the services in the wake of a terror attack that killed nearly 300 people and injured hundreds on Easter Sunday.

Facebook and its properties — Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger — were blocked. Access to Snapchat was turned off, as was Viper, a popular chat application.

The government said it blocked access to the sites because false news reports were spreading through social media.

A lack of trust

Sri Lanka’s shutdown of social media is a “wake-up call,” said Ivan Sigal, executive director of Global Voices, a digital advocacy and journalism organization.

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Relatives place flowers after the burial of three victims of the same family, who died at Easter Sunday bomb blast at St. Sebastian Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka, April 22, 2019. VOA

The shutdown reflects governments’ worldwide growing mistrust of Facebook, Google and other digital platforms during periods of crisis, he said.

“What’s different to me is this sense that enough is enough’ with the internet companies. The narrative up to three years ago was that technology companies can help us in times of crisis,” he said. “There really is a shift in the public conversation of what we expect from technology companies — from a sense that they are positive forces to ones that are more complicated and possibly negative.”

Shutdowns are becoming more common after politically sensitive events such as elections, said Peter Micek with Access Now, a digital rights group.

What appears to be changing is that “authorities are putting tragedies such as a terrorist attack or a disaster in the same bucket as politically sensitive events,” Micek said. “I don’t know how governments can communicate with their constituencies with these media bans in place. They only increase the risks to health and safety.”

Social media-fueled unrest

Sri Lankans have experienced social media shutdowns in the past. In March 2018, Sri Lanka turned off access for more than eight days after anti-Muslim riots that left three people dead.

 

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People who live near the church that was attacked yesterday, leave their houses as the military try to defuse a suspected van before it exploded in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 22, 2019. VOA

The restrictions then were at first accepted by many, said Alp Toker, executive director of Netblocks, a digital rights group based in London that monitors government shutdowns. There was a sense that social media was fueling the flames. But citizens quickly clamored for access to be restored, he said.

“People realized they are attached to the platforms,” Toker said.

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Facebook’s safety check

A Facebook spokesperson said that the company is “working to support first responders and law enforcement, as well as to identify and remove content which violates our standards. We are aware of the government’s statement regarding the temporary blocking of social media platforms.”

After the terror attacks in Sri Lanka, Facebook turned on its Safety Check service, which asks people in the affected area to report they are safe. It is unclear if anyone in the country is able to access the site. (VOA)

Next Story

Sri Lanka to Reduce Airline Charges to Help Tourism Industry

The government currently predicts $3.7 billion in revenue from tourism this year, down from an initial forecast of $5 billion

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Buddhist monks take part in a prayer ceremony at a buddhist temple for the victims, three days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 24, 2019. VOA

Sri Lanka’s government announced Tuesday it will reduce ground handling charges for airlines and slash aviation fuel prices and embarkation fees to help the country’s vital tourism industry recover after Easter suicide bombings killed more than 250 people.

Tourism Minister John Amaratunga said the decision will lead to an increase in flights to Sri Lanka and a reduction in ticket prices, which will attract more tourists to the Indian Ocean island nation, famed for its pristine beaches.

Seven suicide bombers from a local Muslim group, National Thowheed Jammath, attacked three churches and three luxury hotels on April 21, killing 258 people, including 45 foreigners mainly from China, India, the U.S. and Britain. Tourist arrivals declined 57% in June from a year earlier, dealing a severe blow to the tourism industry, the country’s third-largest foreign currency earner after remittances from overseas workers and textile and garment exports.

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Kandy Temple of the Tooth in Sri Lanka. Wikimedia Commons

The cuts in charges and fees will be in place for six months, said Johanne Jayaratne, head of the government’s tourism development agency. About 2.3 million tourists visited Sri Lanka in 2018, when 29 airlines offered 300 flights per week. After the April 21 attacks, 41 fights per week were canceled, amounting to a loss of 8,000 passenger seats. Several airlines have reinstated their normal schedules since then, but others have not.

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Dimuthu Tennakoon, chairman of the Board of Airline Representatives, said the government decision will encourage airlines to increase their capacity and offer attractive fares.
“That will definitely happen with this reduction because fuel and ground handling contribute a significant percentage of the total cost element of any airline,” he said.

Tourism accounts for 4.9% of Sri Lanka’s GDP. Around half a million Sri Lankans depend directly on tourism and 2 million indirectly. The government currently predicts $3.7 billion in revenue from tourism this year, down from an initial forecast of $5 billion. (VOA)