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Violence prompts global social media crackdown

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

World leaders are scrambling to contain acts of violence and hate crimes by introducing censorship measures, or by shutting down parts of the internet (or the whole network) in trouble spots.

Why it matters: Some experts argue that heavy-handed rules meant to curb the online promotion of violence could unintentionally make the problems worse instead.

Driving the news: Sri Lankan officials have temporarily blocked social media and messaging apps in the country to curtail the spread of fake news after multiple bombings killed hundreds of people on Easter Sunday.

  • Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, YouTube, Viber, Snapchat and Facebook Messenger have been blocked in Sri Lanka, according to data from Internet monitoring group NetBlocks.

Yes, but: Experts worry that by taking strong measures to disconnect the internet, leaders could be making the situation worse for a few reasons.

  • Rumors spread in a vacuum: "Given the awful events in #SriLanka, it is understandable, but counterproductive, to shut down social media platforms. Rumor spreads most easily in a vacuum. The best way to tackle misinformation to counter it with accurate factual information." said Peter Cunliffe-Jones, founder of Africa Check, an independent fact-checking organization, in a tweet.
  • It gives bad actors an opportunity for more damage: “What we’ve seen is that when social media is shut down, it creates a vacuum of information that’s readily exploited by other parties,” said Alp Toker, executive director of NetBlocks, to the Associated Press. “It can add to the sense of fear and can cause panic.”

Other research shows that blocking social networks can actually result in an increase in violence. Jan Rydzak, associate director of Stanford's Global Digital Policy Incubator, concluded in a 2016 paper examining social media shutdowns in India, "Shutdowns are found to be much more strongly associated with increases in violent collective action than with non-violent mobilization."

  • "Violence does not seem to require use of social media and messaging applications," Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, said. "This violence is at least in part animated by the efforts of key domestic actors perfectly capable of doing gruesome work without social media."

The big picture: A pattern is emerging separating countries that outright shut down or censor networks from those that vow to pass tougher laws.

  • "It's clear that governments that are less committed to fundamental human rights are taking a far more interventionist stance," says Nielsen.

For some democratic nations, strong measures to regulate social media and messaging apps have emerged in the wake of violence, but there haven't been any efforts to out-right block networks.

  • For example, after the mosque shootings in New Zealand last month, officials called for tough penalties against tech executives that don't act to limit hate speech, but did not seek to block any social media channels.
  • Incidents of violence and hate crimes in the U.K. and the U.S have resulted in similar approaches.

But in other countries, particularly developing nations where social media and messaging apps have become synonymous with the internet, leaders are rushing to stop the spread of hate speech by shutting off networks altogether, usually temporarily.

  • Sri Lankan officials have done this before. The country blocked social sites in 2018, in light of a 10-day nationwide state emergency declared around violence between Muslim and Buddhist communities.
  • India announced a proposal earlier this year to install Chinese-style internet censorship rules ahead of its elections to curb hate speech, unlawful content and misinformation. The country has been battling hate crimes and violent attacks caused by the spread of misinformation on Whatsapp.
  • Some African nations, like Zimbabwe, have introduced full or partial internet shutdowns in light of violence. Other countries, like Democratic Republic of Congo, have done so in light of upcoming elections.

The bottom line: "The concern among human rights experts is that interventions that are meant to curtail these terrible events sometimes provide political cover for a more general attempt to curtail people’s access to information and ability to express themselves," says Nielsen.

What's next: The link between outbreaks of violence and social media is leading to calls for tighter regulation of social media and messaging apps, pitting free-speech ideals against efforts to curb horrifying incidents.

  • "A few years ago we’d view the blocking of social media sites after an attack as outrageous censorship; now we think of it as essential duty of care, to protect ourselves from threat," said Ivan Sigal, executive director of Global Voices, an international journalism nonprofit, in a tweet.