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Following Easter Attacks In Sri Lanka, A Social Media Ban Disabled Some Apps


As Sri Lanka investigates who was behind yesterday's terrorist attacks on churches and hotels, the government continues to block access to social media there. Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, all owned by Facebook, are among the services under a blackout. This once again brings into focus the fear that Facebook cannot rein in disinformation and calls to violence. NPR's Aarti Shahani is following the situation. Hi, Aarti.


SHAPIRO: What explanation did Sri Lanka's government give for shutting down these social media apps?

SHAHANI: So in a nutshell, the government doesn't trust Facebook to yank down fake news and calls to violence before they go viral. Keep in mind, Sri Lanka is only a decade out of civil war. That's not a long time. People remember it. Peace feels tenuous to them. Just a year ago, last March, Buddhist extremists torched Muslim homes and businesses and used Facebook to incite violence. In response to that, the government had announced a 72-hour block on social media. And this time around, the government is not putting a time limit on it. It's unclear when the ban will come to an end.

SHAPIRO: Of course, there are lots of examples of hoaxes going rampant on Facebook, from Myanmar to the United States. We have to note, they are an NPR sponsor. How has the company responded to what's happening in Sri Lanka?

SHAHANI: The response is meek. Company leaders are not defending themselves. They issued a statement in a pretty conciliatory tone saying, hey, we're working to support first responders and law enforcement and to identify and remove harmful content. Facebook has had so many screw-ups. Executives can't give themselves a pat on the back or claim, hey, we have a handle on calls to violence. As recently as the New Zealand massacre, Facebook failed to remove 20% of the video footage of the mass shooting even though, in that instance, people in the company knew what to look out for.

SHAPIRO: And tell us how people in Sri Lanka are responding to this. I know you've been reaching out to people affected by the blackout. What are you hearing?

SHAHANI: I have. You know, social media has been used time and again to help in crises, right? People turn to Facebook to check in and broadcast that they're safe, to get updates from local officials and hospitals. And especially in Asia, where WhatsApp has replaced regular phone calls for much of the population, the ban really threw people off.

I spoke to one woman, an American named Reena Arora, who was in Sri Lanka on vacation. Her family didn't know if she was in Colombo, near a bomb target. And this is her.

REENA ARORA: They tried to call me several times, I believe through WhatsApp. And they weren't able to get in contact with me. And so they were very concerned for my safety because all of them knew that I was traveling in Sri Lanka at the time.

SHAHANI: She had to worry about her parents worrying that she was injured or even worse than that. And she had no idea WhatsApp was down. When she tried to reach her driver to get to the airport, he didn't respond. And she figured, OK, he's blowing me off. And, you know, he wasn't. He just didn't get the messages. So the both of them were operating in an information vacuum, feeling totally isolated, when what they really needed was to connect in a moment of panic.

SHAPIRO: Can we say whether the blackout has actually worked at preventing the spread of hoaxes and conspiracy theories?

SHAHANI: Yeah, you know, I actually spoke to a man who lives in Colombo. And he told me that even though Facebook was banned, some people used a backdoor tool - it's called a VPN - to get on anyway. And lo and behold, there were posts online designed to sow fear. One post claimed a bomb went off in a nearby local park. That was not true.

Another post claimed that terrorists had poisoned the water supply. That was also a lie. TV and radio journalists had to jump in on that and report that, hey, you can trust the water. You can drink it; it's safe. That was extra work for them. It could have been worse with more people on the platform.

SHAPIRO: Wow. So just briefly, how does what's happened in Sri Lanka compare to what you've seen in other parts of the world?

SHAHANI: You know, what we've just seen in Sri Lanka is very swift, unilateral action. Other countries, like France and Germany, have gone the regulatory route, right? Germany passed laws to fine Facebook severely for its failure to pull down white supremacist content. Either approach - quick or regulatory methodic - they illustrate that because Facebook hasn't been able to take control, governments have decided they're going to have to act.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Aarti Shahani. Thanks so much.

SHAHANI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.