On Sunday, six suicide bombers launched a coordinated series of attacks in Sri Lanka that killed at least 290 people and injured hundreds more.
Within hours, the government of the island nation took a drastic step by announcing it would temporarily block all social media platforms in the hopes of stopping the spread of false news reports about the attack — a controversial move that illuminates the dire civic toll of online propaganda.
Sanjana Hattotuwa, a Center for Policy Alternatives researcher, told The Washington Post he noted a “significant uptick” in false reports on social media after Sunday’s bombings, including inaccurate accounts of the death toll.
Two pieces of false information in particular — one blaming the attack on Muslim suicide bombers and one claiming that there was prior warning of it — were widely shared, according to Hattotuwa.
In March 2018, Sri Lanka saw an uptick in violence following the spread of anti-Muslim fake news on social media — a situation that ultimately led to another temporary social media ban — so it makes sense that the nation would want to try to get ahead of any new violence in the wake of Sunday’s attack.
However, the social media ban has already garnered criticism for hindering communication between those affected by the bombings and their loved ones.
“I have had friends in London trying to contact me through both [WhatsApp and Facebook],” Sri Lanka resident Roshni Fernando told WaPo, “and I can’t see them or message anybody.”
Billions of people now use social media platforms, and they’ve become an integral form of communication in the modern world — bans on these platforms leave users scrambling for alternative channels to talk to their loved ones during times of crisis.
The bans don’t just prevent the spread of false information, either — they also prevent the sharing of accurate information. As Hattotuwa told WaPo, “While a ban on social media helps to contain the spread of rumors, it also hampers efforts by journalists to push back on them.”
Ultimately, it’s up to social media platforms themselves to find a way to stop the spread of fake news. Whether that will be through the use of advanced algorithms, armies of human moderators, or both doesn’t really matter at this point. All that matter is that it happens soon.
READ MORE: Sri Lankan government blocks social media and imposes curfew following deadly blasts [The Washington Post]
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