Should a nation really ban social media in wake of terror?

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Sri Lanka has blocked social media in the wake of Sunday’s bombings which have killed over 300 people.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe asked the population to “please avoid propagating unverified reports and speculation”.

The question now stands whether a nation should be allowed to do this, and at what cost.

The background

Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat and Viber are reportedly blocked, according to the BBC; however, Twitter remains online.

The nation is in a state of emergency, and the government believes that foreign terror groups, such as IS, may be involved.

Islamic State’s news outlet, Amaq announced that they were responsible for the attacks, saying: “The perpetrators of the attack that targeted nationals of the countries of the coalitions and Christians in Sri Lanka before yesterday are fighters from the Islamic State.”



Why is social media blocked?

Facebook has played a significant role recently in global terror events.

With the live streaming of the Christchurch massacre, in New Zealand, which saw a white supremacist slaughter Muslim worshippers at two Mosques, there was a great call for Facebook to provide extra measures to avoid the propagation of terror-related material online.

But the broadcast of terror attacks isn’t the only concern.

Apps such as WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, could allow private messaging and coordination in the run-up to attacks.

Conversations on WhatsApp are fully end-to-end encrypted, which means they are private between the chat participants.

There is debate as to how secure this is, and what Facebook as a parent company can view, but as a general point of note, law enforcement won’t be able to access conversations.

Should social media be blocked?

Here is the problem with  Sri Lanka’s state-wide blockage of social media; it is an incredibly useful tool for freedom.

While there are concerns of intensive data hoarding on users, the front-end user interfaces of social media allow for free speech and open discussion.

Tools like Facebook’s Safety Check provide a way for victims and locals to reassure their family and friends that they are safe in an emergency.

This tool can be used even if the phone service is overloaded with frantic calls.

On a more sinister note, one should refer to the Tiananmen Square protests in China.

References to such are heavily censored by the Chinese government, with social media sites blocking references and remembrances.

There is a very narrow line here, which divides the political motivation for blocking social media.

In the case of Sri Lanka, it would seem that they are trying to cut off all further terror-related correspondence to prevent plans for further attacks.

But what would happen if the ban continued longer than it should? How long should it be enforced exactly?

The terror threat is constant, so citing that as a reason to block social media is a slippery slope.

Likewise, weighing up what the civil liberties demand versus the need for public order and safety becomes a brutal board game on the vertical axis of the political compass.

The debate hangs on the balance of Authoritarian versus Libertarian beliefs. Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Those people who fall in the lower quadrants of the compass will likely oppose the bans on social media.

This could cause secondary problems to the country such as protest.

Setting the precedent of a social media ban after each terror incident also adds value to acts of terror.

Terror organisations may be further incentivised, knowing the additional levels of destabilisation caused by these blockades of freedom, will spread further fear.

Furthermore, much like the heavily criticised upcoming UK ban on adult content, there are easy workarounds such as the use of a VPN.

VPNs are tools used to conceal the identity of an internet user and allow their internet connection to appear in another country.

This will circumvent the block, and since VPNs are such a commonly used tool to conceal unsavoury actions, it is not far fetched to imagine that they will already be set up on the computers of many extremists.

All in all, no one solution can 100% prevent attacks.

While cutting communication may well affect heavily coordinated efforts, such as the attack in Sri Lanka, there is always the threat of lone parties armed with vehicles and knives, which require no online communication to coordinate.

The governments of this world must establish a method to prevent radicalisation of people, not to block them.