The decision by the Sri Lankan government this week to shut down the big social networks—including Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, and Snapchat—in the aftermath of an Easter day terrorist attack on three Catholic churches and three upscale hotels feels like a turning point in our relationship with these platforms. A Gordian knot moment, if you will, where instead of agonizing over how to untangle the social media mess you just pull out a sword and cut.
The coordinated attacks, which took place in three Sri Lankan cities and killed more than 300 people, were designed to foment religious strife in a country that has been slowly recovering from a quarter-century-long civil war. On the 10-year path to peace and stability, there have been occasional flareups of religious violence, such as the anti-Muslim riots in March 2018 that left two people dead. In that case, too, the Sri Lankan government temporarily blocked the social networks to contain the violence’s spread.
One member of parliament wrote on Twitter at the time, “Hate speech on @facebook is increasing beyond acceptable levels #SriLanka. Government will have to act immediately to save lives.” He later amended his comment: “I didn’t mean that way. My bad. NO hate speech is acceptable. I meant discussions were beyond acceptable levels at this tense situation.” We get his point, however, even if it appeared insensitive: Facebook clearly doesn’t care enough about the lies and hatred on its site, and usually that is appalling but survivable. At certain times, however, this negligence is more than appalling, it is life-threatening.
Noam Cohen is a journalist and author of The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball, which uses the history of computer science and Stanford University to understand the libertarian ideas promoted by tech leaders. While working for The New York Times, Cohen wrote some of the earliest articles about Wikipedia, bitcoin, Wikileaks, and Twitter. He lives with his family in Brooklyn.
The Easter attacks were of a different scale, and the swift decision by the government to act against the social networks placed them in a different category—that is, the authorities were essentially saying that the social networks are no longer considered tools that can be abused by bad actors to exacerbate tensions but weapons that must be removed from terrorists immediately. That same member of parliament felt no need to explain the blackout on Twitter this time. An aide to Sri Lanka’s president was quoted in The New York Times saying “this was a unilateral decision.”
Before our eyes, the world is reassessing the proper role for the dominant social networks. Ivan Sigal, the executive director of Global Voices, an organization committed to using the internet to foster understanding across borders, took to Twitter to observe in light of the Sri Lanka attacks that, “A few years ago we’d be using these platforms to help each other and coordinating assistance. Now we view them as a threat.” He continued, “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. #facebook your house is not in order.”
In a more innocent era, social networks were considered incredible communications tools—part phone, part community room, part holiday letter—nothing but a boon for our increasingly disconnected lives. In times of crisis, as Sigal writes, they would bind us even closer together. Soon enough, we began to worry if this was the complete picture. We saw social networks as addictive and not necessarily so good for our own health and the health of children—that is, something we clearly enjoyed using but maybe should figure out a way to reduce our dependence on, either through will power or government regulation. A vice like casino gambling or tobacco.
Now, we are recognizing that there is an inherent potential for extremism lurking within global social networks that makes them a danger. There simply may be no safe way to deploy social networks during times of crisis or when bad actors include them in their anti-democratic playbooks. By automatically amplifying any and all messages that appear on their platforms and using highly personal data and algorithms to target those messages to where they will have the greatest potency, social networks are weapons. They must be viewed not as an extension of the people who use them, but as a danger to the greater society.
We need social network control—sensible rules about where, when, and what kinds of platforms should be free to operate, much the way nearly all governments in the world impose comprehensive regulations about where, when, and what kinds of guns should be allowed in communities. To fail to rein in social networks because of appeals to “freedom” would be like allowing vague words written 250 years ago to get in the way of controlling guns.
I’ve come slowly and in fits and starts to this view. Until recently, I’ve preferred to focus on the bad actors who misuse social networks—not only the hate peddlers but the Silicon Valley CEOs who profit from the networks’ misuse. These amoral leaders seemed the appropriate target of scorn.
But by focusing on those individuals’ shortcomings wasn’t I buying into the argument that there was a good way for these social networks to operate, even during a time of crisis or during divisive elections? If only they had the right leaders! In essence, I was replicating the tired defense of unrestrained gun ownership—social networks don’t kill people, people kill people. In point of fact, guns magnify the violence of their users, as do social networks.
Reading the defenses mounted on behalf of social networks in response to Sri Lanka’s decision to impose the blackout (including on WIRED ) again reminded me of the gun control debate. Some defenders noted that Sri Lanka has a relatively unfree press and that social networks were an important alternate source of news and reporting. Alp Toker, executive director NetBlocks, a London-based organization that tracks Internet bans around the world, spoke to the Associated Press about the vacuum of information that is left in the wake of the Sri Lanka social network shutdown and is “readily exploited by other parties. It can add to the sense of fear and can cause panic.”
This, again, speaks to the potency of social networks—their defenders are promising that social networks can replace a corrupt system with a user-based one. I understand the attraction of such a claim, even if it is a form of the gun extremist’s contention that the best answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. That is, a defense based on seeing the status quo as irredeemably flawed, and favoring a type of every-person-for-themself anarchy in its place.
There were other arguments that quickly emerged online in defense of social networks. Some referred to a study that asserted that closing down social networks led to more violence. These assertions can be hard to assess. Opponents of gun laws will argue that the areas with the strictest gun laws—often large cities—have the most gun violence. So how effective is gun control then?
Finally, there was the popular defense that says don’t judge us by the worst users, but by our best users. That is, guns give people a sense of security; they are used for hunting; shooting is a popular sport. A Facebook spokesperson emphasized how the platform served vital functions in a time of crisis. “People rely on our services to communicate with their loved ones and we are committed to maintaining our services and helping the community and the country during this tragic time,” the spokesperson said.
The statement begins, “Our hearts go out to the victims, their families and the community affected by this horrendous act.” A worthwhile sentiment, though it must be said that when such sentiments are expressed by gun control opponents after a mass shooting, they are frequently mocked as merely “thoughts and prayers.” What we really need are thoughtful laws.
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