Sri Lanka blocked social media to stop misinformation about the Easter terror attacks. But it didn’t work.

April 25, 2019 and
Category: Fact-Checking

Factually is a newsletter about fact-checking and accountability journalism, from Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network & the American Press Institute’s Accountability Project. Sign up here.

Turning off the internet

When news broke that six sites, including churches, hotels and housing complexes, had been bombed on Easter Sunday, the Sri Lankan government acted swiftly.

Following the terrorist attacks, which had killed more than 300 people as of this publication, government officials blocked several social media sites in an attempt to stop the potential spread of misinformation. The New York Times reported that the ban included Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and Viber.

While extraordinary, the unilateral decision to block social media platforms during national crises is not a new tactic in Southeast Asia.

In October, Wired wrote about how turning off the internet had become a strategy favored by the Indian government to slow the spread of misinformation that could lead to violence. Last year’s shutdowns, which came after dozens of civilians were killed in lynch mobs following the spread of rumors on WhatsApp, have cost the country billions of dollars and are more frequent than in any other country, according to Freedom House.

Sri Lanka has borrowed that strategy from India. The former country shut down the internet for two days last March when misinformation about communal riots spread on social media, resulting in violence targeting the Muslim minority. Two people died, Freedom House reported.

In her New York Times column this week, Kara Swisher said her first thought about the Sri Lanka shutdown was “good,” though later she acknowledged that it wouldn’t work in the end. Meanwhile, observers at outlets like The VergeBuzzFeed and Wired wrote that the ban is a serious overreach of government power that could have ramifications for civil liberties in Sri Lanka.

“If the current U.S. government blocked all access to social networks after a terrorist attack, we would rail against the move as an authoritarian outrage,” Casey Newton wrote in his newsletter for The Verge on Monday. “When other countries do it, we ought to be just as suspicious.”

There’s ample evidence to back up Newton and others’ concerns about the use of internet shutdowns. Exhibit A is how governments around the world have co-opted fears about misinformation to legislate against the mainstream media.

A guide to anti-misinformation actions around the world

And does shutting off social media platforms or the internet altogether even slow the spread of misinformation in the first place? Not really.

“The first day, it was effective as very little came out from Sri Lanka. But even despite the ban (I am not sure if it’s still in place) there is lots of disinformation being shared,” Uzair Hasan Rizvi, a fact-checker for the Agence France-Presse, said in a message. “Some of them are even trying to incite anti-Muslim sentiments by sharing old videos claiming it to be after the attacks. This could have serious repercussions.”

On Wednesday, AFP debunked a bogus photo, shared thousands of times on Facebook, that claimed to show the youngest victim of Sunday’s attacks. Rizvi said he’s working on four more fact checks that debunk social media misinformation about the attacks — and he expects to keep finding bogus claims over the next several days in spite of the ban.

BuzzFeed News also reported that the social media ban in Sri Lanka probably had little effect on the overall spread of misinformation following last weekend’s terror attacks. Reporter Jane Lytvynenko spoke to a Sri Lankan researcher who found that past bans were quickly circumvented by Facebook users who would use virtual private networks (VPNs).

Then there’s the fact that, once the government shuts down social media platforms, it’s not only misinformers who are affected. The reach of work from fact-checkers and journalists — which rely on the platforms to reach their audiences — could tank, too. That means valuable fact checks and context about a developing breaking news story are lost.

From what he can tell, Rizvi said he hasn’t seen the Sri Lankan social media ban affect AFP’s engagement numbers in any meaningful way. But the possibility is still there — and in the future, fact-checkers with a less global reach could see their work buried while misinformation continues to circumvent the defense mechanisms of governments and the platforms.

. . . technology

  • In its latest monthly report on the big social media platforms, the European Union called on Facebook, Google and Twitter to do more to fight misinformation ahead of next month’s parliamentary election.

  • Relatedly, Twitter is encouraging users to flag misinformation in the EU and Indian elections as part of its efforts to head off threats to electoral integrity. Here’s The Washington Post’s take, and here’s Twitter’s own blog post on the move.

  • Last week, Facebook added Science Feedback and The Daily Caller’s Check Your Fact to its fact-checking program. The addition of the latter outlet caused backlash from liberal media commentators online, pointing out that its parent organization frequently publishes hyperpartisan right-wing content. Here’s how the IFCN responded.

. . . politics

  • NBC News wrote about how a network of more than 5,000 bots amplified false claims that the Mueller report was a media hoax aimed at tarnishing the reputation of President Donald Trump. So much for Twitter’s efforts to limit the influence of automated accounts.

  • The advocacy group Avaaz alerted Facebook to three far-right networks that were publishing “inauthentic behavior” aimed at spreading divisive content ahead of Spain’s elections this Sunday. TechCrunch quoted Christoph Schott, campaign director at Avaaz, as saying Facebook did a great job in removing the pages, but “these networks are likely just the tip of the disinformation iceberg — and if Facebook doesn’t scale up, such operations could sink democracy across the continent.”
  • Singapore’s anti-misinformation bill will likely become law in the second half of this year, Bloomberg reportedThe Agence France-Presse reported that nearly 100 academics have expressed concern over the legislation, saying it could threaten academic freedom in the city.

. . . the future of news

  • Remember Alexios, the former co-author of this newsletter? Yeah, we don’t either — but Wired wrote about the project that he’s working on with Claire Wardle at TED. Its mission: “to bring the power of crowdsourcing to the fight against misinformation online.”

  • NewsGuard has expanded its site credibility ranking system to the United Kingdom. For more context on the project, and what it hopes to accomplish, read this excellent Slate piece from January.

  • Several social media companies have deplatformed anti-vaccine conspiracy theories for the threat they pose to public health. Should libraries do the same?

Each week, we analyze five of the top-performing fact checks on Facebook to see how their reach compared to the hoaxes they debunked. Read more about this week’s numbers, and how out-of-context news content spreads misinformation on social media, here.

  1. Liputan 6: “TV Abroad Has Reported ‘Prabowo Subianto The Next President’?” (Fact: 67.9K engagements // Fake: 18K engagements)

  2. PolitiFact: “No, there was not a man ‘dressed in Muslim garb’ walking in a Notre Dame tower during the fire” (Fact: 5.7K engagements // Fake: 1.4K engagements)

  3. Les Décodeurs: “No, Emmanuel Macron and Edouard Philippe were not ‘laughing in front of Notre Dame’” (Fact: 3K engagements // Fake: 9.1K engagements)

  4. Agência Lupa: “It is false that Ciro Gomes is no longer Minister of Finance ‘for incompetence'” (Fact: 1.4K engagements // Fake: 1.8K engagements)

  5. India Today Fact Check: “Fact Check: How Rahul Gandhi’s translator gave armour to opponents” (Fact: 792 engagements // Fake: 22 engagements)

We liked PolitiFact’s piece detailing eight instances in which last week’s report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller showed President Trump or White House officials had spread false or misleading claims.

The Mueller report was a treasure trove for fact-checkers. They checked the report against what President Trump has said in past tweets and in person. They came up with some new angles.

They used it to confirm that certain conspiracy theories, were, in fact, just that (to wit: the Seth Rich murder). They checked it against the “dossier.” And they used it to help the public understand what was, and wasn’t, consistent with what the president has said about obstruction of justice. A good example here is Factcheck.org’s explainer.

To be sure, the report was itself the subject of hoaxes and misinformation circulated in the days after its release, as BuzzFeed reported.

But mostly it was a catalyst of good journalism, and (Poynter-owned) PolitiFact’s day-after rundown was among the most impressive.

What we liked: Within 24 hours of the report’s release, PolitiFact’s Miriam Valverde had compiled several examples showing the ways in which the report contradicted prominent Trump tweets or statements from his aides. We know falsehoods are not unusual in this White House, but this piece didn’t try to be comprehensive. It very straightforwardly presented eight examples in which the White House officials or Trump himself simply gave out false information.

  1. In Turkey, major TV stations keep airing bogus photos and videoswithout fact-checking them. Meanwhile, says Foreign Policy: Russia has won the information war in Turkey.
  2. Bloomberg profiled Boom Live’s fact-checking team, which has been busy debunking hoaxes about the Indian election.
  3. A new conference about misinformation will be held in London this year. And it’s accepting paper submissions.
  4. Meghan Markle has been the subject of online conspiracy theories over her pregnancy, among other things, The Daily Beast reported, quoting one correspondent who covers the royals as being surprised by “the amount of bile and vitriol thrown her way.”
  5. Factcheck.org won a 2019 “Webby” award in the news and politics category.
  6. BuzzFeed News has a new video series aimed at debunking misinformation on YouTube and other social media platforms.
  7. Twitter is hiring a senior policy researcher to “to increase the health of the public conversation, the integrity of information and customer trust.”
  8. The Conversation wrote about why misinformation is so insidious for the human mind.
  9. Weeks after fakery plagued its presidential election, misinformation is threatening to worsen ethnic divisions in Nigeria.
  10. Voice of America wrote about Taiwanese lawmakers’ attempts to pass an anti-misinformation law — and how it could affect the mainstream media.

Until next week,

Daniel and Susan