In the wake of the terrible Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka, that government shut down access to Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, and other social media services. The shutdown garnered praise from some within the United States and other democratic countries, but as tragic as the circumstances may be, Americans must never come to see social media or other Internet shutdowns as anything other than an authoritarian power move and/or a mistake.
Some commentators seemed to have viewed Sri Lanka’s shutdown through the lens of their own fatigue with social media platforms and the nastiness that can take place there. Without doubt, social media connectivity has intensified not only the positive but also the darker sides of humanity. But it’s important that we all keep the bigger picture firmly in mind.
First, Internet shutdowns, which have become increasingly common throughout the world, have a close and odious association with very dark abuses of power. As Stanford expert Jan Rydzak has written, “large shutdowns sometimes accompany aggressive military or paramilitary operations, rendering them virtually impossible to document in real time by reporters and citizen journalists.” Numerous shutdowns have been observed in the Syrian Civil War, for example, “immediately prior to and during military offensives carried out by the Syrian Army.” Rydzak concludes, “Network disruptions and shutdowns provide an invisibility cloak for violence as well as gross violations of human rights.”
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