Straight after the terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka, the government disabled services such as Facebook in order to stabilize the situation in the country. It’s the dominance of the platform, however, that makes such a decision hazardous.
What is your priority?What is your priority when an attack takes place close to where your parents live or where your friend went on holidays? Obviously you’d want to know immediately how your loved ones are doing. You will call and text, until you get in touch. Or, imagine that you happen to be close to an attack yourself. You have little or no information. Down the road you see a person running that is packed with weapons. You’d call the police immediately, right?
Cutoff from the worldHowever, your apps aren’t working. You are shocked to see that the signal bars, that should show the quality of your network connection, aren’t there. You try to call in vain, it isn’t possible to connect to the mobile network. You can’t inform your loved ones, you can’t find information about what’s going on and you can’t call the police. Right at the time that communication and knowledge are vital, you can’t actually do anything. You are powerless. Afterwards, it appears that the telecom providers switched off their mobile networks directly after the attack, obeying police orders. This measure was necessary for safety, because it was suspected that the perpetrators were using the mobile network.
It is life-threatening to be so dependent on an extremely dominant platform.
For your safetyThis scenario isn’t that far-fetched. A few years ago the telephone network in the San Francisco underground was partially disconnected. The operator of the metro network wanted to disrupt the demonstration against police violence after such a protest disturbed the timetable. The intervention was considered justified based on the safety of passengers. As a consequence of the previous demonstrations the platforms had become overcrowded with passengers that couldn’t continue their journeys. However, the intervention was harshly criticised as the deactivation of the phone network had endangered the passengers. Because, how do you alert the emergency services in an emergency situation when nobody’s phone is working?
Internet as a source for speculationsImmediately after the horrific attacks in Sri Lanka the government did something similar: it made services like Facebook unavailable. In doing so, the government tried to avoid that the constant flow of unconfirmed posts and speculations which were being spread through services like Facebook, would worsen the chaos in Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, Facebook is practically a synonym for “the internet”. It is the main communication platform in a country where zero-ratings flourish and where people can\'t easily afford afford an expensive data plan.
Because how do you alert the emergency services in an emergency situation when nobody’s phone is working?
Fear, discontentment and angerFacebook’s dominance results in the fact that the materials that are being published on the platform can have a huge reach very quickly. And, it is exactly the posts that capitalize fear, discontentment and anger, that have a huge potential to go viral, whether they are true or not. Facebook in itself doesn’t have an incentive to limit the impact of these posts. On the contrary: the most extreme messages are playing a contributing role in the addictive character of the social network. These kinds of posts are in itself no threat of the physical safety of people, but in the context of terrorist attacks it can be lethal.
Harmful side-effectsThe distribution of false information is apparently such a huge problem, that the Sri Lankan government decides that there’s no other option than to disconnect the principal communication platform in the country. A decision with far-reaching consequences: people are being isolated from their main source of information and from the only communication tool to their family and friends. Apparently we find ourselves in a situation in which the harmful side-effects of such a platform are perceived to be bigger than the gi-gan-tic importance of open communication channels and provision of information. Rather no communication, than Facebook-communication.
Life-threateningThe situation shows how dangerous it is when a society is so dependent on Facebook: an omnipotent platformMoreover, this dependency also makes it easier for a government to, by censoring, gain control. led by perverted incentives. Yes, we need to make sure that these companies will operate better, but that is not the same as the decrease of independence of the platforms. The real challenge is how we can make sure that there is a large diversity of news sources and means of communication. Dependency on one dominant source of information is life-threatening in the information era.
This article was translated from Dutch to English by two volunteers of Bits of Freedom: Winnie van Nunen and Amber Balhuizen. Thank you two!