Serapina was in a foul mood this morning. “Balanna Akkey, Facebook block-karala aapahuw (See, Sister, Facebook has been blocked once again),” she said, angrily. It was the morning after the clashes between two groups in Negombo had resulted in the authorities blocking most social media sites, essentially as a precaution to prevent hate speech. Serapina [...]

Business Times

Social media woes


Serapina was in a foul mood this morning. “Balanna Akkey, Facebook block-karala aapahuw (See, Sister, Facebook has been blocked once again),” she said, angrily.

It was the morning after the clashes between two groups in Negombo had resulted in the authorities blocking most social media sites, essentially as a precaution to prevent hate speech.

Serapina was seated under the Margosa tree with Kussi Amma Sera and Mabel Rasthiyadu, sipping cups of tea and discussing the previous night’s events.

Api dannawa mey dawastike, karadarak wunoth, samaja maadya avahira karanawa kiyala. Habai eka honda-da? (We know that these days when there is some trouble, social media will get blocked. But is that right?),” asked Mabel Rasthiyadu.

Playing the devil’s advocate, Kussi Amma Sera said: “Meka kere kalabala-kari thathwaya adukaranna (It was done to reduce tensions).”

As I watched the trio discussing a very complex issue that has gripped Sri Lanka – blocking social media sites when a crisis (be it political, social, ethnic or criminal) occurs – I wondered whether there are different ways of reducing tension during these periods rather than blocking access to these sites.

In a way, social media has become the biggest purveyor of news and views in general across all platforms and in today’s age, followed and used by millions in Sri Lanka. For that matter, anyone with a mobile phone and an Internet connection is switched onto some form of social media, as official data show. They get more information through these platforms than normal print, radio and television media. More on the data later.

As I pondered these complex questions which often have difficult and no easy answers, the landline rang. It was ‘Shifty’ Silva, the always-inquisitive IT expert, on the line. It was a welcome call as I had intended to contact him to get some comments on the impact of blocking social media sites.

While most social media sites were blocked for several days after the Easter Sunday bombings, it was for a few hours in the case of the latest clashes in Negombo, a few days back. During these times, social media users resorted to other ways like proxy sites or VPN (virtual private network) to get their information and this was confirmed by Shifty Silva.

“From three-wheel drivers to corporate executives, everyone knows about VPN,” said Shifty, adding: “In that sense, blocking social media to minimise the flow of information particularly hate or provocative messages becomes meaningless.”

“On the other hand, does blocking social media affect business?” I asked.

“Yes in many ways. Lots of small businesses even small bakeries use platforms like Instagram to promote their products. Social media is a powerful tool used by a cross-section of small businesses as it is cheap, effective and provides instant access,” he replied.

He said that it was understandable if social media was blocked for a few hours, like in the aftermath of the Negombo incidents, but was inadvisable to block it for long spells like in the case of last year’s Kandy riots and last month’s Easter Sunday crisis.

“Somehow people will get their information through other social media sites,” he said. The more popular platforms are Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Whatsapp and Viber among others.

What is interesting and which Sri Lankan authorities should take note of and possibly do is develop a policy on tackling social media and moderating messages whenever a crisis occurs. Otherwise, a clamp down on social media affects a sizable number of big and small businesses which use it as a promoting and selling platform. A bumptious bureaucrat stopping access to these platforms on a directive from a Government high-up, means cutting a lifeline to many small businesses, which in today’s context are already suffering due to poor consumer sentiment for many months now.

And to those who rely on social media for information, blocking these platforms is like those good old days when censorship was imposed on newspapers, radio and television during a crisis. Information was controlled by a Competent Authority. Likewise, blocking social media websites is a censorship of news. It never really works.

To what extent is social media used in Sri Lanka? Statistics show that among the country’s 21 million population, there are 6.71 million Internet users of which 6 million are active social media users. Among them 5.5 million are on Facebook.

According to Central Bank data for 2018, the total number of mobile telephone connections increased significantly by 15.4 per cent to 32.5 million connections in 2018. Total fixed wireline telephone connections increased by 1.5 per cent, while total fixed wireless connections showed a decline of 9.7 per cent.

Total Internet connections recorded a growth of 23 per cent in 2018 with the support of increased fixed Internet connections. Fixed Internet connections grew by 25.2 per cent to 1,530,099, while mobile Internet connections increased by 22.4 per cent to 5,733,062 connections.

Other sources say that from mid-2016, the number of Facebook users in Sri Lanka increased to 5 million from 4 million with more women between the ages of 18-24 being on Facebook than men.

Today, social media usage unlike in the recent past, cuts across all age groups. A friend related a story of how an ageing couple was bored at home and often feeling depressed as they didn’t have many things to do. A family member then provided them with two smartphones with Internet connections and soon they were sharing messages and views with other family members on Facebook. It kept them occupied, their minds alert and the regular use of the keyboard on the phone meant their fingers were also active, most of the time. It was a great reliever from boredom.

At this moment, Kussi Amma Sera walks in with another cup of tea that I had requested and says, “Apey putha-ta mama kathakera (I spoke to my son).” She had been trying to contact her son, who is in the village, on Whatsapp the previous night without success.

While in this day and age information cannot be curbed by blocking popular social media sites, the Government, as stated earlier, needs to devise a policy on how to handle social media in times of crises to curb hate and provocative messages which could escalate tensions and lead to violence like what happened in Kandy last year. Such a policy should also take into account that small businesses and self-made entrepreneurs suffer the most when social media is blacked out.

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