Like Clockwork After A Big Tragedy, People Rush In To Blame… Social Media
from the mo-al-pan-ic dept
Apparently the new reality is that following any sort of attack, people will quickly rush in to blame the internet and social media. We’ve seen it in various forms in the past, but it really took off with the Christchurch shootings last month. And, with the horrific and tragic suicide bombings in Sri Lanka last week, it didn’t take long for the same sort of thing to happen. Within hours after it happening, someone had jumped into a Twitter thread on content moderation to let me know that my views on content moderation were clearly invalid, given that the “failure” of social media companies to stop extremists in Sri Lanka was clearly to blame for the attacks. And, hours later, it was announced that the Sri Lankan government’s response to the bombings was to cut off Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp (all owned by Facebook). There was some confusion about this, with some people claiming they could still access Whatsapp, while others could not, and others saying that YouTube was also blocked.
Either way, the government decided that social media was clearly part of the problem here. Sri Lanka has blocked these platforms in the past as well, claiming they were “spreading hate speeches and amplifying them” and last year there was a report that basically said Facebook had completely ignored how extremists used the platform in Sri Lanka. According to a NY Times report from last year:
Time and again, communal hatreds overrun the newsfeed?the primary portal for news and information for many users?unchecked as local media are displaced by Facebook and governments find themselves with little leverage over the company. Some users, energized by hate speech and misinformation, plot real-world attacks.
A reconstruction of Sri Lanka?s descent into violence, based on interviews with officials, victims and ordinary users caught up in online anger, found that Facebook?s newsfeed played a central role in nearly every step from rumor to killing. Facebook officials, they say, ignored repeated warnings of the potential for violence, resisting pressure to hire moderators or establish emergency points of contact.
So perhaps there’s little surprise that the blame finger is quickly pointing to Facebook for these latest attacks. Famed tech reporter Kara Swisher, who has long been critical of how these companies behave, jumped into the pages of the NY Times to say that cutting off these services was the right call:
So when the Sri Lankan government temporarily shut down access to American social media services like Facebook and Google?s YouTube after the bombings there on Easter morning, my first thought was ?good.?
Good, because it could save lives. Good, because the companies that run these platforms seem incapable of controlling the powerful global tools they have built. Good, because the toxic digital waste of misinformation that floods these platforms has overwhelmed what was once so very good about them. And indeed, by Sunday morning so many false reports about the carnage were already circulating online that the Sri Lankan government worried more violence would follow.
She notes that it pains her to say this as a journalist who was always supportive of the idea of connecting the world and allowing everyone to communicate via the internet, but she believes enough is enough. As she notes:
It is a problem, even if the manifestations of how these platforms get warped vary across the world. They are different in ways that make no difference and the same in one crucial way that does. Namely, social media has blown the lids off controls that have kept society in check. These platforms give voice to everyone, but some of those voices are false or, worse, malevolent, and the companies continue to struggle with how to deal with them.
I like and respect Swisher — but this is an overreaction. It’s blaming the messenger app, rather than the root causes of the violence. There were tragedies and massacres in the era before social media as well. And awful people have used new methods of communication for awful purposes, but historically we didn’t rush to blame the communications tool. The radio, you may recall, was credited with helping Hitler’s rise to power in Nazi Germany, but we didn’t decide to ban the radio. Television has been blamed for “dividing” the US over the Vietnam war.
There’s no doubt that new communication tools can be messy, and they can be abused by people with ill-intent. There’s no surprise that some people can be led astray by lies and propaganda — but, again, that’s not new to the internet. While the internet may have more overall scale, it’s not as if “scale” was what was necessary to get a small group of people to set off suicide-bombs in Sri Lanka. And, frankly, the government has said that it had lots of warnings that an attack was imminent — in part because of intelligence gathered on the internet. The bigger question is why didn’t the Sri Lankan government stop the attacks if it was warned they were coming and knew who was involved? And the answer appears to have nothing to do with Facebook, but plenty to do with politics:
Why the security agencies failed to act aggressively on the information before the bombings is now an enormous question. It has been further complicated by a feud between the president and prime minister, which left the prime minister ignorant of the information the security agencies possessed ? leading to bitter recriminations that have created a new government crisis.
The history of bitter infighting between Sri Lanka?s leaders appears to have contributed to a spectacular security breakdown that led to one of the world?s deadliest terrorist attacks.
In other words, if there wasn’t this political infighting within Sri Lanka, we wouldn’t even be discussing Facebook. The fact is that bad stuff happens an awful lot in the world. And when multiple people are involved in the “bad stuff” they’ll have communicated somehow. And, right now, pretty much the easiest way to communicate is via various internet-based tools, so they’ll get used. But if it wasn’t Facebook/WhatsApp, it would have been some other method of communications. It’s not clear what good blocking these sites does, other than pointing the blame away from the government for a period of time.
Yes, there are real problems in people abusing social media platforms and often spreading propaganda and other such disinformation. But if your initial reaction is to “shut down” social media, rather than trying to look at the root causes of why this information is being spread, you’re missing the point.