On April 30th, the Sri Lankan government lifted a ban on social media it had put in place following the Easter attacks that had killed 253 people. Officials had initiated the ban in fear that social media platforms would be used to spread misinformation inciting violence. Though the ban was somewhat unorthodox in that it shuttered access before any evidence of misinformation had actually surfaced, banning social media to prevent violence has become relatively common in recent years. Furthermore, a growing body of evidence has linked the use of social media with violence, and many countries are now pressuring the technology giants to better curtail hate speech, including Germany, which passed a law to that effect in 2017. Even press freedom advocates have not condemned Sri Lanka’s ban, indicating a growing consensus that social media has a darker side.
Nevertheless, some have expressed concern that banning social media during a security incident could set a dangerous precedent in Sri Lanka. And there are those who would stress the positive effects of social media. For example, many credit the networks with bringing democracy to Sri Lanka. On its surface, the idea that social media contributes to democratization seems plausible. The availability of non-governmental alternative sources of information is a crucial aspect of democracy. In the face of a repressive government apparatus, social media can provide that free flow of information, because it is singularly difficult to regulate. Indeed, restrictions are so easy to circumnavigate that Sri Lanka’s 2018 social media ban brought use down by only about 50%. Social media can also be used to organize protests large enough to provide some degree of safety to their members despite repressive regimes, as was the case in Russia’s 2011 protests. Finally, social media can help keep international audiences abreast of pro-democratic movements, as was the case in the Arab Spring.
But unilaterally equating social media with democracy is becoming an increasingly difficult position to defend. As has become clear in the last two years, the 2016 United States presidential election was marred by Russian interference using social media; fake news disseminated on social media was probably enough to reverse the outcome of the election. In fact, Russia’s interference in the United States is part of a broader international propaganda campaign which relies in part on social media to advance Russian interests. This casts considerable doubt on the democratic aspirations of the platforms. Furthermore, whatever pro-democratic benefits social media provides can be effectively countered by governments, for instance with trolls shifting discourse away from genuine opposition through distraction.
Social media can also be used within a single country to undermine democracy. For example, United States President Donald Trump is using Twitter to evade the filter provided by mainstream news agencies and attack the free press. The dilemma presented here is subtle. Trump is not explicitly decreasing access to alternative sources of information. Nevertheless, he is undermining the legitimacy of those sources of information among his core base of supporters, and the media is unable to defend itself or fact-check Trump because of the direct connection Twitter provides between the President and his followers. The likely result of these actions is that, for Trump’s base, there are no legitimate alternative sources of information. This almost certainly makes his supporters less likely to turn against the President, undermining the ability of opposition candidates to garner voter support. This clearly undermines democracy.
Yet, what can be done? As mentioned above, permanently shuttering social media is not very effective. Furthermore, this would ignore the contributions that these technologies have made and can continue to make towards democratic reforms worldwide. However, a change must take place, and a solution is to have social media networks exercise much stricter control over what can and cannot be published on their platforms, eliminating fake news, trolls, and hate speech, while maintaining the free discourse of ideas. This is a tall order. It is essentially asking social media networks to become similar to mainstream news agencies, placing a filter between dangerous, false information and the people that use their services. These changes would require a significant human investment in quality control. However, they are crucial for protecting both consolidated democracies (like the United States) and hybrid regimes (like Russia). Finally, implementing the necessary changes to protect the quality of public discourse could even turn social media into the powerful democratic weapon it always promised to be, thwarting both domestic populist authoritarianism and international antidemocratic campaigns.
These changes could be accomplished through virtuous self-reform, or they could be imposed by the United States government. Indeed, though social media bans can be circumvented, a 50% hit to American use would be devastating to social media companies, and the government could threaten to block services until the corporations improved their practices. This is obviously not an ideal solution, but it may be a necessary step in order to protect democracy in the United States and abroad. The filters provided by the mainstream media are simply too valuable to forsake, and social media must either adopt them or accept its place as an increasingly helpful tool for authoritarian leaders. Robert Dahl, Polyarchy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971).
 Scott Gehlbach, “Reflections on Putin and the Media,” Lecture, University of Chicago (May 2018).
 Richard Gunther, Paul Beck, and Erik Nisbet, “Fake News Did Have A Significant Impact On The Vote In The 2016 Election,” Working Paper, Ohio State University (2018).
 Todd Helmus, Elizabeth Bodine-Baron, Andrew Radin, Madeline Magnuson, Joshua Mendelsohn, William Marcellino, Andriy Bega, and Zev Winkelman, “Russian Social Media Influence,” RAND Corporation (2018).
Photo by Marc Schäfer on Unsplash.
I completely agree that social media companies need to be held to stricter standards and must ensure that the content displayed on their platforms does not target groups in a way that poses a threat to their safety, or is used to spread false information that could have dire consequences. However, I would push back on allowing governments to shut down social media services, or threaten to do so until, this is achieved. While I do think that the intent of Sri Lanka’s actions is a good one, I worry that the shutting down of social media sites is in itself a threat to democracy. While it may be said that in democratic regimes, the short-time shut down of these services does not pose a threat to democracy I believe that it sets a dangerous precedent. Social media has become a vital way for people to communicate information, such as their location and safety during a large security threat. It can also be used to spread messages that can lead to nation-wide social change, as was the case during the Arab Spring and as has been the case with the use of social media to share videos of police officers behaving in racist and dangerous ways against people of color in order to fight back against this racist practice. Social media has become vital to spread any message in our society, and the government’s ability to take that power away, or at least deeply damage it, is a threat to any democracy as it amounts to taking away the people’s voice. If the government begins this practice, what is to stop them in the future from shutting down social media when anti-regime rhetoric is being spread? This power is a slippery slope for the government that could lead very quickly to a case of democratic erosion and stricter governmental crack-downs on free speech. As such, while I applaud the intent of Sri Lanka’s actions, it is imperative that countries find other ways to push social media companies to crack down on content that is not factually accurate.