On that Day…
As news broke on Easter Sunday of the multiple blasts in Sri Lanka officials adopted a Social Media ban for the second time in the recent past as means of avoiding the spread of disinformation. In view of the sense of panic which could have heightened with false information that started spreading on unverified blasts and alleged attempts of bombings, the ban itself served its specified purpose of managing information through official and verified channels i.e main stream media. And the topic of the relentless spread of online misinformation and what to do about it was a hot topic at the recent TED conference in Vancouver, where a series of speakers described the internet as being “broken” with fake news leading to sometimes fatal real-world consequences. But there is also serious and valid concerns rising on the government making snap decisions with Facebook, Whatsapp, Youtube, Viber and Instagram being among the platforms temporarily shut down and opened up again only 9 long days after.
GOSL did the right thing BUT…
While completely respecting the concern for national security and prevention of misinformation, a more holistic view is required on these arbitrary bans that have overarching implications. A comprehensive ban of social media channels as done in China is one extreme but at the very least a consistent one. The stops and starts approach that Sri Lankan seems to adopt, and this is by no means confined to its social media policy, creates far reaching implications than the mere cosmetic estimation on national security. In a digital age thousands of businesses have begun to depend on Facebook and Instagram to drive their commercial intentions. Majority of the small businesses in Sri Lanka depend solely on the online channel and have come to a dead stop over the past few days. While many may argue that all trade and commerce suffered in the aftermath of the bombings and digital commerce is no exception, the direct ban on the very infrastructure of operating this segment of business results in deep scars and may even mean a death knell to some.
Deep Scars to Sri Lankan Online Entrepreneurs…
Leaving aside the sheer loss of confidence, already millions worth of ads that have been sold have not been delivered to the predicted traffic. The virtual stop of 9 days also means that the viability of social media channels going forward needs to be rebuilt from scratch. Other markets can also easily take our lead of pulling the plug intermittently which complete breaks the commercial eco-system. So with the negative precedence set to other markets, Companies like Facebook can even consider excluding Sri Lanka indefinitely. Whatsapp alone is a major informal hub of business transaction. From Hotel/ Travel bookings for smaller outfits to free-lance services from a range of professionals to the international connectivity the platform is a major conduit to Sri Lanka’s business space. The overnight drop of traffic on Youtube alone is causing havoc with earnings of Youtubers plummeting to zero. The sudden abnormal traffic trends that would emerge on Google analytics means it would degrade traffic quality and the ad payouts to Sri Lankan channel content. Trending lists freeze as the Sri Lankan view patterns become abnormal and CPM for Sri Lanka will reduce further discouraging content creators. Countries such as Norway enjoys 55$ CPMs while India is at 5.5$.
In the new world, policy makers and regulators need to wake up and smell the coffee that gone are the days that governments and mainstream media could control information flows. For better or for worse, that power is now decentralized. The extent of benefit derived from a social media ban in controlling a larger failure of the political and security apparatus is unknown and can only be surmised. But the value of social media in countering myths, misconceptions and prejudices cannot be underestimated. Sri Lanka now needs to move to a new phase in its digital transformation to optimize these tools towards enlightened engagement. Bans won’t take us there. Dialogue with professionals and users who understand the animal is the first step on the road to meaningful and consistent digital democracy.
Founder / Chairman – Kapruka.com
Co-Founder / Chairman – Grasshoppers