Sri Lanka is only the latest Asian country to ban social media

In anticipation.
In anticipation.
Image: REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte
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Sri Lanka is the latest Asian country to block social media.

Bushwacked by a critical economic crisis that has also spawned civil and political unrest, the island nation, on April 3, banned the use of social media and messaging platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and WhatsApp. This was in anticipation of mass protests against the government’s failure to halt the economic slide.

The shutdown makes Sri Lanka the 11th Asian country, since 2015, to have banned social media to counter public protests, research by UK-based privacy and VPN service company Surfshark shows. Overall, 30 countries in Asia alone have used social media bans to various ends.

China blocks almost all foreign social media at present, while several countries in the past have used bans for short durations. Vietnam, for instance, blocked Facebook during then US president Barack Obama’s visit.

In India, internet shutdowns in regions like Jammu & Kashmir meant there was no access to social media. Faster data service like 4G  was restored in the region only in January 2021, nearly 18 months after being withdrawn following the erstwhile state’s restructuring by the Indian government.

Overall, Asia’s social media censorship has been the strictest among the 193 UN countries, according to Surfshark’s report. Up to 72 of these countries have taken drastic measures.

“The tendency to block access to social media sites is especially prevalent in countries where state authorities own or control the internet infrastructure,” Surfshark said in its report. “This enables the authorities to quickly employ sporadic shutdowns to disrupt the expected movements of the democratic public.”

Which governments choose to exercise control over the internet also points to the state of freedom and democracy in these nations.

Internet and the state of democracy

African nations are notorious for blocking access to social media during elections, protests, or civil unrest. The continent has a volatile environment for such firms, according to Surfshark.

Northern American countries have largely avoided such bans, but countries like Brazil, Cuba, and Ecuador have come down heavily at various junctures—Venezuela has imposed social media bans 12 times since 2015. In Europe, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Montenegro are the only nations to have taken that dark path.

The notable exception has been the Australian continent, with no curbs ever imposed since 2015.