Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is an investigative journalist and writer focusing on the radical Left and Islamic terrorism
After Muslim terrorists murdered hundreds of Christians, the Sri Lankan government responded, as it had during clashes between Muslims and Buddhists last year, by shutting down social media.
The Sri Lankan government’s justification for the shutdown was that "false news reports" were being spread through social media. This excuse closely echoed the argument that the media in the United States had been making in its push for censoring Facebook after Trump’s victory to fight “fake news”.
If anyone thought that the media would react critically to a foreign government that ranks near the bottom in press freedom silencing social media, including citizen journalists, they were very wrong.
"Sri Lanka Shut Down Social Media. My First Thought Was ‘Good.’" the headline of a New York Times op-ed blared. “Sri Lanka social media shutdown reveals Facebook's Achilles' heel,” the Washington Post echoed. The theme of both major media pieces was that social media was dangerous and that government shutdowns of free expression might be necessary to keep people safe from “extremism”.
"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," Kara Swisher of Recode ranted in her Times op-ed defending Sri Lankan government censorship.
Swisher’s Recode site also published its own post, “Sri Lanka blocks social media: shutdown shows Facebook can’t be trusted”. An actual journalist would have argued that a government shutdown of free expression shows that the government can’t be trusted. It wasn’t Facebook that failed in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government had received warnings about an incoming attack and had failed to act.
The shutdown of social media prevented the spread of information damaging to the government.
No lives were being saved by shutting down social media. Any Muslim terror plotters already had their orders. And would have been able to bypass the ban using VPN. Christians are a tiny minority and were not about to take to the streets. The shutdown prevented Sri Lankans in their own country and abroad from quickly getting in touch with their loved ones. And limited public criticism of the government.
The Sri Lankan defense ministry already announced why it was blocking social media. And it isn’t to save lives. “Currently, the security sections are conducting investigations in a broad manner on these incidents and the government has taken steps to temporarily block all the social media avenues until the investigations are concluded,” its statement reads.
The military is blocking people from expressing their opinions until it finalizes its story and presents it officially to the public. And this is what our own media supports and wants to see in America.
The issue isn’t whether Facebook can be trusted. It’s whether the media trusts the people.
“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,” Swisher writes.
Giving voice to everyone is the essence of free speech. And that’s what the media opposes.
The media has tried to spin internet censorship, in this country or in Sri Lanka, as an urgent response to a crisis. The Sri Lankan government, Cat Zakrzewski at the Washington Post claimed, "made a unilateral decision: The risks from rampant misinformation and fake news on these platforms were greater than the communications benefits these channels could bring during a crisis."
The risks from “misinformation” and “fake news” are political. Censorship is a political solution.
Democracy does indeed die in darkness. And the darkness is the flow of black ink spilling from The Post.
There are occasional times when censorship can save lives, and those almost always involve revealing military secrets and law enforcement plans, behavior that our own media happily engages in.
If President Trump told the New York Times or the Washington Post that they couldn’t print leaked plans for destroying Iran’s nuclear program, they, and the rest of the media would wrap their thousand-dollar suits and power suits in the First Amendment and cry that they are being censored by a tyrant. But they cheer a government shutdown of social media as an urgent response to the crisis of free speech.
"A few years ago we'd view the blocking of social media sites after an attack as outrageous censorship; now we think of it as essential duty of care, to protect ourselves from threat," Ivan Sigal, the executive director of Global Voices, tweeted.
Who are ‘we’ and ‘ourselves’?
Who needs to undertake this “essential duty of care” to protect “ourselves” from the threat of speech?
Global Voices got its start as an alliance of bloggers fighting for free speech. These days, Sigal sits on a board of George Soros’ Open Society Foundation. Despite their misleading names, Soros organizations have been leading the fight against freedom of speech in this country and around the world.
Why do George Soros and his associates believe that freedom of speech is a threat to them? The threat is a world where everyone, not just the media and Soros groups, can have a voice and reach people.
The tech activists cheering internet censorship were some of the loudest voices calling for net neutrality. Without net neutrality, they howled, the internet would no longer be free. But their idea of a free internet is a place that’s free for billion-dollar platforms to sell, but not for individuals to speak. It’s a world where Netflix can push its garbage original content at the expense of all internet users, but those users had better watch what they say or the plug on their speech will be pulled.
Was that anyone’s vision of a free internet? Did its pioneers envision the world wide web as a space where you can watch Fuller House or where people from around the world can share and debate ideas?
The internet can be little more than a content delivery system. An echo chamber in which Google and its rivals use AI to push content meant to manipulate you into buying, thinking and voting their way. Or it can be the public marketplace of ideas that is open to all voices, the good and the bad, as was intended.
Sri Lanka social media support and the media’s enthusiastic support for it are warning signs on the road. Their vision is of an internet controlled from the top down by oligarchies and governments.
A world where, as the Washington Post likes to say, democracy truly does die in darkness.
Anti-speech activists have made Facebook into the public enemy of their campaign. But their problem with Facebook and other social media platforms, as Swisher put it in the New York Times, is that they “give voice to everyone”. The real villain of the media isn’t Mark Zuckerberg. It’s you. Facebook is being attacked for insufficiently censoring speech. The dot com is collateral damage in a censorship campaign.
Social media is another term for speech. The anti-speech campaigners don’t like to use the word. They talk about “fake news”, “misinformation”, “extremism”, “threats” and “harmful content”. Censorship likewise undergoes an Orwellian renaming to “filtering”, “managing”, “reining in” and a dozen others.
But underneath all the euphemisms, there are only two words. Censorship and speech.
What might Sri Lankans have posted if they hadn’t been censored. We’ll never know. Neither will they. If the enemies of free speech win this war, no one will ever know what the rest of our country has to say.
The cheers for the actions of the Sri Lankan government by media activists, who couldn’t find Sri Lanka on a map and couldn’t name its government, is a trial balloon for censorship in the United States. The false claims that Russian bots and fake accounts on Facebook had altered the election with ‘fake news’ were used to pressure social media platforms into censoring and deplatforming political opponents.
But they aren’t going to stop there.
Now we know that their ideal vision is a world in which the government can just block social media and erase the voices of millions of people with a command, some keys and the flick of a switch.