In the wake of last Sunday’s Easter bombings, Sri Lanka blocked residents from accessing the country’s most popular social media and messaging apps, including Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp and Viber.

As Mother Jones reports, the platforms were blocked to prevent the spread of viral misinformation from inciting further violence. But some are wondering if the government ban might have done more harm than good.

The privacy paradox ⚔️

The ongoing shift from public to private messaging channels is a double-edged sword. In a post-Cambridge Analytica world, messaging apps — particularly those with end-to-end-encryption like WhatsApp, iMessage and Telegram – offer data-wary users a more private and secure alternative to social media sharing.

At the same time, end-to-end-encryption means criminal activity can be impossible to intercept — just ask Robert Mueller — and deadly disinformation can spread like wildfire, as we saw in India this year. The backlash has become so intense that even New York Times columnist Kara Swisher, a veteran tech reporter, applauded Sri Lanka’s decision:

It pains me as a journalist, and someone who once believed that a worldwide communications medium would herald more tolerance, to admit this — to say that my first instinct was to turn it all off.

The blame game 🐐

Not everyone feels this way.

Wired notes that Sri Lanka has a long history of sectarian violence and that messaging risks “becoming a scapegoat for longstanding tensions between ethnic and religious groups.”

Sri Lankans rely on messaging apps to circumvent state media and to keep in touch with loved ones — especially in times of crisis. We’ve seen this play out in Iran, where the authoritarian regime’s year-old Telegram ban may have stymied emergency flood relief efforts. As one activist told Wired:

For those in danger, and for those who want to help, not being able to connect or confirm that a loved one is safe can be devastating.

For every messaging-affiliated horror story there’s an inspiring counterexample about surgeons using WhatsApp to save lives in rural Malawi, or a chatbot that helps combat anti-vaccination propaganda. (There’s also a bot for binge-watching Game of Thrones, in case you need more drama in your life). Messaging won’t solve all the world’s problems.

But it shouldn’t be blamed for them either.


This is an excerpt from The Message, Smooch’s biweekly newsletter about the messaging industry, chatbots and conversational commerce. Subscribe to get the next edition delivered straight to your inbox.