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The double-edged sword of regulating social media

The double-edged sword of regulating social media

2 months ago | BY Sumudu Chamara

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  • Social media users split over protecting free expression from Govt. moves to curb dissent under the guise of tackling cybercrime via the biased implementation of new laws, and acknowledging the need to protect children, society from the destructive use of social media 

“The manner in which people exercise their freedoms change with time. When it comes to freedom of expression, at present, it is exercised more and better through online platforms such as social media than through traditional media. Therefore, a threat to social media use is essentially a threat to several freedoms, the main one being the freedom of expression”.

These concerns are a response to one of the Government’s plans that has attracted criticism, where early this month, President Ranil Wickremesinghe stated that the Government is taking steps to introduce a Parliamentary Act –  which is similar to the Telecommunications and Social Media Act that is currently in force in Singapore – in order to regulate social media platforms, including YouTube and Facebook. The President stated that even though Sri Lanka has laws which are applicable to newspapers and electronic media, there is no such legal framework in place to regulate social media platforms. He made these statements in response to a question on the steps that were being taken by the Government with regard to the activities of certain social media activists.  

In conversation with The Daily Morning, social media users of diverse backgrounds expressed both support and opposition to the Government’s plans.

An unacceptable, unnecessary move

Despite the President’s determined plans, the general public’s aversion towards social media-related regulations, which was expressed on several occasions during the tenures of the past two Governments, which were also partial to such regulations, does not appear to have changed. They remain assertive that although legal action against illegal actions taking place on social media platforms is acceptable, regulations that aim to muzzle social media users are not warranted and would be objected to.

“I am not surprised. This Government is way craftier than the Government under former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and it has been evident in several instances since coming to power. As illegal attempts to silence the people have failed, the Government is now trying to make laws to achieve it under the pretext of addressing real issues, such as online harassment, cybercrimes, and hate speech. We witnessed what Governments and law enforcement authorities did to dissenting social media activists during the past two decades, even in the absence of laws specific to social media platforms, and therefore, we can only imagine how new laws would empower the Government and law enforcement authorities to violate the people’s online freedom legally,” 32-year-old trainee sales professional Yashan Anuththara said.

His concerns were shared by many who spoke with The Daily Morning. They were of the opinion that the proposed social media-related regulations are an attempt to curtail anti-Government criticism that is expressed and anti-Government movements that are organised via social media platforms.

In this regard, 39-year-old entrepreneur Sandamali Perera (name changed on request), said: “If addressing social media use in a harmful or illegal manner is what is expected of the proposed regulations, then the existing laws must be strengthened. For example, if hate speech is already an offence under any of Sri Lanka’s laws, amend it in a manner that makes it possible to take action against online hate speech as well. Instead of addressing social media-related offences on a case-by-case basis, introducing laws to target anyone and everyone that exercises the freedom of expression, especially against the Government, is obviously another step of the ‘anti-aragalaya’ (people’s struggle) campaigns,” he added.

Meanwhile, several persons expressed great opposition to the plans to introduce a law similar to Singapore’s social media law, claiming that by doing so, the Government is attempting to show that it is normal to impose regulations related to social media use and that it is an internationally accepted practice when in reality, a majority of countries advocate for more freedom on social media platforms. They opined that even if internationally accepted laws related to logical and effective social media use were introduced, it is unrealistic to expect the Sri Lankan authorities to properly implement those laws, adding that those laws would most likely be used for the Government’s political witch-hunt against “aragalaya” activists and those who are critical of the Government and the authorities.

Protecting society 

Among those who support the Government’s plan are those who believe that there should be a way to deal with the undisciplined use of social media, which they said is the root cause of many forms of misinformation which leads to bigger issues. They note that the influence of social media on society is massive and that such a massive influence should be controlled.

Among several persons, this opinion was expressed by 51-year-old private sector worker Wasath Epa: “The power of social media is like the power of the Executive Presidency. If used judiciously, both can achieve great things. But, if used like a fool, both bring nothing but destruction. Social media is more powerful than we think, especially because access to the internet has become an extremely normal thing. In the same way in which you can spread accurate, useful, and positive information and opinions, you can also spread inaccurate, useless and destructive information and opinions. The danger is, both types of information and opinions could circulate on social media platforms without facing any issue most of the time.” 

If social media users are unable to use those platforms in a responsible manner, Epa said, imposing regulations is not only a response to the above-mentioned situation but is also a service for the wellbeing of society.

A handful of persons that spoke with The Daily Morning expressed support for the Government’s plan, noting that social media platforms have become a place where all forms of anti-social and harmful matters are discussed with little to no restraint. Some of them pointed to illegal gatherings and parties that are organised via social media platforms as one of the main issues and explained that many scammers find their victims via such platforms, adding that these are reasons why Sri Lanka needs regulations targeting these platforms. However, according to some, the severity of the proposed laws should depend on the severity of the issues that Sri Lankans are facing via social media. Claiming that social media has become a menace to society due to their unregulated, unmonitored, and undisciplined use, some of them opined that the stricter the proposed laws the better. 

Saving the next generation

Age-specific social media regulations, according to some, are a necessity to which the Government should pay attention in order to minimise the negative impacts of social media-based activities on children.

“I fully support this proposal as long as it helps us save our children from all the inappropriate content they come across via social media,” 41-year-old mother of two teenagers, Rakitha Chandra, said. In response to a question as to what she deems to be inappropriate content, she said that any content that hinders children from adopting good values, such as being respectful, excelling at academic activities, and rejecting immoral habits, such as the consumption of drugs and being critical of others unnecessarily, are inappropriate content. In addition, Chandra explained her idea of useful social media restrictions targeting children: “I am not saying that all children should be completely banned from using social media. I think that children below the age of 14-15 years should not be allowed to use social media, while children up to 17-18 years should be given limited and monitored access, and once they complete the age of 18 years, they could have complete access. Put simply, I think that children should have access to only what they could discuss and comprehend at a certain age. Allowing children to access all forms of content irrespective of age, is a disservice we are doing to our next generation.” 

When queried about the possibility of such regulations limiting the freedom of expression, she said that if someone’s exercise of freedom of expression affects another, that should be dealt with regardless of the medium that they choose to do it on and that social media platforms should not be exempted.  However, she acknowledged that what decides whether a certain statement is tantamount to the misuse of the freedom of expression, especially in the case of hate speech, is subjective, although some related offences such as fake news could be assessed easily.

Overall, while there are concerns about the intentions behind the aforesaid plan, especially concerning people’s freedom of expression and right to dissent, some also see benefits of introducing regulations targeting social media use. The people’s support for the said move depends largely on how the proposed regulations address some of the pressing social media-related issues, as pointed out by the people.

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