Are Social Media Bans A Good Idea?

After terrorists killed more than 300 people in coordinated attacks on Easter Sunday, the Sri Lankan government immediately shut down social media. The official explanation: Temporarily cutting off platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, TikTok, Viber, and YouTube is essential to halting the spread of false information that can further inflame an already tense situation.

The measure – which remains in effect as we go to press – has sparked a debate about the wisdom of shutting down social media during times of crisis. Here's our cut at the best arguments on both sides.

A temporary social media ban is a good idea because:


It weeds out a lot of dangerous garbage. Sri Lankan officials are right. Blocking these platforms knocks out the major pathways for fake news, conspiracy theories, and other inflammatory content that can create a false sense of panic or incite people to violence. Flipping the switch can save lives.

If tech firms won't do it… Tech companies haven't policed their own platforms effectively enough. Government blackouts like this should, in principle, force tech companies to do better. Tiny Sri Lanka may be just a blip for the tech giants, but India – where social media gets blocked much more often – should receive much more of their attention.

Even a temporary ban is a bad idea because:

Alternative sources of information aren't always informative. In Europe or the US, a social media shutdown is an inconvenience, but there are other high-quality sources of news. In Sri Lanka, where press freedom ranks a lowly 126 out of 180 countries, the traditional media channels are suspect. The truth is that in many countries, social media sites – for all their faults – are the primary and most dependable way for people to get real news.

A ban is never air tight. More sophisticated internet users can skirt these prohibitions with Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). So while shuttering social media certainly narrows the flow of potentially harmful information for the broad public, those who know how can still get, or spread, inflammatory content.

It's a bad precedent. One government's genuine crisis is another's opportunity to squelch dissent. As press freedoms and civil society come under increased pressure around the world, it's a dangerous thing to normalize the practice of shutting down what is, from a social perspective, critical infrastructure.

What this debate misses: Questions about the wisdom of cutting off social media platforms focus only on the supply of "fake news" and other forms of misinformation. But the ugly reality is that there is strong demand for inflammatory conspiracy theories that confirm the biases and suspicions that all human beings have. Doubtless, social media piques those impulses in deeply polarized societies – but they aren't exactly offering a product that's hard to sell.

What do you think? In the event of a massive terrorist attack in your city or country, would you favor a temporary social media ban to stop the flow of fake news? Or do you feel confident that you, and those on the other side of town, can separate fact from fiction, allowing you to rely on these sites to tell you what's happening and to connect you with friends and family? Let us know here.

Technology has played a big role in accelerating globalization. While it's our business to advance technology, we also believe that technology should respect and even help protect the world's timeless values. That conviction has led us to announce a new and fourth pillar to Microsoft's AI for Good portfolio – our $125 million, five-year commitment to use artificial intelligence to tackle some of society's biggest challenges. This new pillar will focus on AI for Cultural Heritage. Read more at Microsoft On The Issues.

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This Saturday, July 20, will mark the 50-year anniversary of the day a human being first stepped onto another world. A moment born out of Cold War political pressures, it's easy to forget a half century later how much bitter controversy the project provoked at home and the intensity of the worldwide fanfare that followed its success.

The moon mission's primary purpose was to defeat the Soviet Union. By the time John Kennedy became president in 1961, the Soviet Union had advanced far ahead of the United States in the race for achievement in space. In October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite. A month later, a dog named Laika became the first living creature to travel beyond Earth's atmosphere. In April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth, the first human to do so.

In early May, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, spurring Kennedy to announce a far more ambitious plan. On May 25, Kennedy famously pledged that by the end of the decade Americans would go to the moon and return safely to the Earth.

Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, but new President Lyndon Johnson quickly signaled his intention to see the promise kept. The Soviets held their space lead through 1965, by landing an unmanned craft on the Moon.

The moon mission stoked controversy in the United States. A review of polls reveals that only in 1969 did a majority of Americans support the project. Many people argued that the billions spent on a moonshot should go toward the war in Vietnam or to fight poverty in America's inner cities. "No hot water, no toilets, no lights. But Whitey's on the moon," sang musician and activist Gil Scott Heron. It didn't help when a fire during the Apollo 1 mission killed three astronauts and destroyed their space module.

But when Neil Armstrong became the first person to step onto the moon on July 20, 1969, the event took on a life of its own. It was a decade framed by two images of respected TV anchorman Walter Cronkite—shaken to the core on air by the 1963 murder of President Kennedy and then speechless with awe as Americans bounded across the surface of the moon.

A decade that included confrontation with the Soviets in Cuba, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, a failing war in Vietnam, race riots in American cities, and violent chaos at the 1968 Democratic Party convention ended with an accomplishment a quarter million miles away, that was watched live by 94 percent of Americans who owned a TV.

Americans weren't the only ones watching. About 650 million people around the world watched the moon landing live on TV, making the event the first truly global televised event. Nine weeks later, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins began a world tour.

Concerns that planting an American flag on the moon's surface would seem an act of obnoxious nationalism faded as the three men were greeted by overflow crowds in 27 cities in 24 countries over 39 days. An estimated one million people greeted them in Dhaka (then Pakistan) and some 1.5 million turned out in Mumbai (then Bombay).

Fifty years later, moon missions are still a mark of national prestige. Russia, China, India, the EU, Japan, and Israel have all sent probes to orbit the Moon or landed vehicles on its surface. But none of them matches that first "giant leap for mankind."

Next up: Mars? For thoughts on the next space race, click here.

Bonus fact: An iPhone has more than 100,000 times the processing power of the computer that landed Apollo 11 on the moon.