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Fact Check

AFP
November 17, 2019

Fact-check: Sri Lanka election social media ban?

Fact Check

AFP
Sun, Nov 17, 2019

Multiple Facebook posts claim that Sri Lanka’s Elections Commission has announced a three-day social media ban around the country’s November 16, 2019 election. After the posts many people, including local politicians, expressed concern online over the purported ban. But the Facebook posts are misleading; the Election Commission chairman has said reports of a social media ban were a "lie"; all major social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, were freely available in Sri Lanka on election day, AFP found; many Sri Lankans, including top presidential candidates, were posting on social media on polling day.

This November 12, 2019 Facebook post has an image of the logos of various social networks including WhatsApp and Facebook with a ‘BLOCKED’ stamp across the top.

The Sinhala-language caption says: “The Elections Commissioner has said that all social media platforms will be blocked on the three days of the election and he furthermore advises users to download a VPN app.”

A VPN is a virtual private network which can allow internet users to bypass local restrictions on accessing certain online content or services.

Below is a screenshot of the Facebook post: 

The same claim has circulated elsewhere on Facebook, for example here.

Despite the low number of shares per Facebook post, the misleading claim gained traction online, causing social media users — including local politicians — to express fears over the purported social media block.

For example, this tweet by a Sri Lanka Podujana Party parliamentarian, Kanchana Wijesekera, said the government had “once again restricted the use of SM” — referring to social media.

Below is a screenshot of the misleading tweet: 

The tweet reads: “Not a single post can be uploaded on FB without the use of VPN Apps! Govt has once again restricted the use of SM. Less than 60 hrs for @officialunp Govt to pack their bags. @sajithpremadasa group showed their desperation throughout the campaign with false n fake news!”

This claim is misleading; the Elections Commission said there was no social media ban; social media services were readily available in Sri Lanka without a VPN on November 15 and November 16.

Elections Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya told local media, for example here in a November 13, 2019 article, that there was no plan to block social media websites.

Deshapriya also said during a press briefing held at the Elections Commissioner on November 13, 2019 evening that the claim of a social media ban was a “lie”.

Here is a link to a video excerpt of the press briefing in which Deshapriya addresses the ban from mark 0:41 - 0:53.

The Commission Chairman’s comments in Sinhala when translated to English say:

“I saw it was posted that the Elections Commissioner decided like this, that I said to prepare VPN… I replied and said they are absolute lies. There is no such thing. But I request of them, to not drag us into that place.”

According to multiple tests by AFP on November 15 and 16, popular social networking sites including Twitter and Facebook were readily available in Sri Lanka without any VPN services required.

Local politicians were still using social media on election day.

Here is a Facebook post uploaded by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party's presidential candidate on November 16, 2019 at 0838.

Below is a screenshot of the Facebook post: