Govt. Facebook ban could backfire

The Government is considering banning not only Facebook but a wide range of social media, despite experts questioning whether the policy can be enforced or would damage Samoa's international reputation.  

The Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi, has said the constant use of Facebook by "faceless" users to spread "lies" and "defame" members of the public, including high profile Government and business officials, has forced the Government to consider the ban. 

Last week Tuilaepa said discussions are widening to encompass all social media platforms, not only Facebook.

Tuilaepa challenged the people behind fake pages to stop propagating false information to influence the general election. 

The social media platforms are widely used as communication platforms by Samoan consumers who are offered cheap data packages by communications giants Digicel and Vodafone.

Both companies declined to comment on the Government’s proposal when contacted by the Samoa Observer. 

But 2019 research by Digicel found that 70,000 Samoans were active social media users, suggesting any ban's effects would be widespread. 

The feasibility of implementing a ban and its impact on Samoa’s democracy have also come under fire. 

Leading Australian information security expert, Troy Hunt, who has been a regional director for Microsoft since 2016, says the plan is likely to backfire. 

He told the Samoa Observer that a ban would be easy to bring in but difficult to enforce.

“Banning access to social media sites at a national level is relatively trivial for a government to implement, but it’s also relatively trivial for citizens to circumvent.,” he said. 

Mr. Hunt said that free tools known as Virtual Private Networks “make it easy for people to encrypt their connection and pass through Government controls,”

He also said that the ban would likely have a paradoxical side effect of increasing people’s interest in Facebook.

“When [there is] an attempt to hide, remove, or censor information [it] has the unintended consequence of further publicising that information,” he said. 

“[It would] drive more people to seek out information.”

Research fellow, Dr Amanda Watson from the Department of Pacific Affairs of the Australian National University said the move would be seen as an “inappropriate response in democratic societies.”

“Citizens should be free to comment on Government policies and actions. Being critical of the government should not be discouraged or punished,” she said.

“There may be occasions when extreme speech, such as language inciting violence, should be brought to the attention of law enforcement authorities. However, banning social media seems to be a serious response and is an inappropriate response in democratic societies.”

Facebook remains the most popular choice of social media site for Samoans. Other platforms growing in popularity are Instagram and Twitter.

But it is Facebook that has gained the Government's attention with Prime Minister Tuilaepa saying they have received numerous complaints from victims of Facebook abuse.

Speaking to TV3, Tuilaepa said the intention of revisiting the idea of banning Facebook is to ensure peace within the nation.

In Nauru, Facebook was blocked for nearly three years. The Government said it was stopping child pornography, but was criticised by free speech advocates.

Meanwhile in Papua New Guinea, there was a proposed ban in 2018, but it did not go ahead.

“Most governments have banned Facebook, and we have been holding back because of the positive impact of social media,” the Prime Minister said.

While some countries have previously implemented temporary restrictions or impose bans on certain content - such as in Austria where content denying the Holocaust has been banned - those to fully ban the platform are relatively few and include China, Iran and Syria. 

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