50 Countries Imposed Social Media Restrictions Since 2015, Surfshark’s Study Shows

Most people living in democratic societies enjoy free and uninhibited access to social media. Sadly, that’s not the case for everyone. According to a Surfshark study, 50 countries have imposed social media restrictions since 2015 (including cases that began before 2015 and were ongoing at the start of the year). While some restrictions were short-term and lasted just a few hours, others have persisted for many years and don’t seem to be coming to an end anytime soon.

“Social media users tend to think that platforms like Facebook and Instagram are only for sharing memes, funny videos, and posting photos. While that’s a large part of social media, we must not forget that it’s also used by journalists and activists to share news and opinions. In countries with constant civil unrest and political instability, staying informed is especially important, but these countries are also the ones that are being affected by internet restrictions the most.”, says Lina Survila, Surfshark spokeswoman.

Five countries were found to have ongoing restrictions lasting more than five years — China, Turkmenistan, Iran, Eritrea, and North Korea. In total, 1.55 billion people live in these countries.

In 2009, China and Iran banned Facebook, Twitter (X), and YouTube, while Turkmenistan banned YouTube. The three countries also restricted other social media platforms later on. Eritrea banned YouTube in 2011 — a restriction that’s also still in place today.

North Korea is an interesting case — while social media has never been available to its citizens, visitors from other countries were allowed to connect to social media for a while. However, that ended when Instagram was banned in 2015, and Facebook, Twitter (X), YouTube, and Whatsapp were banned in 2017.

Many young people (namely Gen Z) are growing up without access to all or some social media. Sure, this might save them from the detrimental and addictive effects that the platforms tend to have on young people. But it also leaves them isolated and susceptible to their government’s propaganda, making it difficult for them to form unbiased opinions.

Surfshark also analyzed the countries that have imposed more short-term restrictions (less than five years). These kinds of restrictions frequently happen in times of political unrest like protests or elections — which just so happen to be when staying connected is as important as ever.

45 countries have imposed short-term social media restrictions since 2015, affecting a sizable portion of the world population — 2.3 billion people. Just like with long-term restrictions, there is a tendency for these to occur throughout authoritarian regimes in Asia and Africa.

Although these shorter restrictions don’t span decades, the average duration of them is almost half a year. Some restrictions can last just a couple of hours, while others stretch out across several years.

Eswatini experienced one of these short-term restrictions — in 2021, the country restricted access to the internet and several social media platforms for two hours. Although that may not seem like a big deal in light of China’s and Iran’s decade-long restrictions, Eswatini’s restriction happened amid pro-democracy protests.

Survila says that “During times of political turmoil, especially protests or violent riots, it’s as important as ever for people to stay connected to one another and stay in the loop on the latest developments. Eswatini’s citizens were left in the dark for two whole hours during protests, making it especially difficult for people to check on their friends and family, considering that even messaging app Whatsapp was among the platforms affected by the temporary ban.”

Pakistan has experienced seven temporary social media restrictions since 2015. The most recent ones occurred in May of this year when former Prime Minister Imran Khan was arrested. First, the government restricted Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, followed by Instagram the next day. The platforms are now once again up and running, but Pakistanis will likely have to face even more restrictions in the future, given the government’s track record.

Social media restrictions, and internet censorship in general, are widely recognized issues by organizations like the United Nations. There have already been several UN resolutions aimed at promoting human rights on the internet, with the most recent one happening in 2021. Shockingly, several countries, including Pakistan and Russia, supported the resolution but ended up imposing social media restrictions anyway.

Whether short-term or long-term, social media restrictions can have dire repercussions. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (now X) are no longer just about posting funny photos and videos. They’re also about keeping people from all around the world connected and promoting unbiased news reporting and opinion sharing. When people are cut off from social media, they may be left vulnerable to whatever narrative the government chooses to spread through unrestricted channels. In authoritarian regimes, these unrestricted channels often also happen to be the ones that the government has full control over.

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