The first month

A coup’s normalisation is key to long-term success. Architects of an unconstitutional transfer of power have to quickly give the impression everything is under control and nothing is going awry, so as to allay public fears, even amongst ardent supporters, that it may lead to more widespread chaos or instability. By 9 November 2018, just under a fortnight into the constitutional imbroglio the President plunged country into – things were not going well for him or the Rajapaksas. Looking at what was evident upon studying social media content and commentary at the time, I called is a ‘narrative roadblock’. The Rajapaksas had run out of stories, and the organic, public resistance to the arbitrary transfer of a Prime Minister was growing apace. The highest engagement at the time was around an interview Muttiah Muralitharan – the enduringly useful spinner for the Rajapaksas – did for television. ‘Jana Mahimaya’, a joint rally with the SLPP and SLFP had been announced days prior. Bizarrely, there was little to no further promotion of it, which meant interest in it had waned very quickly. A younger Rajapaksa kept publishing selfies even at this time – the crucial first stage of a coup – highlighting what academics call an ‘ego-centric’ network, which is to say that everything promoted on social media accounts was about him, and nothing much else. Either he had already lost interest, or wasn’t planning on tainting his brand image and its appeal with a power grab doomed to fail. 

 

Worth noting was that the UNP – as a party – and Ranil Wickremesinghe – as an individual – were entirely absent from any discernible strategic or political communication. An apocryphal story recounted to me had the UNP searching for a Sinhala typewriter, and then someone who could type in Sinhala, in order to update its Twitter account, only to find that no one in the party remembered the password to the account because it had lain unused for so long. The only reason I am partial to believe this is the sheer amount of social media accounts, now unused, associated with the UNP or its leader over the years, suggesting passwords are irrevocably forgotten on a regular basis. The lack of any counter-narrative from the UNP rendered the absence of propaganda from the Sirisena and Rajapaksa camps even more surprising. Given what was produced and how around the ‘Jana Balaya’ rally just months prior and the SLPP campaign for the Local Government election, the ‘narrative roadblock’ – evident only through the study of social media at scale – gave a clear indication of underlying issues President Sirisena confirmed to mainstream media only much later. 

 

At 500 million rupees a rogue, new loyalties had proved to be too expensive to buy out in required numbers. Range Bandara’s recording of S.B. Dissanayake’s offer and resulting disclosure had severely impacted the optics of bribe giving and taking. The numbers in Parliament the architects of the coup had expected to be on their side, hadn’t crossed over. Things were not going to plan and getting worse.

 

Like Viagra for an election, weeks after the heady SLPP convention, the party’s candidate again relied on Muralitharan to boost flaccid engagement. Not a good sign. Last week, the official Facebook page of ‘Eliya’, a campaign intimately connected and referred to by the SLPP’s Presidential candidate, published a post purporting that the artefacts of a temple were being destroyed by a group of extremists. This post was subsequently boosted on Facebook through a paid ad to reach a broader audience. Tellingly, however, the post and ad were pegged to a story already debunked by AFP as completely and utterly false. The dog-whistling was clear – the extremists were Muslims, and the explicit call was to rise up against them. Facebook has as much to answer for here as the SLPP’s official campaign, for running and profiting from incendiary misinformation that promoted thinly veiled racism. The UNP is its own soap opera, and the less said, the better. The current state of affairs, ironically, makes it harder for the SLPP to focus on a certain set of individuals as their opposition or competition. The party and its leadership is clearly nugatory and risible, but a Presidential election is pegged far more to person and personality. Counter-intuitively, at least through the lens of data, the lack of a confirmed candidate has helped the UNP generate very high levels of engagement around rallies, gatherings, speeches and Q&A sessions organised by or around an individual many other MPs want to see as the party’s front-runner. The JVP and its confirmed candidate also enjoy episodic appeal whenever there is some public engagement. Significantly, the JVP’s appeal is more organic on social media in comparison to the UNP or SLPP, who individually benefit considerably from partisan coverage by two leading television stations, with a massive footprint on Facebook.  

 

These dynamics over the past month will change, but it is clear that all the parties are waiting for the announcement of a date, after which nominations will follow. What can we expect? Gossip and memes on social media will be the primary platforms of political contestation, through open support, visible opposition or strategic distraction and intentional silence. In the past month, 628 pages linked to all the major political parties and politicians on Facebook got around 8.7 million interactions, a metric that measures how users on the platform interact with content. In other words, one measure of reach.

 

In comparison, around 380 gossip and meme pages got nearly 31 million interactions. For better or for worse, political framing and discussion is now anchored to pages entirely removed from ethics, integrity, democratic institutions or elected individuals. This is akin to a tobacco company spearheading the promotion of a lung cancer prevention programme. Political campaigns in the pages I track published 23,000 posts in the past month alone. This will exponentially increase in weeks to come. Over 2,600 videos of rallies, gatherings, Q&A sessions or conventions in just the past month resulted in over 600 hours of video uploaded, collectively viewed nearly 28 million times. Video uploaded to Facebook, including live and studio broadcasts produced by terrestrial television, was the primary vector of news and information during the 2018 constitutional coup. The presidential election will be as much a battle between mainstream media’s partisan bias as it is between candidates. Disturbingly, a cursory analysis of content on Twitter indicates there is no common narrative, which means that very few are even exposed to the perspectives of a competing party or candidate. With no common narrative, hostile, violent or oppositional framing of competing candidates will grow. With unashamedly partisan mainstream media, this dynamic will both widen and deepen in the weeks to come, amplifying political divides instead of a more independent, critical framing of men and manifestos. Given what the SLPP has already done, ads on Facebook will be taken out to weaponise rumours and anxieties, unless urgent measures are taken to approve and track the promotion of propaganda more rigorously. 

 

The first month of the presidential campaign, marked by the SLPP’s convention, is rich terrain for the study of social media’s influence and impact on political developments, and vice-versa. In comparison to the dynamics during 2018’s constitutional coup, there’s a lot that’s similar, but much that is very different. My fear remains that the integrity of Sri Lanka’s presidential election is increasingly hostage to new propaganda dynamics that existing regulations and laws fall short of addressing. 

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First published in The Sunday Island, 15 September 2019.

The new oil

Example 1. My son, like other children born then and since was issued a book at birth that to me looked like an Excel spreadsheet printed out in landscape orientation. It was used to record his height and weight. On every visit at regular intervals, our paediatrician recorded measurements to ascertain whether my son’s growth was better than, about the same as or below what was expected at a given age. Measuring and graphing the data provided vital insights into, amongst other things, choices around diet or exercise. If it was consistently way above or under the curve for what is medically considered normal, recommendations could be made, based on medical evidence, to address the anomaly. However, if the paediatrician had neglected to fill out the required information, there was no going back to gather the data. It had to be done as my son was growing up, not after he had grown up.

Example 2. In many conversations over the years with former President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunge, what emerges is evidence of who I think is the first Executive President of Sri Lanka interested in data science. In the 90s, long before social media as it is known today was even imagined, much less invented, individuals at rallies, public spaces, in civil society, media, polity and clergy – dotted across the country – provided a regular, public pulse to her and those working with her. This public sentiment was carefully recorded also through social survey instruments like face to face interviews and focus group discussions. Individuals who travelled on key train and bus routes – for example, coming into Colombo or after the end of a workday, going out of the city – provided insights into the anxieties, concerns and desires of commuters. Social surveys provided insights at a national level, which could be disaggregated to local government levels. Ideas – in the form of proposals – were tested for responses. The shift in public sentiment or mood was measurable not just through apparatchiks or the SLFP’s cadre at various levels and locations. Hard data formed an evidence base around how much or little public sentiment had swayed, allowing for various policy and political options to be considered.

Example 3. I once took up an annual membership at a gym. I never once set foot in it. Two years ago I bought a smartwatch. By what’s called ‘gamification’ – using engaging visuals based on real-time and recorded biometric data, personalised challenges, rapid readouts, subtle nudges and not so subtle reminders – the watch paired with phone has contributed to far more daily exercise and resulting weight loss. Data, gathered even as I am typing this column, is captured from sensors which track a range of variables including heartbeat, steps taken, flights of stairs climbed. My activity is presented in three ways – as move, exercise and stand goals. I feel good when I am told I have met these goals and conversely feel guilty when upon review or because of reminder, I am told I was so close to achieving one of them but failed to do so. The science behind this is variously employed to influence habits and at its extreme, addiction.

What binds all three examples is data, which by itself isn’t very useful until studied in context. My son’s growth rate would look the same to an economist and paediatrician. But it would be interpreted very differently. This is called domain knowledge. For data to be instrumental, one has to know ascertain the context in which it was gathered, and subsequently, the context in which it will be used. This is why CBK’s approach to governance was ahead of its time. Data generation around political processes, and especially, around how political strategy could embrace public sentiment data, to my knowledge, wasn’t employed before her government. A critical study may well find the use of the data captured at the time a far cry from what she actually did around governance, but my point is more about the art of the possible. Data changes the way political strategy is crafted. A decade ago, political actors had information from the Department of Elections and perhaps their own exit polls. Neither were real-time indicators of public sentiment. Clapping, cheering or jeering were the only ways through which the success of a rally could be ascertained. Ads were placed in newspapers or TV stations that appealed to a very broad demographic. One never knew exactly how many saw or heard these ads, and what impact they had. Large political events were sometimes broadcasted live, but if during a workday, no one would tune into TV or radio. It was then whatever the evening news covered or the next day’s newspapers captured that shaped perceptions.

Which brings us to my smartwatch, and how the personal is now, even at far greater scale, measurable and in real-time. How we personally react and respond is now easily discoverable by others, including complete strangers. For technology companies, this leads to greater profit, because they know us better than our parents, partners or lovers. For politics, data from social media is a game-changer. Much of the concern is captured through documentaries on Netflix like ‘The Great Hack’, where what happened in the West is projected as what’s possible for the rest. What I observe on social media leading up to the Presidential Election this year is something that is different and more nuanced. This is where contextual knowledge comes into play. Political actors aren’t targeting individual citizens, not because they don’t want to, but because for a range of technical reasons, that level of depth or detail isn’t available on leading social media platforms for a country like Sri Lanka. No less influential though are ways they are spending money on social media, to keep us hooked and attentive to what they want to amplify, frame and push. It also works the other way. By shifting focus away from vital issues, inconvenient truths can be dodged without even taking recourse to insincere answers. This isn’t theoretical. It is happening now. I study it every day.

Personal data in the aggregate is, when harvested and analysed in the context of an election, immensely valuable. Snake oil salesmen abound, projecting that data will guarantee an electoral result. If only if it were that easy! But data around who engages with what, why, in what language, platform, form, when and for how long are immensely helpful digital signals for propaganda campaigns. Like how my smartwatch changed my lifestyle over time around an issue (regular exercise) I was deeply resistant to, digital propaganda which kicks into high gear at election time subtly manipulates public opinions through greater production as well as compelling framing. More likes? She must surely have said something interesting. More angry faces? He’s totally uncool. More shares? Must be good, so let me share it too. More views? Obviously, an indication of popularity and winning prospects. This engagement is not with substantive content, but with the visible metrics of how others have engaged. Propaganda today is as much the manufacture and projection of likes, views and reactions as it is about the framing and content.

There are no quick fixes to any of this. We need the equivalent of good doctors to diagnose public data and what it portends for Sri Lanka’s democratic trajectory. We need policymakers who are interested and invest in getting better data, using evidence to shape regulatory, legal and policy frameworks. We need technology companies to radically change the way platforms are currently architected.

A good time to start would be now.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 7 September 2019.

Data signatures

With documentaries like ‘The Great Hack’ we are deeply fearful – and rightfully so – of how our data can be used, abused and weaponised. Over the past three years, significant political developments on both sides of the Atlantic have fuelled a global debate around the role, reach and relevance of social media in our daily lives including every imaginable aspect of our economic, political, social, media and even cultural interactions. While this anxiety is generally grounded in mature studies of cause and effects, many extrapolate lessons for Sri Lanka that aren’t entirely valid and even downright dangerous. While documentaries on Netflix serve to highlight critical issues, they are terrible at guiding policymaking that responds to a class of problems academics called ‘wicked’. A ‘wicked problem’ is one that has no easy resolution and where the very act of intervening or even observing changes the nature of the problem, very often to an even greater level of complexity. So in sum, while there are definitely problems around the use and abuse of social media as it is popularly referred to, could there also be benefits to hold those in power accountable, despite their best efforts at resisting this, and interrogate, for example, the behaviour of candidates and political parties in an election campaign? If in a country like Sri Lanka which doesn’t have legal frameworks in place for the sunlight of accountability or scrutiny around campaign finance and spending, can dynamics and data determined on social media, once harvested and analysed, give clear pointers around how online propaganda have impacted voter behaviour and election outcomes? And in Sri Lanka, what constitutes ‘social media’? And where is politics online? Does it lie in domains openly affiliated to or controlled by politicians and political parties? Or has it migrated to gossip, meme and other online spaces that are more generally defined through religious or nationalist fervour, with no overt connection to a partisan agenda or candidate? And when we talk of social media, do we embrace new apps like TikTok, or instant messaging? If we don’t know, and know not how to even frame key questions, how can we expect policymakers to protect citizens from a degree of electoral manipulation they may not even realise exists?

This is the landscape I live in, travel around and study, every day. And over the next weeks, as I have in the past, the attempt through this column will be to share more widely data that can inspire questions and conversations that are anchored to data and evidence. Arguably, intellectual debates on the thrust and timbre of politics is a luxury in any electoral process, where spectacle and emotion hold sway. In Sri Lanka, the chest-thumping populism of leading candidates will organically result in digital echoes in addition to engineered popularity – or in other words, the appearance of mass appeal. This isn’t new and is textbook propaganda for decades clearly evident in our newspapers, TV and radio. But here’s the thing. Social media allows for new possibilities around the manufacture of propaganda, for example, on Instagram – a photo-sharing app. Don’t believe me? A study this week of the Instagram accounts of the Prime Minister, UNP, two accounts of Sajith Premadasa (one launched specifically around his candidacy bid for the presidential election), Mahinda, Namal and Gotabaya Rajapaksa reveals tens of thousands of followers and hundreds of thousands of engagements in the form of comments, pushback, love and endorsement. The personal is political. Significant differences between these accounts, never before studied in Sri Lanka, clearly frame very different political projects. Captions of the photos range from what government and party have done to eco-centric framing, anchored to self and personality. Some highlight party and fellow MPs more than personal endeavours. Others do not. Then there is the question of volume. Over past 30 days, Namal Rajapaksa’s Instagram account got 3 times more engagement than Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s account, 6 times more than his father Mahinda Rajapaksa’s account, 43 times more than Sajith Premadasa’s presidential campaign account & an astonishing 88 times more than incumbent PM, Ranil Wickremesinghe. Instagram is very popular amongst a demographic too young to vote, but will in a few years. It stands to reason that those who are on the app will also vote for the first time in the presidential election. How they see politics through this one app will inform how appealing they find candidates and the electoral process in general.

The manipulation of preference towards individuals is one thing, but another danger is around the manufacture of apathy around franchise. In the past, voter suppression happened by preventing voters from physically accessing ballot boxes. Today, the same effect for a younger demographic can be attempted by the manipulation of emotions over the apps and platforms they engage with, in ways that are cloaked.

And what of traditional media embedded in social media? During the constitutional crisis, traditional TV channels had, by far, the most visible footprint on Facebook. Their videos were viewed tens of millions of times. Social media in Sri Lanka today isn’t the domain of liberal cosmopolitan civil society in and around Colombo, as it is popularly projected and resisted. If anything, the data confirms the contrary – civil society’s footprint on social media is negligible. In other words, the promise of social media to provide alternative and critical perspectives to mainstream or traditional media is risible in the main. In Sri Lanka, the same dominant narratives in the media my generation grew up with has a vice grip on the framing of issues over social media. For example, I study over 1,600 pages on Facebook anchored to politics, religion, popular culture and media. Data around how audiences engaged with the SLPP convention, Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s event at Galle Face, and Sajith Premadasa’s rally in Galle – again, not something anyone’s done before – highlighted the fact that one of the candidates benefitted enormously from the coverage given to his rally by a prominent TV channel, which live-streamed it on Facebook. I published these figures on Twitter because it is essential for voters to know what channels support which candidates. The JVP for example, or any independent candidate, will not enjoy this level of support by partisan mainstream media, placing them at a distinct disadvantage, even with the affordances of social media to reach voters independently.

Also last week, I studied how on YouTube, the algorithm itself recommended videos based on a search pegged to Sajith Premadasa, Gotabaya Rajapaksa or Anura Kumara Dissanayake. The endeavour here was to determine to what degree algorithmic bias impacted the framing of a candidate. Turns out that two TV channels to varying degrees dominate the framing of these three individuals. Since the YouTube algorithm basically reflects the volume of and engagement with content uploaded to the site, this, for the first time, gave an insight into how polarisation can be exacerbated as a consequence the nature of content around an individual or issue, which algorithms go on to amplify. Is it social media regulation that is needed? Or is the carcinogenic rot in mainstream media, well-known and studied, to blame? Is this a problem of technology, or a partisan bias and dependence on political favours that predates Facebook? Answers to these questions are there in the data.

All the observations above were placed in the public domain, in great detail. Though I have my own bias and preferences, it matters less to me who wins the presidential election that how it is conducted. Politics in the form of newspaper ads, radio or TV spots, posters, rallies and the gate to gate, face to face variety will endure. But there is an industry that is both worth millions, and engages tens of millions, which exists on social media. Not all of it is by design dangerous. In studying these new influence engines, curated by professional agencies, it isn’t always clear who is responsible for what. But like potholes on a road that impede traffic flow or result in detours, data allows us to determine how ideas are projected, anxiety is augmented, fear is fomented, anger is amplified, ideology is highlighted, populism is projected, history is erased and desired futures, carefully crafted. It is in equal parts fascinating and frightening. This is stuff that shouldn’t really be limited to my Twitter feed or this column. It is integral to how we must engage with and resist propaganda.

Nothing less than the quality and nature of our democracy is at stake.

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First published on 1 September 2019 in The Sunday Island.

We are how we frame

When and under which conditions is rape acceptable? Is raping a male more acceptable than raping a woman? If it is your wife, is hitting or kicking her once in a while ok? When killing a child, is it better to die quickly or slowly, individually or in a group? As a measure of paternal love, is it ok to abuse one’s own children just to discipline them? Is it ok, only sometimes, for priests to abuse younger monks as a test of faith? When and where can a teacher have a sexual relationship with a student in school? Not before O/Ls? Anytime after A/Ls? Only if the student comes to tuition class, which is outside of school premises? Is it ok running over a beggar on the street and not caring too much? If it is our dog, cat or pet, should we not be allowed to cut, kick, starve and burn it as we see fit? When throwing away an unwanted baby, should one kill it first, or just dump it in a bin?

These may not be the questions you want to start your Sunday or arguably any day of the week with. And yet, our justice system and police are often called upon to bear witness to or act on all this and much more. When there is the occasional sensational framing of an incident on these lines in the media, responses reflect what is appreciated as an aberration or abhorrent. We don’t wait for a journalist or social media update to tell us that rape or infanticide is wrong. It just is, at any time, by anyone and anywhere. You’d think that because of what at least society in the South of Sri Lanka sees itself as – which in JR Jayewardene’s framing was a ‘dharmishta samajaya’ (a society resplendent with the teachings of the Buddha) – this moral code would extend to all transgressions, including the excesses of war. Clearly not. And therefore a particularly violent question posed on Twitter last week, though distressing, wasn’t surprising. The tweet was anchored to when and if it was appropriate for extra-judicial murder to take place, especially in the context of war. Even though the question in its formulation included words which very clearly gave away the fact that what was asked is entirely unacceptable and illegal, the original tweet generated a lot of responses from those who thought that it was entirely appropriate, given certain conditions. As someone who studies domestic Twitter at a very vast scale, it is with some authority that I can say that no one on it who has a large following or influential footprint has fought in or been anywhere close to the frontlines of any war, leave aside Sri Lanka’s own. This doesn’t stop posturing, and opinions that one would expect came from those who were once embedded in the rank of the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol or black-ops units of the Army. The risible nature of the responses, which fly in the face of established humanitarian norms and rules of engagement, offer some insight into the mentality of those who have grown up with, or in the propaganda exhaust after the end of war a decade ago.

The open support of extra-judicial killings come from those who have concretely formed and go on to publicly express an opinion based on repeated media frames they have been exposed to. Academics have studied this at some depth. Media frames capture the perspectives and bias of family and friends as well as journalists, their Editors and owners of large media platforms. Politicians also play a role, through promises and appointments made, what they say, do, as well as what they are silent on and don’t do. Jayewardene’s ‘dharmishta samajaya’ is one that has countenanced and justified the murder of tens of thousands, which Black July and the war aside, in the late-80’s was pegged to the UNP’s brutal response to the JVP insurrection, as much as the JVP’s signature brand of violence involving tires, trees, rope, stakes and fire. In 2019, the majority on Facebook weren’t born during the ‘bheeshana yugaya’ but grew up in the shadow of Mullivaikkal’s scorched earth. And there is no meeting of historical narratives. This year, a snapshot of how the end of the war was commemorated on Twitter in May revealed differences in framing, focus and language so vast, the data independent of context suggested one was looking at two completely different countries. There is no common narrative, language or frame. No shared heroes or history. No shared empathy. No recognition of grievance beyond one’s own community. Little to no patience with divergent narratives or different perspectives.

Last week also saw the appointment of a new Army Commander. The open support of a former terrorist – responsible for LTTE child recruitment, their deaths and the deaths of policemen amongst other victims – towards the campaign of a leading Presidential aspirant. The campaign did and said nothing to distance itself from this endorsement by and proposed campaign alliance with a terrorist. This isn’t entirely surprising since the campaign’s platform aimed at intellectuals in the country featured individuals who openly and on a public stage, wanted to torture those they called traitors, drag their bodies on the streets strung by barbed wire and also deny last rites by Buddhist monks. We also had the incumbent Chief of Defence Staff’s term extended till the end of the year. We can only guess that in doing so, the President took into account and as necessary qualifications for this office the fact that the incumbent is out on bail after harbouring the main suspect of a Navy abduction ring that, amongst other deeds, is reported to be responsible for the abduction and enforced disappearance of 11 children and young men, around 2009. The details of all this is in the public domain and a Google search away.

What connection does a question on Twitter have with sickening Presidential appointments and murderous endorsements of a candidate by terrorists? Our acceptance of it. On Twitter, some latched on to the individual who posted the tweet as much as the violent nature of the question itself. Some suggested the question was valid – a seemingly measured, principled position. But this is willful ignorance, strategically fuelling debates in order to render more acceptable a plasticity of law or cynicism of facts. Man landed on the moon. The Titanic sank. Sri Lanka is officially measles free, because vaccinations work. Climate change is real. Extra-judicial killing is wrong and illegal. Torture is wrong and illegal. Abductions are wrong and illegal. But why is there resistance to this?

When a President or Presidential aspirant embraces or endorses terrorism and violence, it is immediately normalised. Their opinion becomes the baseline to appreciate other, competing views. When media doesn’t question these appointments, and almost every day, confuses stenography with journalism, public debate becomes one-sided, aligning itself with racism and power, anchored to Sinhala-Buddhists and how we see the world. So little has focussed on accountability, the mere mention of it – in the data I am witness to – results in a tsunami of violent incomprehension around how anyone can doubt that was what done in 2009 was anything other than justified and necessary. We had to become who we were fighting against, else those like myself would have the space to write what I do today – or so the argument goes. And now, we must focus on future, which is best underwritten by men in uniform, camouflage or saffron robes. At scale, these narratives, every week, engage millions. Through syllabi in schools or principled politics, nothing that contests majoritarianism is promoted, published or projected. Save for revanchists who want to capture country for dharma chakra or fanged Tiger, the toxicity of everyday media frames, for decades, is the fuel for everyone standing for the Presidential election in a few months. Some will court this more than others. All are a product of it. And that’s the real problem with that tweet, now deleted. Not that it was published. But that out of curiosity or ignorance, asking if extra-judicial murder is somehow negotiable is taken seriously, with some noting its fine as long as those killed were the enemy.

That should frighten you and much as it does me.

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Published in The Sunday Island, 25 August 2019.

What the data reveals

While data isn’t destiny, the study of how individuals capture attention on social media gives both indication and insight into their electoral prospects. Nearly a decade ago, in the sixth Presidential Election of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka – the two leading candidates – each set up Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr accounts for their campaigns. Now dead, dormant or deleted, those accounts were a harbinger of what is now entrenched in electoral dynamics. Flickr, no longer a dominant platform, was at the time the leading repository for images. Facebook had a fraction of the accounts it commands today. Twitter was less than four years old as a platform. YouTube was popular, but again, nowhere near what it is today. It is extremely unlikely either of the candidates ever saw what went up on any of these platforms at the time, much less interacted with or published directly on them. But in the focus of photos, tone of tweets and framing on Facebook, one could see how one candidate’s charisma and charm were evident and welcomed by followers or fans, while the other candidate both struggled to adroitly manage the accounts or put out comparable ego-centric content. What’s changed over the past decade is not just how central social media is now to politics and elections, but how leading platforms are in a mode of constant campaigning.

During the constitutional coup in October last year, those who supported the unconstitutional PM wanted elections no sooner than they realised the courts wouldn’t uphold the President’s actions. This was distinct in the data. How the rallying cry for general elections was born, who was responsible for it, how it grew and which accounts were responsible for its growth were as evident in the study of data on social media as the microscopic examination of a blood sample by a lab technician for the strain of a common virus. Social media allows populist politicians to reach new audiences as well as keep a core vote base occupied. It allows specific messages to be transmitted as code. A cartoon, word, phrase, idea, hint or photo can signify different things to different voters. A floating vote base can be serenaded as much as a confirmed vote base can be motivated. Today’s landscape is many times more complex and more strategically managed than in 2010. But like the internal combustion engine, all this explosive propulsion of propaganda leaves behind what’s called a ‘data exhaust’, which can be picked up on and studied to ascertain, with varying degrees of accuracy, what was done by whom and with what intent.

The forensics of looking at social media use during, for example, electoral campaigns, is always behind sophisticated strategies around everyday propaganda. From rallies organised to disrupt traffic or strategically designed to increase the risk of confrontation with another group’s gathering close by, to ad campaigns designed to raise the anxiety of specific voters, in specific geographies, the toolbox for manipulation is astonishingly complex. Not unlike a supermarket, all the budding populist or established authoritarian needs now to do is to go shopping for what works best within an available budget. My column last week gave a hint of what’s on offer. Using the announcement of the SLPP’s presidential candidate last Sunday, I want to use the data around just what I study on social media – a small fraction of what’s out there and going on – to showcase how the digital can impact or influence franchise dynamics. And at the outset, I don’t know, and it’s complicated. Those are always the answers I give to the two most frequent questions I am asked – do I know who will win, and can I say who has the advantage.

Electoral campaigns are moments on social media, as much as they are in the country, that galvanise public attention in ways that between elections, one doesn’t see. Academics call it a multivariate or wicked problem, where there are so many variable influencing even the frames of study, it is impossible to determine with any precision how things will turn out. But not unlike a weathervane turning to whichever way the wind blows strongest, data in the public domain indicates where things are and will head in the direction of.

Looking at over 500 pages anchored to leading politicians from the UNP and SLPP, it is clear that all the support and interest, for whatever reason, the UNP generated during the 52 days of the constitutional coup, has evaporated. Whether this organic, rapid and heightened engagement with the UNP’s social media at the time was because of partisan support, a more cosmopolitan liberal sensibility, non-partisan concern for constitutionalism or taking recourse to social media to engage with coup dynamics at a time when mainstream media was restrained or constrained, it is gone today. As with empty petrol tankers, the fumes are more explosive than the fuel. The anger and disenchantment evident in the data around the inability or unwillingness of the UNP to live up to promises made during the coup will have an electoral consequence.

On the other hand, the ego-centric networks of a father and son are, up until last year, individually and together far wider and deeper in their reach than the Presidential aspirant’s appeal. This is why, even in Kandy, the elder brother has to accompany the younger candidate. Political optics and appeal haven’t, yet, migrated or settled down in a new harbour of populism. And it is clear in the data how a former President is surrounded by vociferous, powerful accounts pegged to individuals who were all pushing for a nomination that until last Sunday, there was near-total silence around. The data also suggests competing centres of authority within a family, in flux. While the new candidate’s appeal and reach unsurprisingly increased over the week, the live broadcast on Facebook of last Sunday’s event was tellingly hosted on the former President’s account. This was intentional. Instagram is emerging as a key platform in the upcoming election, albeit for one party. For that party, the near complete capture of so-called ‘influencers’ on Instagram means that the appeal, endorsement and optics of their candidate, statistically, completely eliminates everyone else.

Conversely, the arguably leading presidential candidate has never, in all the data captured and studied to date, appealed to a fan-base beyond a frighteningly and frothingly racist, Islamophobic, conspiratorial, extremist Sinhala-Buddhist mindset. This may change with the family’s now public endorsement and through resulting campaign dynamics in the near future. It’s clear that apps like V-Can developed and deployed by the SLPP, already downloaded over 10,000 times, will change how party-political mobilisation occurs. Data from devices the app is installed on and generated by party cadre as users will be leveraged to capture a floating vote base. This content, and whatever happens on influential and far-reaching instant messaging networks, are beyond the reach of any rigorous academic study, but impact political engagement.

During the constitutional coup, three leading TV broadcasters were overtly partisan in their programming, absolutely dominating Facebook video engagement. In how this presidential election is shaping up, two leading broadcasters, at the time opposed to the UNP’s leadership more than party, will now diverge, resulting in a battle on social media for audience capture and retention, obviously with the intent of shaping electoral dynamics. And finally, on social media, political content is even today hugely prevalent, pushed and pursued on overtly non-partisan Gossip, meme and Sinhala-Buddhist religious pages. These pages have historically supported the SLPP, or with varying degrees of sarcasm and venom, opposed the UNP. Either way, the political messaging is clear and biased. The hundreds of thousands who religiously follow these pages for whatever reason are through humour and wit directed towards a certain political ideology.

Keep in mind that all this is just in the past week or leading up to it. In speed, scale and scope, as well as volume, all these competing and complex dynamics will grow in the coming weeks – organically, as more and more are tuned into the election, and because of campaigns paid for by politicians, their hidden proxies or traditional media stooges. One can only hope institutions and individuals entrusted with safeguarding the integrity of Sri Lanka’s elections keep pace with this already mature landscape of digital campaigns which are inextricably entwined in the manufacture of propaganda, popularity and Presidents.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 18 August 2019.

Missing the wood for the trees

“Houston, we have a problem” is a famous line from 1995’s Academy Award-winning ‘Apollo 13’ film, told to NASA’s ground control by actor Tom Hanks, playing Mission Commander Jim Lovell. Based on real events, a catastrophic explosion crippling a spacecraft bound for the moon became a test of NASA’s ability to completely shift gear, from what was planned as a moon-landing to an unprecedented rescue mission. Space is not something that can be reasoned with. It kills with cold precision and complete indifference. What ‘Apollo 13’ showcased is the ability of humans, in the face of the greatest imaginable adversity and certain death, to think out-of-the-box and engineer solutions to avert what the odds were stacked in favour of.

The SLPP’s announcement today, focussing on a man, vision or both, will be significant. As populist or saviour, doer or demagogue, the name chosen by or forced on Mahinda Rajapaksa to nominate as the SLPP’s presidential candidate is Sri Lanka’s Apollo 13 mission or moment, with one key difference. The country has no NASA to guide it. Far worse, there are those who think they are or constitute the equivalent of NASA but are very far removed it. Come Monday, election campaign crises will rapidly increase in scale, speed and complexity. Late 2014’s script, but re-mastered.

Houston, we are huta.

A presentation at a workshop last week involved conversations with the usual suspects from civil society around some of these issues. Good people. People who have tirelessly worked for a long time to fight against the erosion of democratic processes, institutions and values. And yet, terrible people too. Unlike NASA’s ability to deal with unexpected challenges in entirely new ways, they remain completely committed to what they have always done, how they have always done it, no matter how much country, context, circumstances and challenges have changed. You often see this mentality in Yala, where many drivers truly believe the solution to getting a vehicle unstuck is to ram one’s foot down the accelerator. The more the vehicle sinks in, the more the accelerator is pressed. Even when winched to traction on terra firma, the driver will invariably grin and maintain that gunning the engine was really the only way out.

As of today, the country’s Yala and the government is that driver.

And what of the civil society I spoke with? Some of them are in the same vehicle as the driver, know it and like it. Others are standing around, shouting instructions at no one in particular or above each other, all the while getting caked in mud. A grand spectacle, achieving nothing. Meanwhile, elsewhere, those missing hard drives from dozens of computers discovered in a bunker underneath Temple Trees in early 2015 are being booted up again, their data restored on to newer hardware, running improved programmes and connected to a much larger network of operators, domestic and foreign.

The difference could not be starker. I tried to highlight this as part of a presentation that though evidence-based and data-driven, was deliberately intended to shake participants from complacency. As expected, I failed miserably. There are several challenges, inextricably entwined and requiring a new breed of strategy to counteract. And therein lies the rub. Those present in the room had, in the main, no grasp of the current media landscape, including entirely porous boundaries between traditional, mainstream, new and social media. Dismissed, damned or desired, use of the catch-all phrase ‘social media’ shows there is little to no understanding of how specific platforms work, differences between Tamil, Sinhala and English language content or the entirely divergent dynamics in media linked to specific issues, institutions or individuals. All this matters if one is desirous of creating media campaign or political communications that capture the attention of tired, angry, distracted voters.

An ‘information environment’ is what NATO now calls the complex media landscape citizens inhabit. This environment is variously influenced by cognitive, emotive and physical stimuli, which in Sri Lanka in the coming months will range from carefully engineered disruption of traffic and demonstrations on roads to, in concert, more sinister media strategies that shape perceptions, exacerbate apathy and shift allegiances.

Those in the room had no awareness of data-driven communications campaigns or the importance of looking at what is now freely accessible in the public domain as weathervanes of anxiety or aspirations. Journalists present didn’t understand contemporary media ecologies. Those responsible for strategic communication didn’t understand contemporary journalism. Those from civil society didn’t understand journalism or communication but thought they did.

There was no discernible interest in new forms of political campaigns. The SLPP’s newly launched V-Can app for Android, aimed at party cadre as a campaigning tool, can geo-locate the phone at all times. Coupled with user details including the mobile and NIC number, the developer can potentially easily track the movements of each phone the app is installed on, 24/7 (because the app can also stop the phone from going to sleep). As of last week, over 10,000 had downloaded V-Can, as noted on Google’s Play Store. The implications of this kind of technology, and the erosion of privacy, even – ironically – for SLPP stalwarts, is chilling.

We didn’t even talk about computational propaganda or other means by which Sri Lanka’s electoral processes, institutions and integrity can and will be harmed, undermined or attacked. This is no longer the domain of speculation. Globally, regionally and locally, the use of human, computational and hybrid means to shift public discourse, shape attention and steer responses is already well established and will grow in speed, scale and sophistication.

Astonishingly, it was news to many in the room that in 2017 China donated nearly $300,000 worth of equipment to Sri Lanka’s Parliament, including laptops for all MPs. Recall that in 2018, Le Monde reported that confidential data from the network infrastructure of the African Union HQ – a “gift” from China to Africa – was being copied to servers in Shanghai. We may already have a context where the citizens most keenly aware of our Parliamentary proceedings may be closer to Hangzhou than Hambantota.

And though I passingly made a note of it, surveillance architectures from Israel and China, just this year, were imported into the country by none other than our President. Powerful entities from both countries now have unprecedented, unregulated access to our public and private communications, media as well as political, economic, policymaking, logistics, health, banking, travel and commerce infrastructure. We do not know the scale or scope of operations. And yet, these are the invasive, inherently violent foundations that the next President will inherit, build on and use as he sees fit. There is no rolling-back any of this. That should worry everyone, no matter who you vote for or like to see as the next President.

But do we understand any of this? Or do we read and with glazed eyes, turn page, tune out and move on – taking comfort in the fact that it has been bad before and that we’ve come out ok, just minus a few lives, limbs and fingernails? That’s certainly one way of looking at things. Another, which I am partial to, would make every effort to secure an electoral outcome inoculated against the weaponisation of our social and political divisions. I’d argue that this endeavour is much more important than getting worked up over the SLPP’s candidate and his defeat. He’s a distraction, and a pawn in a longer, greater game.

But who am I kidding?

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First published in The Sunday Island, 11 August 2019

Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka

First published in Peace Chronicle, the mnagazine of the Peace and Justice Studies Association, Summer 2019.

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Write whatever makes sense to you, I was told. Though I understood the instruction, I struggled with its execution. The suicide bombings on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka massacred over 250 people. This included 45 children, or about the same number as those killed by the awful terrorism in Christchurch, New Zealand, a month earlier. Many hundreds more were injured, some severely. News reports on children who survived the attacks—too scared to speak and many scarred for life—I admit I glossed over. The content was just too hard to read, much less comprehend. While international media attention covered the terrorism on Easter Sunday and the days immediately following, then moved on to other world events, the violence, instability, confusion and chaos on the ground and across the country continued for over a fortnight. Struggling for words to capture what unfolded on the 21st of April, those of a certain age were reminded of and reverted to a time in the late 1980’s, when Sri Lanka was dealing with open war in the North-East, a brutal radical Marxist uprising in the South and a government of the day that was equally vicious in response and reaction.

After the awful terrorism in Christchurch a month prior, I was asked to respond to the violence by those in my University and beyond who harboured the assumption that I was used to that level of violence. I didn’t know quite what to say to my interlocutors, many of whom had had the envious privilege of mostly studying violent conflict in a library. The assumption was partly true. Many born to protracted conflict, faced with systemic discrimination or living in violence normalize the abnormal, the exceptional and chronic instability. Once normalised, ordinary life is conducted in frames that consider a day at a time. My parents, for example, when my sister and I were growing up, never came to any event in public together. Their logic, which I learnt as an adult, was that if one were to be killed by a suicide bomb—a common occurrence in the country of my childhood and youth—we would not be orphaned. This is not an equation I had to make with my son, who is now 12. Growing up in Sri Lanka, he has for almost all his life, never experienced the violence his mother and I grew up with and learned to negotiate.

These old considerations are now real and reborn. You don’t ever get used to this violence. It takes its toll in what is often not documented. The pauses, silences, shuttering of doors, closing of windows, darkening of rooms, cancellations, closures and concerns that grow within, but aren’t ever fully vocalized. You don’t get used to the loss of life. You don’t get used to seeing children die. You don’t get used to the constant anxiety. You learn to live, laugh and love despite the violence. But you never get used to it.

How then to make sense of what happened? I took recourse to my doctoral research, which looks at the role, reach and relevance of social media in Sri Lanka. I look at Facebook and Twitter in particular, but my focus extends to other platforms as well. Variously called networked gatekeeping or complex media ecologies, at its simplest, this area of research involves looking at how content produced or promoted digitally impacts public opinion as well as kinetic, physical reactions and responses. This is not as simple as positing a causal relationship between what’s posted online and what happens in the real world. And yet, Western scholarship and writing, very evident in the media framing and responses to the Easter Sunday violence, tends to simplistically project social media as an accelerant to violence on the ground. Contributing to this perspective, the Sri Lankan government blocked social media on Easter Sunday for nine days, ostensibly to protect citizens from misinformation seeded and spread on social media. It was Sri Lanka’s longest social media disruption. A few from outside the country and from Western countries supported this. However, many in Sri Lanka and I pushed back. Lived experience, context, culture and hard data, amongst other pulse points, very clearly indicated that blocks initiated by the government were entirely ineffective in their stated aims and counter-productive to boot.

Faced with the catastrophic failure of government to act on intelligence reports provided well in advance of the attacks, the near total collapse of crisis communications by the President and Prime Minister, the insensitivity of MPs who laughed and joked at a press conference held a day after the attacks, the shifting of blame, incredible denials, jostling for parochial or partisan advantage and in general, a complete lack of contrition and unity in responding to the massacre, tens of thousands expressed their frustration on social media. Data collected during the week saw unprecedented levels of grief on the 21st. By the 28th, this had transformed to very high levels of anger across more than 1,000 web pages dealing with politics, news, information, gossip, memes, entertainment and religion that I closely monitor. There was also, statistically, a lot of love on Facebook. More qualitative analysis indicated the emotion was closely pegged to criticism of the government. Violent rhetoric against the Muslim community grew apace, despite the social media block. Refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan in the country suffered the brunt of the pushback, with many forced out of their shelters and housing.

Wolfendal Church in Pettah, Sri Lanka photographed by Saranga Buwaneka.

Seven million of the country’s 22 million are on Facebook. There are around 23 million SIM cards registered in the country. WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Instagram are used by millions, daily, for everything from business and commerce to family chats and news. In just a week, some of the videos on Facebook uploaded by prominent news channels or politicians, even with a social media block in place, were viewed more times than the population of the country. Especially in the aftermath of a disaster, citizens turn to social media for news and information. Facebook is inextricably entwined into the country’s socio-political, economic and communications DNA. In this context, the blocking of social media added to the anger. It also weaponised grief, fear and anxiety by creating the space for content that whipped up emotions or incited hate. Importantly, this hate and violent othering have festered for decades in the country. Aside from ethno-political conflict, the country has, even after the end of war ten years ago, witnessed sustained violence against the Muslim community, condoned and even openly architected by sections of the Buddhist clergy. The terrorism on Easter Sunday was intentionally aimed at exacerbating these tensions.

Sri Lanka is already a tragic example of a new kind of transnational terrorism. For those of us who call it home, much of the commentary and framing in the media is a blur at best. We remain paralysed, not just by the magnitude of the events on Easter Sunday, but what is essentially a reset for the country’s post-war trajectory. With presidential elections due later this year revolving around populist incumbents and candidates, this terrorism plays into deeply problematic framing and responses. Comments by President Maithripala Sirisena, other politicians, and the army, blaming human rights activists and “too much of peace” for the violence, indicates the contours of a hostile terrain for peace and reconciliation which is both distressingly familiar and disturbingly novel.

I was asked to make sense of the violence on Easter Sunday. The reader, I hope, will forgive me for my failure to do so. Writing five op-eds published in New Zealand, studying and responding to the violence in Christchurch, I thought, would somehow prepare me better to capture what Sri Lanka experienced. The challenge for many of us in peacebuilding is to intellectually engage when emotionally overwhelmed. I am not alone in this and join many others in New Zealand, Sri Lanka and beyond who seem destined to find new meaning or take refuge in the pregnant lines of Robert Frost,

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.