The last election, and the next

The room was paid for, in cash, by someone else.  The hotel was chosen because of its location close to the HQ of the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence in 2014. Well before election day on January 8th, full access to key websites was given to trusted individuals outside Sri Lanka, to post updates from where they were in the event of complete internet shutdown or pervasive social media block. New SIM cards were bought and a fax machine – because broadband blocks don’t apply to what can be typed out and sent out through other networks and means. Technical investments were made to strengthen key sites and accounts providing updates leading up to, on the day of and just after the election. Data packages from multiple ISPs were procured. In case one network failed or created friction around the production or promotion of critical updates, we could switch to another. A hotel room was converted into an operations hub, with traffic routed through the hotel’s Wi-Fi masked using a VPN. Encrypted messaging apps were used to coordinate movements and operations, as well as to push out updates, in the event key websites were blocked. Contingency plans in the event of a sudden raid were drawn up, to switch information and news operations off-site seamlessly.

Results on the night of the 8th stopped for hours on end. The risible explanation given to some TV stations that called up was that the Election Department’s FTP servers had failed. Something else was going on, and the count, as well as the final results, were being held up. Conversations around this time at Temple Trees, involving the armed forces, the Rajapaksas and other influential members of the regime, featured heavily in the news cycle in 2015. Some who were part of these discussions, a few weeks hence, had entirely forgotten what was covered and who was present. Those of us who didn’t sleep that night were on edge, as music videos, repetitive ads and movies played uninterrupted on channels that were supposed to be broadcasting an endless ticker of results and other updates from the count. TV anchors, at first, noted delays, with no explanation as to why. And then they just didn’t appear anymore.

The SMS news alert that Mahinda Rajapaksa had vacated Temple Trees came just before 6 am. It was just before day-break and the roads around Kollupitiya, close to Temple Trees, were deserted from the vantage of the hotel room window. No sooner than the alert was received, I drove out with a colleague to see what was going on around the area. The first thing we saw were commandoes, with almost robotic precision, getting into buses. We hadn’t noticed them coming and we didn’t know where they had been. We couldn’t quite figure out what they were doing lining the streets. We didn’t know where the buses were taking them.

The only other time I have seen commandos of this stature, sporting the garb and gear they did, was just outside the hotel Sarath Fonseka was garrisoned in on the night of a previous Presidential Election, on January 26th 2010. But that’s another story. Driving past Temple Trees on Galle Road on the morning of the 8th, we shot a photo of the sun rising from behind the closed, black gates that on Twitter, that day and the next, went viral. There was no sign of life from within the compound and for the first and last time in my life, no visible signs of any security personnel or armed guards either. In that general area, signs of daily life – the Dimo battas delivering the day’s newspapers, shop owners offering joss sticks to garlanded deities, the liberal and vigorous sprinkling of water infused with turmeric forcing mendicants to crawl out of makeshift beds on pavement and shopfront, the Abans street-sweepers and garbage collectors decked in orange – increased with rising sun. There were, however, no school children around. There were also no tourists. Galle Face green was, also for the first and last time of my life, without a single person on it. Stray dogs looked lost without humans to chase, be chased by or play with. The scenes in and around Galle Face and Kollupitiya that morning were surreal.

Throughout the 9th, a few of us kept expecting news of a Rajapaksa regime fuelled rebellion. News of the first open-air swearing in an Executive President was received with a mixture of concern and curiosity. What would it be like? What would the new President say? Was it safe? As hundreds flocked to Independence Square around half past six in the evening on the 9th, I feared the worst – a lone sniper, a grenade, a pistol or worse, a larger bomb, ending the new President’s life as soon as he ascended to office. Commandos, different to those we had seen in the morning, lined the area as the light faded. A friend, in late-stage pregnancy, had rushed to take a tuk-tuk to see the swearing in. Joggers and walkers, some foreign but most local, mixed with those who invaded the grounds. The mood was ebullient. Videos and photos of the swearing in capture a carnival of hope. Too many people crowded the area the President was being sworn in, and looked far more uncomfortable than we were. The tensest moments were when the new President arrived and the duration of his first speech, which was regularly interrupted by spontaneous cheer. The loudest cheer was at the moment, a few minutes in, the new President proclaimed he would be the last to hold the office.

And then he left, seemingly with all our adrenaline too. The effects of close upon 48 hours of sleeplessness, anxiety, fear and near-constant tension resulted in the relatively quick dissipation of the crowds once the ceremony was concluded. Everyone took selfies, photos and videos. At night that day was the first full realisation, beyond incredulity and residual fear, that a new chapter had dawned, and the Rajapaksa regime was over. No one expected it. No one.

In the campaign to elect the common candidate against the incumbent, an organic, extremely diverse collective of individuals, with no common politics or links save for an interest in facilitating the end of the Mahinda Rajapaksa Presidency, came together to architect and action a guerrilla campaign using social media to counter the then government’s propaganda. It is now known that PM Modi’s social media guru was present in the country to help the Rajapaksas. We had only our own skills and networks. From talented graphic designers to data scientists, cartoonists to writers, this collective – which had no head, no organisational hierarchy and wasn’t headquartered in any physical location – took on spin, rumour, falsehood and propaganda manufactured by the regime and responded to it, blow for blow, fire with fire. With no access to any mainstream media, Facebook and WhatsApp were two primary tools in content dissemination, plus a handful of websites that ran critical content. From large billboards all over Colombo with grotesque images of LTTE atrocities and the capture of private media through fear and murder to the complete transformation of state media as propaganda arms, the Rajapaksa regime did what it could to thwart democratic process and electoral institutions.

It didn’t work. Which is to say, electoral outcomes, even with the best-laid plans, often tend to surprise pollsters and pundits alike. Arguably, elections are in Sri Lanka the closest one gets to an emotional pandemic, where heart rules over mind and tick or preference is made more by reflex, not reflection. But that’s not an excuse to stay at home and disengage. One can fear the outcome but still vote with hope. Please vote. We simply mustn’t go back to how things were, just a few years ago.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 10 November 2019.

The missus versus manifesto

An unexpectedly tumultuous week at home left me little time to engage with the dynamics of the presidential campaign. This, in turn, brought newfound appreciation for how hard it must be for candidates to capture and retain the attention of those who aren’t, like myself, plugged into propaganda. The sheer volume of content produced – tens of thousands of posts daily on Facebook alone, just related to the campaigns – means citizens simply cannot keep up or cope with partisan tsunamis of promises. Unsurprisingly, many opt instead to inhabit spaces, both online and in real life, with the least friction against their political beliefs. The promise of the internet and social media to expose and connect diverse opinion ironically fails, simply because there’s just too much of diversity to get one’s head around. At some level, we all seek validation and the comfort of a space where one isn’t questioned incessantly about what one believes. And this is why, over time and at scale, the ‘constant campaigns’ – political propaganda disguised as normal content published or produced on pages, accounts and spaces not overtly or even remotely linked to politicians, parties or ideologies – are so powerful. By normalising what those in power want to see established or more of, over time, this content shapes the public imagination such that the exercise of franchise is manipulated long before an election (or referendum) is called or held. The more academic frames aside, the manifestation of this in daily life is interesting.

Purchasing a new monitor from Unity Plaza – that Mecca in Colombo for all things related to computing and peripherals – I was waiting for the delivery of my purchase listening to a loud, heated debate in the shop between four individuals, contesting the relative merits of Sajith Premadasa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa. They didn’t know me or care that I was present. Occasionally, as is the case in Sri Lanka, each interlocutor would glance at me after a point made about one of the two individuals, smile and seek acknowledgement by way of a nod or smile from me. I smiled many times, not because I was particularly interested in or partial to the points made, but that the discussion was happening in the first place, openly. This wasn’t the case late 2014, when social media and digital expression were the primary vectors or platforms of dissent at a time fear and anxiety were rife. It was during the Parliamentary Elections of 2015 that something extraordinary took place on Facebook. Many took to the platform, for the first time, to openly post content around who they were voting for and why. The comments under each post debated the merits of the stated position by author. Still, since it was largely between friends or acquaintances, the discussions were relatively civil, with the public nature of commentary amongst a known audience acting as an inhibition against more abusive or violent expression. The exchanges were thus anchored more to issues, histories, policies and the critical appreciation of promises, more than propaganda. Before 2014, leading blue-chip private sector companies in Sri Lanka had either explicitly forbidden or implicitly discouraged any political comment or content even on individual social media accounts. This has now changed. In sum, it is a good or even great thing. I’ve either heard or partaken in conversations about the presidential election at hospitals, malls, small shops in my neighbourhood, taxis and with the staff and security personnel at the airport. Many of these discussions have been punctured by content I’ve been shown, or others have been shown, the interlocutor had engaged with on Facebook or, increasingly, as WhatsApp forwards.

There’s a lot of political discussion and content around, digital in form and nature, but profoundly impacting the day to day conversations and interactions of those not connected directly to these platforms. In a week that both the UNP’s Sajith Premadasa and the SLPP’s Gotabaya Rajapaksa released their manifestos, you would think then that the substance of these important documents would generate the most amount of engagement, or interest. You’d be wrong. In the space of a week, photos framing each candidate with his respective wife generated, by order of magnitude, more reactions on Facebook than content around the launch of each respective manifesto. At the time of capture, a photo with Rajapaksa tying a pirith noola on his wife, who was captioned as his ‘silent partner’, generated 17 times more reactions than content around the release of his manifesto. A photo with Premadasa and his wife in a train compartment on the way to Kandy generated 6 times more reactions than the video around the release of the NDF’s manifesto. One reading is that the discussions one is privy to in public spaces is driven entirely by emotive reactions to personal frames. A photo or selfie generates much more engagement than a manifesto. Reading seems to be the issue here, which is counter-intuitive in a country with very high adult literacy. Video on Facebook, for example, on rallies, conventions or press conferences, of each leading candidate, is viewed tens of thousands of times, at least, live and then over a short period, watched as a recording millions of times. It is not surprising anymore to find a video of a critical rally or speech to be viewed many more times than the population of Sri Lanka. So while manifesto appears to be moot, engagement with video clips, carefully staged photos that look authentic or spontaneous, video streams and memes (cartoons) are astronomical.

What does this mean for the presidential election? I would go as far as to suggest that the spectacle of releasing a manifesto is now more important than the manifesto itself. I was never entirely convinced manifestos made a difference in the exercise of franchise in Sri Lanka. I am now even less convinced they have any impact on voting patterns, the more manifestos are released in digital and even tri-lingual form on the web and social media. The critical appreciation or blind following of policy, party or politicians is through frames and media entirely independent of these large, professionally produced PDFs (do they even print these anymore, I wonder?). Even floating voters may not read carefully every single manifesto to select their preference. Last week, as I’ve done since 2010, I visualised the English manifestos of Rajapaksa and Premadasa to help voters quickly grasp what each candidate was interested in, focused on or promised. Rajapaksa, for example, doesn’t mention human rights once, and only talks about rights in the context of the disabled. His manifesto is easier to read and more tightly penned, but Premadasa’s has a stronger and wider focus on rights, though it is shorter and more loosely edited. Prima facie, the two manifestos and their emphases are almost indistinguishable – both candidates, for example, come out very strong on national security. This is in stark contrast to the declarations of Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015 or between Sarath Fonseka and Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2010, where the difference in tone, thrust, frame and foci were immediately evident when visualised. In 2019, the devil – each candidate aside – is in the details. On the face of it, both Premadasa and Rajapaksa offer the same menu of options, just differently executed by individual, party, elder brother or extended family.

I would not be surprised to see the grandchild of Mahinda Rajapaksa appear in content that generates extraordinarily high engagement soon. The ‘aney me balanna’ and ‘like karanna nathuwana baa ne’ instinct are fueled by content many don’t know generate these reactions with a more pernicious intent. More than manifesto, political choice is today crafted by content that’s banal and basic. The emotive over the intellectual is something politicians have known and perfected for decades. Social media offers them new ways to pursue their dark arts. The virality of the missus over manifesto is proof of this. The test is how and if substance can win over soundbite, and policy over photograph.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 3 November 2019.

 

The Manchurian Candidate

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s interview with BBC’s Chris Morris after the murder of Lasantha Wickremetunge is a video that continues to haunt the now Presidential candidate. Aside from the violence of what he says, is Gotabaya’s way of saying it. A nervous laugh. A high-pitched rebuttal. A rapid increase in short, staccato sentences, revealing a barely contained anger at being asked inconvenient questions. For the presidential candidate today, society was divided amongst those who were terrorists or were fighting them. Dissent and criticism, at the time, was according to Gotabaya, treasonous. A decade hence, given the candidate’s recent appearance in front of international media, nothing’s changed. The response to a question by the Hindu correspondent resulted in the same high-pitched laughter, defensiveness, discomfort and denial. The situation is so dire for the SLPP it falls on the candidate’s elder brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to rescue the aspirant from himself. 

 

This conundrum of a candidate who is his own worst enemy is not lost on his party. Astonishingly, and to my mind, unprecedented in any Presidential campaign in Sri Lanka is the degree to which the chief candidate is visually and narratively demoted in favour of his brother. Cut-outs, banners and posters always feature Mahinda – often printed larger or featured more prominently than the candidate himself. At key moments in the campaign, the candidate is visually and narratively, missing or marginal. For example, one was hard-pressed to find Gotabaya in official photos released by the campaign on the signing of the MoU with the SLFP. Not unlike Leonardo da Vinci’s intentional composition of ‘The Last Supper’, where the vanishing point and lines of the painting put Jesus at the centre of attention even as the painting captures a full table of other men, all the official photos had Mahinda front and centre. He is the focus of attention, and it is to him that all the cameras were pointed. Even the head table had Mahinda dead centre, with the official candidate – who arguably was with whom the SLFP was signing the MoU with and because of – relegated to a side. In fact, some of the photos and media coverage didn’t feature Gotabaya at all. Last week, four prominent cartoonists in English, Sinhala and Tamil language newspapers independently captured the degree to which Mahinda is, quite literally, behind the SLPP’s Presidential candidate – stepping in to comment, clarifying, campaigning on his behalf, answering questions addressed to him or propping him up. 

 

Gotabaya is now to the SLPP exactly what PM Ranil Wickremesinghe is to the UNP albeit for much longer – a political and public communications debacle. The charisma that Mahinda effortlessly exudes is entirely alien to and escapes the SLPP’s official presidential candidate. It’s a big problem, and the SLPP knows it.  

 

The more hidden side to all this is what the data around engagement on Facebook and Twitter, when studied at scale, reveals. Either the SLPP know this and are running scared, or they don’t need to – silently witnessing what to the public eye is hidden but evident in what fraternal, filial and family relations are in private. Either way, the data tells its own stories. For example, there is a tendency now for individuals to claim that Sajith Premadasa or Gotabaya Rajapaksa will win the election, without any corroborating evidence. To test these claims, I studied 692 Facebook pages anchored to SLPP, UNP and JVP presidential candidates and their parties from December 2017 to last week. In the lead up to the local government elections in February 2018, Mahinda Rajapaksa as an individual, and the SLPP as a party, dominate engagements on Facebook. During the constitutional coup, the UNP organically decimates the SLPP. After Easter Sunday, for around a month, Gotabaya, Mahinda and the SLPP spike in engagement, but only Mahinda’s endures. From early August to the third week of October, there is no clear leader in engagement. Depending on party convention, rally, press conference, engagement, meeting or key announcement, each candidate’s engagement spikes above others – the data graphed resembles a mountain range. In fact, if trendlines from early to mid-October hold – even after the clear partisan advantage arising from the dismissal of key court cases in the US and Sri Lanka against Gotabaya – the UNP’s candidate is generating more engagement. This should worry the Rajapaksas. But there’s a deeper issue, in the data and beyond. The pages anchored to Gotabaya, contradistinct from pages anchored to Mahinda or the SLPP, are of a rabid, racist and overwhelmingly violently Sinhala-Buddhist nature. Namal’s predominantly ego-centric and selfie laden eco-system of social media pages, spanning many platforms and accounts, does not, tellingly, attract these followers and their overtly racist framing, comments and ideology. Mahinda’s Facebook eco-system is populated by a love of him and anything he says or does – a digital paterfamilias corresponding closely with what I am told is the consummate politician, warm personality and charisma in person. Gotabaya’s fans and followers are remarkably different – highly motivated, trollish, frothing and feverish in their commentary and prolific in their content production. But in network science – the study of how data like engagements on social media flow from one platform to another or within a platform over time – Gotabaya’s problem is one of sustained influence and enduring appeal. Almost every spike in engagement since August 11th – when Gotabaya was nominated as the SLPP’s presidential candidate – is driven by content produced, promoted or projected by Mahinda. 

 

The candidate is clearly capable of coherent communication, but in very select circumstances. For example, when I studied Gotabaya’s speech at the SLPP convention in English using a specialised platform to deconstruct text, I found the candidate’s speech weak on rights but a near perfect model in how a political vision can and should be communicated. Gotabaya is very good at scripted speeches delivered to friendly audiences, where a tainted, bloody past is not a problem or questioned. But faced with probing questions from a courageous journalist, the candidate again unconsciously reverts to type. High-pitch, nervous laugh and incoherent answers define Gotabaya the candidate, without the tools or enabling architectures of containment, control or silencing he is used to dealing with inconvenient truths. 

 

Does any of this indicate a victory for Sajith Premadasa and a loss for Gotabaya Rajapaksa? Emphatically not. But it does reveal, despite the best efforts of the SLPP to gloss over or put a sheen on, fundamental flaws of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as a presidential candidate. Could it be that Mahinda secretly wants the public to realise the degree to which how without him, no one else from family or party before or other than his son is destined to command public attention, admiration and adoration? Why does a leading presidential candidate countenance – without whine or whimper in public – what is a visibly diminished position in his campaign? Is data suggesting flatlining engagement on Facebook, when measured at scale amongst a consequential electoral demographic, a harbinger of the official result? 

 

Whatever the answers to these questions, it is not untimely to ask – in the same manner as was afforded to a brutally murdered journalist – who really Gotabaya Rajapaksa is, behind the smiling mask? Why is he running a campaign anchored to racism and fear? What is he scared of, for which the immunity and impunity offered by the Presidency is the only viable insurance against?

 

Who is he? What is he doing?  

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First published in The Sunday Island, 27 October 2019.

Digital rivers

Imagine standing on the Kelani Bridge, looking at the river flow towards, underneath and away from you. Or standing at a river delta, looking at the veins merge with the sea. Perhaps all of us have, risking stern reprobation from parents and grandparents, played in the garden just after heavy rain, splashing around, looking at rivulets of water and putting paper boats on them. Memories of childhood can be vague, but if not directly experienced, high-resolution photos of deltas and large rivers are a Google search away. In all of them, there is a discernible pattern of water flowing around higher ground, depending on the speed of flow and volume. After heavy rains, the volume of water is much greater, carving its way through alluvial boundaries. During a drought, the shimmering slivers of water almost sheepishly meander through sandbanks. General predictions on water flow and by extension, flood-prone areas, are possible after long-term observation. But it is impossible to model with certainty how the volume of water shapes what it flows through, around and beyond. Furthermore, the Kelani River is a combination of tributaries and other rivers. Standing atop the Kelani Bridge, it is impossible to identify exactly which water came from We Oya, Seethawaka Ganga, Gurugoda Oya, Kehelgamu Oya or Kehelgamu Oya. It’s just one big river, incessantly flowing.

Think of social media in the same way. Hundreds of millions of interactions – ranging from posts, photos and videos to comments and shares – constitute a growing river of content. Sri Lanka’s electorate is the alluvial soil. During times of communal violence, whenever Malinga’s magic is evident on pitch, the marriage of a well-known media or political personality or an election, this river turns into a flood, subsuming country or specific communities with dominant, specific frames of content. At other times, it is more easily possible to observe how content anchored to a particular person, party or ideology shapes the general flow of conversation  – emotionally charged content generating more engagement, oppositional framing fomenting resistance, propaganda shaping the acceptance of past, process or project or populism framing commentary on desired futures. Like the tributaries of the Kelani, content pegged to varying intent is inextricably entwined in platforms like Twitter, YouTube, Facebook or Instagram. Studying this is profoundly consequential for the timbre, tenor and thrust of politics in Sri Lanka, no matter who is President or in power.

For example, just around several hundred pages linked to three leading candidates for the presidential election – Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sajith Premadasa and Anura Kumara Dissanayake – nearly 93 million views were generated by the videos published in just over two months, from 1 August to 10 October. Content framing Rajapaksa was viewed around 58 million times and content anchored to Premadasa, around 32 million times. During this same time, official Facebook pages belonging to the SLPP or UNP generated around 564,000 comments. Unofficial pages around Premadasa and Rajapaksa generated around 696,000 more comments. But this isn’t the full story. Political discussions, around the presidential elections, aren’t happening on pages or accounts officially associated with or anchored to candidate or political party. Across hundreds of mainstream media, gossip and meme pages I study, this period generated around 3,253,000 comments just around the content pegged to the three leading candidates. More troublingly, and not for the first time, when studied in greater detail, gossip pages on Facebook dominate political framing. In other words, gossip pages alone are more popular than English and Sinhala mainstream media pages on Facebook combined, and by order of magnitude more frequented than any official page candidate or political party. Of around 134,000 posts on one or more presidential candidate from 1 August to 10 October, about 55% of the content or approximately 74,000 posts are generated by gossip pages.

Digging deeper, just two of the leading gossip pages are followed by close to 2.4 million Facebook users. The two posts generating the highest number of comments during this time were those respectively anchored to Rajapaksa or Premadasa. One of the pages was running a paid ad for a candidate at the time of the study. It is isn’t clear who these gossip pages are administered by. They are unaccountable, do not adhere to any professional guidelines, ethics or journalism standards. And yet, what academics call an ‘emotional contagion’ effect – the ability to seed, sow and spread public (mis)perceptions at scale, is clearly evident in the way partisan political content are published or promoted on these pages.

Is mainstream media any better? The official media guidelines by the Election Commission of Sri Lanka notes, in the first two points, that (1) All telecasting, broadcasting and print media shall be neutral and impartial in their reporting of election-related matters and shall not discriminate any contesting political party / independent group or a candidate, in allocating airtime and allotting space in the newspapers and that (2) All media institutions shall provide accurate, balanced and impartial information in broadcasting/ televising their news bulletins and other programmes relating to political matters. And yet, a study of 2,103 data points on Facebook – including posts and videos – published by Ada Derana, Hiru and Maharaja from early August to early October, provides for the first time, the degree of partisan polarisation in terrestrial broadcasts, mirrored and exponentially spread over Facebook. Aside from those who ‘tuned in’ to watch news broadcasts, rallies, speeches or live coverage of a political event, around 8,3810,000 watched video content from one of these three channels on Facebook. The channels are astonishingly and unashamedly partisan. If a channel is pro-Rajapaksa, nothing of consequence linked to Premadasa is featured, broadcast or promoted. If it is, the framing is hostile, oppositional and negative. The terrible partisan framing is mirroring on a channel that is pro-Premadasa. The JVP’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake is hardly ever featured, leave aside any of the other candidates. Gossip pages, which when studied at scale, are also clearly controlled by partisan interests or paid to promote partisan content, contribute nearly 9 million more views to content shared by these 3 TV stations on Facebook.

These are hard numbers to grasp, not unlike trying to model the Kelani River’s fluid dynamics. One can, based on previous patterns and careful observation over a long period, make educated guesses around what the impact will be of a river that changes in volume or velocity, rapidly or more slowly. In a similar fashion, the flow, volume, partisan frames, bias, viral appeal and the generation of engagement pulsatingly present on social media are signals that when juxtaposed with other factors and placed in context, provide valuable indications around how an electorate perceives, reacts or responds to political and social developments. The question is what if anything the Election Commission is doing to use this information, in the public domain, to secure electoral integrity. If the presidential campaign of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, which featured an endorsement by the incumbent Army Commander, revealingly only elicited a flaccid warning from the Elections Commissioner, it is entirely unsurprising why three of the country’s leading TV stations continue unabated with their openly partisan programming – a terrible pattern mirrored in print and radio.

There is a tendency to import risks and warnings from the West around the weaponisation of social media as somehow relevant to Sri Lanka. That’s only partly true. The bias of media, the lack of enabling legislation on campaign financing, the unwillingness of and resistance by candidates to declare personal finances, the partisan control of media owners – these are pre-Facebook era problems for us. Addressing how these decades-old challenges are exacerbated by the use of social media requires a combination of new thinking as well as political will. But I don’t see any interest on this score. Voters must ask why.

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Published in The Sunday Island, 20 October 2019.

Acts of kindness

Lawrence Lipscomb is not a name many would recall or even associate with the White House under Obama. The photo featuring him may, however, be more familiar. In it, the then President Obama fist-bumps Lipscomb while walking down the hallway of a federal building, after a meeting. There are two officials with Obama. One looks with some bemusement at the encounter, and the other is buried in files. The President has gone out of his way to greet Lipscomb, who is in janitorial garb, service gloves and standing next to two trash cans. This sort of photo doesn’t offer any context – did Lipscomb call out a greeting? Was the President in a particularly good mood? Had they met before? The photo, even devoid of this frame, offers much by way of an ethic and culture instilled and inspired by those who occupy high political office.

In and through this one photo, President Obama projects and portrays the essential respect for others and the dignity of labour. There is another minor but important detail. In searching for this photo on Google, I typed “Obama fist bump janitor”. Tellingly though, the archived version of the Obama White House webpage calls Lipscomb a ‘custodian’. The North American use of ‘janitor’ connotes someone who deals with cleaning and taking out the trash. A custodian is ‘a person who has responsibility for taking care of or protecting something’. The difference is not just semantic. In choosing to call Lipscomb a custodian of the building that Obama was passing through, there is a shift in power. The President is a guest and transient. Lipscomb is the person in charge of taking care of the building for future incumbents. The shift in power is also a shift in focus – to see how those we often don’t see, but are all around us, are central to the lives we lead, in positions of greater comfort, luxury and privilege.

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At meetings leading up to the passing of the Right to Information Act in 2016, some of us handling the last mile of a long journey to get the legislation passed in Parliament were frequent visitors to the Government Information Department. Leading up to and after those meetings, I used to talk with those who brought in the tea – to ascertain what they feared about the proposed legislation and thought about where it would matter most if passed. About the same time, under the then Director-General of the Information Department, I was also part of some measures to revamp media monitoring architectures that had gone to ruin and disrepair. In those rooms, once bustling with recorded media content and frameworks for review, they were in a state close to despair. The equipment piqued the interest of the geek in me. The staff – bereft of meaningful work, without any direction, and penalised for just having worked on projects led by the former government – concerned me more. Just over a year after the 2015 Presidential Election, the rooms I ventured into and crawled around looked like something post-Chernobyl. The staff were in worse shape. Nobody had talked to them since the change of government, and they found what they had done for years, was no longer needed. I was the first to talk to them about what they wanted to do, instead of judging them for what they were once part of. Based on these conversations – which were entirely bereft of partisan vitriol or rhetoric – I provided input a call for tenders that would upgrade the equipment they had to monitor terrestrial news and TV programming, anchored to issues around corruption, governance, education and the environment – which they cared about, and I argued the (then relatively new) yahapalanya government would be interested in. To have a state employee beg of me – someone without any political authority, discretionary funding, or authority whatsoever – to help them find meaning in their job, is a haunting memory (“Aney mahaththayo, apita vena monawath epa – api karapu de aluth vidihakata karanna api kamathiyi. Apita kiyale denna. Mehema office eke inna eka nam karumayak”).

The new government had abandoned them altogether, treating them as radioactive for merely doing – and from what I gather, rather well – what was asked of them by the former regime. Rather than harvest this muscle memory of the media landscape, they were rotting away, scheming, despairing and discontent. It didn’t take much to realise what would be the result of this wasted potential in the service of more nefarious projects under the very nose of the incumbent government.

In a similar vein, at the Human Rights Commission, the longest conversations next to official meetings have been with staff who prepare the best ingiru tea I’ve had next to Amma’s. At other ministries, departments and offices of the state, the power held by what the Obama White House calls custodians is immense. They do the photocopies. They answer or overhear calls. They see who comes and goes. They are acutely tuned into the moods, madness and mistresses of many public officials. They make tea or coffee. They carry the files, operate the lifts, clean the offices, take out the crumpled papers in the trash, see what’s on monitors and desks, usher and print. They are survivors. As the pillars of these institutions, they often know by order of magnitude more than the incumbents heading them about how things really work – and the strategic shortcuts to actually get something done. Make an enemy of them, and snot or spit in one’s milk tea would be the least of one’s worries.

The incumbent President in the US teaches us the value of the former’s approach to human relations. It is a lesson that eludes many in Sri Lanka too. One is never too busy to exchange a greeting. Security guards – one of the most underpaid and unglamorous of professions in Sri Lanka – are often in a foul mood because of the conditions they have to endure. A smile and even cursory greeting goes a long way. Immigration officials at the airport clearly hate their job, which a question about the village they are from or a comment about how much one missed food or sweets from home, immediately changes. I sometimes bring some chocolates to those who I have more than once, or when boarding a long-haul flight. This almost always guarantees freebies or preferential treatment, even if it is just a bit more flavour in a teacup. A shirt at Avurudu, a little bonus to colleagues when office didn’t have the funding for it, remembering birthdays and getting small gifts that match personality or interests, a good notebook, a big calendar or annual planner, a nice shirt, a guide to learning English, an old laptop or a second-hand PC – gifting or giving these have all helped me connect with individuals who without exception have given me more insight into problems the institutions they are at deal with, but have never once consulted them on.

It doesn’t take much to be kind, and its also true that those who have the least, are the most generous with what they have. In the weeks ahead, I will most likely focus on the election seen through the lens of my doctoral research on social media. The implications are profound. But we also tend to lose focus on the little things that matter more in the study of these larger tectonic shifts. A smile, greeting, handshake or fist bump are counter-intuitive and grossly undervalued tools in the fight against disinformation’s seed and spread. The more I study social media at scale, the more I am convinced individual acts of kindness are all that inoculate us against the worst of what architects of disunity want us to become.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 13 October 2019.

Conversations with strangers

Being an introvert is the most challenging when forced to interact with others in large numbers. I’m happiest alone, or in the company of close friends, who are few. When I am with someone I know very well, there is no pressure to converse or broach a specific topic in a given time or space. Silence, pause and personal reverie are as much part of communicating as more vocal and open sharing. Being an introvert also means that new friendships don’t come easy. With no interest in political office and no favours or money owed to anyone, the need for insipid ingratiation for self-advancement is entirely absent. I alone choose to associate who I want, which is not very many. I’m entirely content with what and who I have in life, which is why the farthest corner in café with book, music or iPad – or occasionally, a close friend – is the definition of happiness. None of this recommends me to spontaneous conversations with or mingling in the company of strangers. And yet, it happens.

Nothing about these random encounters is life-changing, but in retrospect, a few have been life-affirming. Take this morning. Sitting at a beautiful vantage point that offered a picture postcard-perfect view of city, my reverie was broken by a cocker spaniel who wanted my croissant and proceeded, with admirable restraint, to sit down beside me and look soulfully at it. The owner, on a phone call some distance away and initially oblivious to this development, rushed across hurriedly and in some horror, given that some don’t take kindly to dogs. We ended up talking for about an hour – about climate change, the politics of the US and UK, caste and class in India, Sri Lanka’s tryst with authoritarianism, Greta Thunberg and her activism, migration, what I came to the city to do, what she did, her Jewish-Korean-Swiss family and the relative merits of having domestic help. The fact that she was hesitant to admit and then immediately, almost reflexively, qualified the fact that she worked with the Army (“Just to be clear, I’m not in the army. I just work with them”) led to a conversation about the perception of armed forces in her country versus mine. The dog, having abandoned all hope of consuming croissant, proceeded to rub its bum on crisp autumnal leaves and to look at us, mid-way, for signs of approval. The entirely chance meeting put me in a better mood than when I got out of the house.

Other encounters, I remember less. There was a time when after a night on the tiles in New York, I recall looking at Manhattan sprawled on the floor of a yellow cab. Clearly, not the most dignified way to travel. I have no clue how I found my way back to the hotel or why, waking up in the bathtub the next morning fully clothed, I was clutching a TV remote in my hand which didn’t belong to the TV in my room. But I do recall a pub crawl with a friend that ended up – at every single establishment we went to – in the company of strangers who took us as one of their own. The conversations – early in Obama’s first term in office – were pegged to the idea, dominant at the time and hotly debated, of a post-racial America. Tequila, it turns out, is a great leveller.

Once in Brooklyn, enjoying a pizza for lunch, I was at first annoyed by the couple at the next table who wanted to find out how mine tasted. The terse responses clearly didn’t communicate that I wanted to be left alone. In hindsight, I’m glad. I felt I had to ask how what they were having tasted, leading to a conversation about the merits of the farm to table movement in New York State, and – with tables now joined – genetically modified food and vertical farming.

In Belfast and Boston, perhaps a decade apart, I found myself alone for New Year’s Eve. Partly to convince myself that I wasn’t a complete loser, I braved the cold to get to a bar to have a drink. Or four. In both cities, I was not alone for long. In Belfast, a group of regulars at the pub were almost offended I was alone and proceeded to teach me Irish slang over a quantity of alcohol that would have put a smaller bar out of business. In Boston, a group of post-graduate students insisted I joined them, only to then talk about string theory. On both occasions, I remember company and conversation more than I recollect how I got back to hotel, or when.

In Delhi, when in my final year of University I could speak fluent Hindi, I was accosted by fellow diners at the pavement hawkers I used to love to eat from. The fellow customers were all rickshaw-wallahs, who were either bemused I was eating where they did, or didn’t care and just wanted to talk anyway. From them, I learnt about life in Bihar, and an India so far removed from the bustling metropolis of the city I was in, it almost seemed to exist in a parallel universe. From train conductors to waiters, fellow students to astrophysicists and once, in San Francisco, a sanitation worker on his lunch break who sat beside me to admire, and then talk about critically appreciating an Andy Warhol painting, serendipitous conversations with total strangers have provided fascinating glimpses into the lives and perceptions of others.

And at least for this introvert, its led to some wonderful memories too.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 29 September 2019.

Mapping stories

What binds a community together? Initially one might assume it is to do with having the same language, external enemies or economic interests. However, something generally precedes all that: common ideas that are passed down from generation to generation and that shape the development of the community. These ideas lend a distinctiveness to the collective and eventually form the foundation of a national identity.

‘Ideen Schweiz’, or ‘Ideas of Switzerland’, is a permanent exhibition at the Swiss National Museum in Zurich. The text introducing the exhibits features the excerpt above. The Director of the museum, Andreas Spillmann, goes on to expand some of these ideas in a blog post, stressing that the supranational Swiss identity is defined by narratives, independent of an individual’s background. Stories, in other words, matter. In Switzerland, stories around a common identity and shared history are, to Spillmann, more consequential than personal origins, religion or ethnicity. The question driving him and the exhibition is of trans-national importance. What makes a country what it is? What are the ideas that bind, around a common, shared set of stories that capture the past, frame the present and help envision shared futures? As crucial in Sri Lanka – a country about as far removed as possible from Spillmann’s thesis of narratives as social glue – what are the stories that divide us? How are they selected, told and amplified? Can we capture the socio-political dynamics of a country through stories?

A map by the Swiss General Guillaume-Henri Dufour is part of the ‘Ideen Schweiz’ exhibition. The map – which is available in very high resolution online – is simply stunning, and considering it was done between 1845 and 1864, a remarkable technical achievement. Drawn to a scale of 1:100,000, one can see the whole of Switzerland in all its topographic complexity – valley to village, ravine to river. Every peak and every city is meticulously drawn. You are your own scroll-wheel – zooming into the map by walking closer to it and zooming out by walking away from it. From a distance, the contours of the country are immediately visible. Closer inspection reveals in-depth geological and glacial features, over millions of years, geographically dividing the land long before cantonal boundaries. It’s truly breath-taking, and the version online offers many hours of pan and zoom exploration, fueled by a mix of wonder and discovery.

Imagine then this cartography around conversations, or better yet, stories. This column, this paper, the TV you watch and the radio you listen to are all, in some sense, stories. The news is a narrative that excludes as much as it includes. And it is the same with all news media. Syllabi in school choose which histories to focus on. Pornographic stories were for many boys in school the first and only lessons around what to do with penis, how and to whom. Disastrous psychological consequences of these initial frames haunt us our entire lives, impacting social and sexual relationships. Buddhism was taught through jathaka katha. Bible study, through parables. As a child, I was addicted to Muwanpalassa on SLBC. The news during the Bheeshana Yugaya in the late 80s was a series of stories pegged to the State. Soon after the A9 opened in 2002, going up to Jaffna, I encountered stories never before heard, seen, taught or even remotely imagined existed. The purchase of anything at a shop resulted in a story. Parents waiting for their children on Temple ground on Sundays indulged in salacious gossip. Tuition classes were full of stories – made up to impress or seeded and spread to name and shame. Selvadurai’s ‘Funny Boy’, through compelling fiction, normalised same-sex relationships at a time when homosexuality – even as something that was reviled – didn’t even openly feature in conversations, unless of course, one was gay. Stories in school had gender, religion and identity framed in specific ways. Tuk-tuk drivers are born raconteurs.

If Switzerland has a few binding narratives, Sri Lanka features a limitless number of stories. And this is where stories and cartography meet.

At the scale I study content on social media, visualising data becomes a necessity to make sense of what the chief contours of conversations are. Not unlike Dufour’s map, I can opt to see at scale, or in precise, granular detail, the origins of a conversation and how it has spread. Also like a map, what I can plot is dwarfed by subterranean content I cannot see or access, like for example content on instant messaging apps like WhatsApp. My doctoral research is a daily reminder of how little I know, the more I map. But in what I do see and study, stories matter a great deal. Plotting stories as cartography is a different way of seeing country, context, cultures and communities. It is creating a new geography. From state propaganda to mainstream media bias, communal hagiography, religious frames and the constant spin by politicians, social media content can be mapped in ways which indicate who or what dominates, and also what stories are being crowded out or erased entirely. Social media content redraws – every single day – an appreciation of country, community and politics.

Which brings us back to the question posed in Zurich – what binds a community together? I don’t know. However, I do understand better what drives us apart. Stories I see, at a scope and scale far greater to most, render each of us as somehow different to and better than someone else. Every day, I see a thousand different versions of a country. Each story promotes a vision or version of Sri Lanka entirely distinct from, and often violently opposed to, any other definition. Every day, as a result of the stories we tell and consume, we draw a mental map of ourselves in relation to others. Sometimes consciously, and often, subconsciously. We’ve done this since school. Our stories – from the what they frame to how they are told and drawn – matter more than we acknowledge. Seeing what it results in, I’m concerned that – ironically – the more we are connected through social media, the greater the risk of being rent asunder by stories that weaponise incomprehension, anxiety, suspicion and myth.

Obviously, this risk isn’t entirely new or solely because of ‘social media’ as many would have us believe. We are and own our stories, as much as we create them. Maybe we need to secure, seed and share better ones, to map a more democratic, peaceful future.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 22 September 2019.