We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
The Hollow Men, T.S. Eliot
There is a flipside to what hasbeen another extraordinary week. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s untouchable veneer assaviour has taken multiple blows. Maithripala Sirisena stands confirmed, as ofFriday night if not well before, a very small, mediocre man. And as with men ofhis diminutive stature, the over-compensation for what one lacks comes by wayof a vaulting ambition that drives one into, first, blindness, and very soon,to madness. That all this unfolded in three weeks, as opposed to a longer-termentrenchment after an electoral contest, can be a useful reminder of what theelectorate must vote against in the future, and concertedly fight against now.
President Sirisena needs to be removed from office. The office of the Executive President needs to be removed from our constitution. Both need to be done urgently and without qualm or question. MPs who attacked policemen, the Speaker, and did other unspeakably awful, violent things in the full glare of the media – both domestic and international – need to be arrested, charged for criminal acts, jailed or at the very least, debarred from entering Parliament. A Code of Conduct for MPs, adopted mid-April this year, allows citizens to lodge complaints against any MP. The process and procedure aren’t hard. Active citizenship requires, and a responsibility, holding those in power accountable for their actions. Citizens must lodge complaints, and in their hundreds. Foreign governments must look at targeted sanctions against individuals who are captured in photographs and videos throwing, of all things, hardbound copies of the constitution, weaponising chilli paste and powder, breaking chairs, pummelling other MPs, throwing dustbins, destroying public property, and quite literally, are enemies of democracy who are breaking the law. The instigator of this catastrophic, historically unprecedented chaos, the President, must be shunned and shamed at every possible international event, for as long as he is alive and especially while he retains powers he is manifestly incapable of directing towards democratic designs.
The propaganda of the SLPP, vastly aided by large private media corporations who in addition to state media, command and control millions of followers over social media, has followed a predictable pattern. It has amplified positive narratives, drowned out critical perspectives and entirely censored opinions that are inconvenient. The machinery on social media is akin to a hub and spoke – there are central accounts that spread disinformation, which spread to other accounts, that in turn amplify this content. A range of other accounts, loosely affiliated to these central nodes, produce content based on this original source material. Gossip on Facebook provides a useful distraction. Commanding the most eyeballs, by far, of any content production on Facebook alone, these sites show photos of babies, children, the Buddha, soldiers posing, nature, and funny memes that in the present context, by distraction, seeks to do two things. One, the normalisation of the coup – as something not even worth producing some gossip around. Two, key frames for followers to appreciate and accept militarisation, politics favourable to Mahinda Rajapaksa and the superiority of Sinhalese and Buddhism. Entirely unlike the overtly racist, extremist and Islamophobic pages I monitor, gossip sites do not engage in open slander or hate (even though the very often unmoderated comments in response to the content frequently incite hate and violence). The goal here is longer-term indoctrination, done in a far subtler manner – with entertainment, veneration, exclusion, partial framing, the frequency of posts, photo selection, street-smart vernacular expression, virality and visual appeal as core elements, among others.
To readers of this newspaper, this is not a world they would remotely be aware of leave aside comprehend. It is, however, an old recipe, done over digital means. The Russians called it ‘active measures’, and while at the time of the Cold War, this sophisticated output designed to deceive populations (as opposed to the intent of propaganda which is to convince people) was limited to radio, newspapers and subsequently, TV. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are the new accelerants of disinformation, and you don’t need the Kremlin’s backing or support to launch active measures. Of course, it helps if you do. Letters from the Ambassador of Sri Lanka in Moscow leaked into the public domain, plus numerous visits to Russia by the Rajapaksa siblings offer, at the very least, interesting frames to better appreciate the grand design of what at first appears to be episodic and disconnected.
Think of it like ocean currents, which invisible to naked eye, shape the very nature of the sea. The SLPP is very good at the design of conversational currents, and that is a significant understatement. My doctoral research involves the study of content creation on social media at scale, looking at trends and patterns through the analysis of hundreds of thousands of individual pieces of content. Before the Supreme Court’s interim relief, the conversation was all about going to the courts if anyone wanted to contest Rajapaksa’s appointment. After interim relief was granted, the conversation pivoted to, amongst other anchors, a list of ten points – several of which actively targeted petitioners including Prof. Hoole as a Commissioner, projected and painted as partial or partisan. With Rajapaksa’s position in Parliament clearly hopeless, the shrill brigade started a campaign around voter suppression and the erosion of electoral democracy. After three dramatic dismissals of Rajapaksa’s legitimacy and the President’s lunacy, active measures are now anchored to obfuscating the constitutional legitimacy of Parliamentary proceedings and in particular, the Speaker. At every stage, there is design and premeditation. Hashtags are coordinated, and there is clear collaboration around the sharing of key messages, slogans and foci. Some vent. Others deny. Some push out counter-narratives. Others target key accounts of activists. Some flood by republishing. Others take the cue and publish, at scale, content that mirrors the original intent. Some of this is carefully structured and coordinated. Much of it follows its own logic, like the study of fluid dynamics of physics. All of it is toxic to democracy.
Repeatedly, the question is asked, why? What is in this unholy babel for Mahinda Rajapaksa? He, his son in Parliament, the President, leading members of the SLPP and supporters of the coup are all now indelibly marked by the international community. Domestically, many won’t realise the diplomatic censure and opprobrium, including on Friday after the violence in Parliament, the President and Mahinda Rajapaksa have brought upon themselves. These will have economic, political and diplomatic consequences. Despite all their efforts, even on social media, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s actions are being severely criticised not by those who have always hated him, but by self-declarations of those who respected or voted for him. This gives a glimmer of hope. As I noted on Twitter on Friday, despite the millions of US dollars offered as bribes, the near total media control and censorship, the historically unprecedented violence and intimidation in Parliament, veiled and open threats in public by those from and partial to the SLPP, the proroguing of Parliament and the hostile take-over of all key government departments and ministries, the President and Mahinda Rajapaksa still haven’t established the legitimacy of their actions and appointments.
Sri Lanka’s democracy is alive, but not well. Another tense week on life-support, punctured by the temerity of hollow men, seems inevitable.
First published in The Sunday Island, 18 November 2018.