The end of something

A decade after the end of the war, Sri Lanka is visibly, and far more than what’s acknowledged or reported openly, reeling from violent conflict. The anti-Muslim riots last week – of a scale, scope and speed of destruction that dwarfed Digana just over a year ago – coupled with the increase of everyday racism and attacks in Negombo, after the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks, have kept the country on tenterhooks. The responses are revealing. A President and Prime Minister, who do not speak to or work with each other, call upon the public to be united and undivided. In Singapore, and by some accounts, shopping, at the time of the Easter Sunday attacks, the President took over a day to return to the country. At the time of the anti-Muslim riots last week, the President was attending a banal conference in China. Mob violence that featured horrific public lynching, the destruction of nearly 500 buildings including mosques, widespread looting, wanton vandalism and violence against Muslim women, children and men, didn’t, however, compel the President to issue a statement of any kind, to date. How can one comprehend, much less counter, this callousness?

On social media, hundreds of pages that have whipped up communal tension either by normalising majoritarianism or by directly attacking Muslims before and after Easter Sunday, suddenly pivoted to messages of calm, reflection and non-violence, appealing to the mobs to exercise their franchise instead of taking matters into their own hands. Coded and couched in some of the messaging was a clear call to change government, which is a dark signature across many hundreds of pages that while commendably calling for non-violence, featured no condemnation of the violence, those who took part in it, the violence against the Muslims or the odious Buddhist monks who were part of the mobs. The pivot to celebrating Vesak, at scale and across many hundreds of sites that are hugely popular, now shapes the conversation and influences engagement away from the aftermath of the unprecedented destruction, once again producing and promoting country, community, cities and context write large through an exclusive Sinhala-Buddhist lens, which is its own continuing violence.

Eerily and disturbingly reminiscent of the awful Channel Four video from a decade ago, the controversy of CCTV footage capturing a soldier ostensibly beckoning violent mobs was comprehensively debunked by the Army Commander. After investigations by the Army, we are told, the footage revealed that the soldier was adjusting the strap attached to his weapon, and not, as widely perceived, beckoning a violent mob. The Army Commander, who after Easter Sunday claimed that the reason for terrorism was ‘too much of peace’ and ‘too much of freedom’ is silent as to why, once the soldier moves away, the screen is flooded with hundreds of young men wielding sticks and stones, walking and destroying freely. The government has repeatedly said that maximum force will be used against anyone disobeying curfew. The visual evidence, from Negombo and again from last week, tells a different story on the ground and one which the government is silent on, and perhaps, helpless around. It’s frightening and speaks to one of two scenarios. Either the command and control structure of the defence forces has collapsed, with strict orders unheeded, and with impunity, by foot soldiers. More worryingly, the unwillingness and seeming inability of armed Police and Army to arrest or control violent mobs, literally in front of their eyes, suggests connivance, complicity and compliance with a set of instructions not in the public domain. Those who appear to be in control may not command allegiance, and those more in control, may not be in government.

After the riots, the BBC ran with stories that spoke to how several Sinhalese had helped Muslims in the worst affected areas by giving them safe refuge, even as their properties were burnt. Since Easter Sunday, a leitmotif of Muslims – beyond the theatrics of those in Parliament and old men hogging the headlines – is to state the many ways they too are, at heart, in spirit, body, mind and soul, truly Sri Lankan. It has been distressing and disturbing to watch, almost as if this public expression is necessary to remind a larger community of what they say. Worse, that those not saying it or enthusiastically agreeing, are somehow suspect. This is also the larger language of systemic, ingrained racism, which latches to acts, statements, media coverage and stories around acts of kindness by the Sinhalese or Buddhists, without adequate questioning that goes to the heart of why ethnic, religious, sexual and other minorities in Sri Lanka live in growing fear. Even as stories from the North of Sri Lanka speak to how the Army has escalated checks and surveillance of Tamils, who had nothing whatsoever to do with the Easter Sunday terrorism, social media and the South started to venerate and hero worship soldiers. Even presented with evidence over a fortnight around how they mingled with mobs, the veneration continues. For a decade, questions around accountability have endured, anchored to the end of the war. If in 2019 hundreds of men, repeatedly roaming free during curfews, are able to gather, travel, kill and leave a wake of destruction, it doesn’t leave much to the imagination as to what ground conditions would have been like a decade ago against the Tamils, in a context far removed from CCTV, independent media and social media’s critical gaze.

Every video and story which continues to celebrate the humanity, kindness and protection afforded by Sinhalese-Buddhist is an embrace of racism, not a rejection. The reason these stories are needed, made and so warmly, widely welcomed, is because they serve as a temporary palliative – making a larger community who are participants and architects of everyday racism feel good, that they are somehow removed from the natural end of what they believe in. The South wants othering, without violence, exclusive rights, without marginalisation, a country for itself, as well as minorities who know their place, their own shops, stickers and signs, without allowing minorities to do the same. The mainstream media’s racism is well-known, founded on the political affiliations and partisan aspirations of owners. The opposition, quick to vociferously decry Muslim MPs in and out of Parliament, is completely silent on the outright hate and misinformation spread by card-carrying party cadre on social media, as well as that curious incident of the SLFP MP bailing out and transporting mobsters. A President, entirely and enduringly silent around anti-Muslim violence, blames human rights activists and NGOs for the Easter Sunday terrorism. Impunity abounds, as does hypocrisy. And yet, we just go on as if everything is fine.

This week, innumerable references from leading politicians, religious figures and civil society on the end of the war as well as the anti-Tamil pogrom in July 1983 were used to calm heightened emotions and quell the violence. Save for a handful, the most active on social media today weren’t alive in 1983 and were too young to critically engage with conditions, context and conversations at the end of the war, a decade ago. The warnings, in this light and for a younger demographic, are resonant and relevant. They also miss the point that we are already witnessing another Black July. Since Easter Sunday, the spread, scale and scope of violence – verbal and kinetic, digital and physical – against the Muslims and Tamils indicates the success of the Easter Sunday terrorism, targeted precisely to prise open festering communal divisions. As a post on Facebook sardonically noted, Sinhala Buddhists in greater numbers took over the task of ISIS terrorism, gratefully and with glee. The structural conditions, the systemic racism, the sustained impunity, seething violence and sickening impunity, controlled and condoned by the State in July 1983, are on full display in May 2019.

This weekend, we celebrate the end of war and Vesak. The ironies could not be starker.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 19 May 2019.

The fierce urgency of now

I posted on Facebook this week a rough comparison between New Zealand’s response to terrorism in Christchurch and Sri Lanka’s response to the Easter Sunday attacks, a month after. Fleshing this out and placing it for wider consideration amongst an older demographic, possible through this column, may help kickstart what Martin Luther King Jnr in 1963 called the ‘fierce urgency of now’ to highlight the importance of civil and basic human rights. The country is moving rapidly, almost inexorably, to the right. The hawks are happy and the populists, salivating. Mob violence in Negombo on Monday, the true nature and extent of which wasn’t fully captured in domestic media, captures a country on edge, even though the PM proclaimed that normalcy had returned. The whole country is combustible, and it is unclear what exactly may spark violence or when. A traffic accident, sporting a surgical mask, a colour worn, single sentence, intonation of a word, signboard, looking at someone, looking away from someone, beard, place of worship, patronising a shop, seeing a name, renting a room or house, altercation, a private feud, personal jealousy or hidden hatred now find a febrile, fertile context, islandwide, for digital expression, rapid expansion or kinetic escalation.

Given all this, is our response to terrorism inevitable and justified? Is there another way, an alternative model?

After Christchurch, there is not a single instance of mainstream media in New Zealand following the security forces around and broadcasting visceral footage. No intelligence reports were leaked, to gossip sites or mainstream media. The press didn’t name the perpetrator, following the example set by the Prime Minister speaking in Parliament, a few days after the attack. There was immediate and enduring bi-partisan unity in government to collectively face the aftermath and implications of the terrorism. Coherent, consistent and clear messages from the government helped control and curtail the spread of rumour, fear and anxiety. Empathic, strong political leadership was evident, including the clear identification with victims of the attack through garb and language, led by PM Ardern. In meetings held around the country late March, representatives of the ruling party, Labour, and the opposition, National, were seen together and silent, listening to victims and community representatives. There was no bickering or blaming each other, in these relatively private meetings or in public. The PM visited the scene of the terrorism the very next day, noting that she didn’t do so earlier because it would have impeded Police officers and first responders from doing their duty by the distraction of having to deal her with security. The government asked the victims how they felt and what they wanted to be done, instead of telling them what to do or making public promises. Political leadership didn’t voice the name of the perpetrator, setting the bar for all others to follow in the country. The focus was on the victims, and not around adding oxygen to infamy. Key content around the attack was deemed illegal to possess and share in any form. This was also communicated to social media companies. Even though the heinous attack was broadcast live and spread virally over many platforms, no social media was blocked in the country. A visibly upset PM instead sanguinely chose to use the moment to work with Silicon Valley technology companies and President Macron of France, to propose and launch a promising new global platform to tackle terrorism online. No one announced or launched a new political career or campaign in the aftermath of the attacks. Putting human security first, twinning it with national security and in the course of a week, the government completely overhauled the country’s gun-ownership laws. The PM herself went to schools and spoke directly with children, including those directly affected by the violence. All official memorialisation, remembrance and events to reflect upon and recall the tragedy, to date, have been multi-faith and multi-cultural. All communications from the government, all the time, were in Maori and English. There were no photo-ops of former PMs handing the current PM intelligence reports.

Compare and contrast to what we have witnessed after Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka. Human rights activists are being blamed for terrorism by the President. Not to be outdone, the Army Commander blamed ‘too much of freedom’ and ‘too much of peace’ as drivers of recent terrorism. Though it is entirely unclear what this means or he himself understands what he said, the reception to both statements was largely positive, suffering little pushback. Populist politics and policies were going to define 2019’s political and electoral cartography well before Easter Sunday. The attacks accelerated and cemented these dynamics. Key figures who through dog-whistle politics and proxies now weaponise grief, also offer personal guarantees of relief and security. In criticising the President and PM, which is richly deserved, political operators also discredit institutions and democratic norms, setting the foundation for authoritarian frameworks anchored to outcomes over due process, discipline over democracy, and ends that justify the means. One individual used the immediate aftermath of the terrorism to announce his candidature for the Presidential elections. The Speaker, with an increasingly active Twitter account, reiterated the need for national security, echoing the dominant sentiment of others jostling for public acceptance. The UNP’s political, public and crisis communications remains, save for a brief period late last year, a good idea. The President continues to lie, and now in Parliament. Mainstream media’s enduring fascination with blood, gore and sensationalism have dominated the framing of Easter Sunday and its aftermath. Leading commentators simplistically suggest the indictment of intelligence officers responsible for the most heinous of human rights violations or implicated in extra-judicial killings and abductions are somehow central in the purported demoralisation of the sector, allowing this terrorism to grow. The rule of law aside, which is now projected as a luxury the country cannot afford, the multiple intelligence reports provided by elite domestic and international intelligence agencies over months that went unheeded aren’t included in this reasoning. And despite commendable efforts by the Cardinal and others, communal tensions are rising. The accurate reportage of this is constrained and curtailed through the weaponisation of draconian emergency regulations, where even accurate journalism that flags this unrest risks being reported as content that inflames communal tension. Journalists on the ground are burnt out, and worried, observing more than they dare to report.

Ironically, MLK’s words may give the greatest legitimacy to hawks and their hacks in Sri Lanka today. Those in favour of a blanket, sustained militarisation and the clamping down of freedom in response to terrorism propose as inevitable and necessary the policies, actions and regulations they propose. Especially when confronted with the monstrous incompetence of both the President and PM, counter-arguments seem both weak and risible. However, the entirely justified anger directed at and criticism of those in government must not extend to the outright dismissal of democracy, and what are clear laws in place to address terrorism. Are New Zealand’s vital lessons in this regard, because it is a 1st world country, exceptional and inappropriate as a foil? I think not. Decency, dignity and democracy aren’t things just for the West or white people. They are not recent or cheap imports. They are not an American conspiracy. These are our values. They are ingrained in our history. At a time when the political and sections of the religious firmament conveniently forget this and what we truly are, have been, and will continue to be, we have a choice to be silent or speak up.

Like a surprising number of others at this time, I choose to speak and stand up. In small but meaningful ways, amongst family, friends and colleagues, online and in person, I hope you do too.

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First published in The Sunday Island,  12 May 2019.

The anger without a cure

Seeing a country grieve through millions of data points is a strange experience. Posts, videos, photos, memes, articles, tweets, status updates, cartoons, drawings, podcasts on the Easter Sunday terrorism already number in the tens of thousands. Those who have in some way engaged with this content, in the around 1,000 accounts on Facebook and an equivalent number on Twitter I monitor closely and daily, number in the tens of millions. Some videos, already, have been viewed more times than the population of Sri Lanka. In fact, the Easter Sunday attacks resulted in a tsunami of content that exceeded the volume and velocity of production at the height of pushback against the constitutional putsch late last year. Keep in mind that this rate of engagement and content consumption is despite the longest ever social media block in the country, lasting 9 days.

My column is often pegged to the nature of content and conversation on social media, and why it matters to readers of this newspaper. This writing is pegged to the belief that politics, governance and ultimately, the timbre of our increasingly fragile democratic fabric is shaped by content and opinions furnished from, forged on or framed through social media. What kind of country we will wake up to is no longer a given. The degree of anxiety, expressed, privately shared and hidden, is real and growing. Social media provides easy publication and promotion of emotions, which academics call the contagion effect. In a vacuum of credible, reassuring or official communications, fear or anxiety latch on to and predominantly shape the appreciation of content that arouses anger, kinetic action and violent reactions, over reasoned response, reconciliation or reflection. Both the fog of conflicting narratives and the absence of credible accounts from government create a context ripe for the weaponisation of grief, loss and pain. This is done in a number of ways, by blatantly offensive content or, far more dangerously, by material anchored to some truth, but taken out of context, features a larger narrative, scenario or story entirely removed from reality. The harvest from this crop of hate, insecurity and othering is socio-political instability that in spiralling towards the violent resolution of conflict, aids the further entrenchment of what gives rise to extremism. The worst possible responses are projected and perceived as the best possible solutions. Knowing this, and leveraging the opportunity, malevolent actors, for partisan, political or political gain, produce and push out content that inflames tensions and incites hate.

All this, to many of this newspaper, will reaffirm their belief that the government was entirely right in blocking social media in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Easter Sunday. I have two responses – one an analogy, the other based on hard data. Consider for a moment social media like one would the national grid. You don’t need to be an electrical engineer to understand that if there’s a problem with a specific place or section of the grid, the solution is not to shut the entire grid down indefinitely and without any warning. Power distribution accounts for sudden surges and spikes in certain areas. It can also, based on historical consumption patterns, ascertain and plan for consumption at certain times, in certain areas. If short-circuits or frequent transformer failures are reported from a certain area, the problem is clearly local and is addressed as much. If necessary, power cuts in the area are established to address the problem, without affecting the entire, national grid. Constant oversight is necessary, for repairs and maintenance operations. While management and planning can and must be done at a national level, by its very nature, the grid requires local oversight and knowledge. A single office in Colombo cannot manage a national grid. A neglected or overwhelmed grid will fail, and often with catastrophic consequences.

What our government does in times of a national emergency is the equivalent of shutting down the entire electricity grid. Evident after Easter Sunday, cementing what was known before, is the complete, catastrophic absence of any coherent, cohesive or concise crisis and political communications from the PM or President. There is no point, anymore, flagging this. If acknowledged as something we will suffer from in the short time left for this government, the analogy above recommends a more nuanced, strategic and sensible approach to social media oversight. The study of content, locating what is produced in context, monitoring key trends, capturing accounts that show a proclivity towards malevolent behaviour or output, gathering information on distribution patterns, vectors and participant voices featuring hate or violence – all this and more, not unlike the upkeep of a grid, is necessary. All this can be done with legal and regulatory frameworks already present. No new laws are needed. Social media companies, under intense and relentless pressure in the West, are investing heavily in oversight and support structures to government as well as civil society to stem the flow of misinformation, hate and violence. The very companies that a few years ago scoffed at their role, reach and relevance in fomenting hate are now invested more than governments in technologies to stop or stem content that results in real world hate or harm. With all this in play, the Sri Lankan government’s approach is an awfully simplistic one, treating social media like a switch and believing that turning it all off will somehow help protect citizenry. This is what children do when scared, not what adults governing a country should do in a crisis.

This is also where data comes in. Data in the aggregate or at scale – looking at thousands of accounts, tens of thousands of comments and tens of millions of engagements – negates individual opinions. Debating data requires arguments anchored to data, escaping the gravitational pull of invective and insult that often accompanies any contest of personal opinion in Sri Lanka. Through the analysis of very large datasets and their visualisation, I placed in public how the social media block was inefficient and importantly, ineffective. On Facebook, there is scant evidence that the block, in the two days after it was imposed on the 21st, impacted output of and engagement with a large cluster of gossip pages on Facebook. However, no other cluster monitored was impacted. By the end of the week, every single cluster I monitor comprising of just over 1,000 accounts in total showed a clear increase from the previous week by way of output and engagement. Twitter wasn’t blocked, and unsurprisingly shows some of the highest levels of activity I’ve ever seen. Tellingly, the same government that shut off access Facebook continued to post on it, leading me to believe that even those in high political office knew full well that millions of citizens could and would circumvent the block. Some videos published by political parties and leading news channels were viewed by more than the population of Sri Lanka in the space of a week, indicating a thirst for news and information over what was an unprecedented situation across the country.

If the intent was to control, curtail or even censor content that incited hate and violence, there was no evidence of the government’s intervention. Many ordinary citizens, however, stepped up to the challenge, leading some to even design, develop and deploy an app to verify rumours. A clear trend was also evident in the takedown of posts and content reported by users. Despite all this, disturbingly, the data suggests a steep rise in anger followed by an unprecedented wave of sadness on social media, over the course of the week. There is also a lot of love recorded on Facebook, but qualitative analysis very clearly shows that this expression is around content that is bitterly critical of the government, who tens of thousands if not more hold directly responsible for the loss of life on Easter Sunday. I am entirely convinced those in power, who do not understand social media, remain oblivious to this or how it will invariably find expression in electoral or street-corner dynamics.

I could go on, but what’s clear is that Western journalism and scholarship, which after the Easter Sunday attacks welcomed as necessary and inevitable the social media block, as well as the Sri Lankan government, which claimed the block was implemented to protect citizens, were both very wrong. Since Easter Sunday, I have struggled to find the words to express the urgency of meaningfully addressing grief and growing grievances on social media. A few of us are doing our best to push back on the sickening exploitation of terrorism to ensure much more of it. For the first time in a long time, I am not convinced it is enough to stop the country’s plunge into an abyss I can see all too clearly, every day.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 5 May 2019.

Easter Sunday

“It doesn’t make sense.” – Naren Hattotuwa

On Monday, my 12 year old son learnt his classmate had passed away at the Intensive Care Unit, a victim of one of the blasts in Colombo. My son’s mother and I grew up in the long shadow of the Black July anti-Tamil pogrom and the UNP-JVP violence in the late 80’s. For many in our generation and older, there is a normalization of violence. This is often confused with getting used to or accepting violence.

After the Christchurch massacre in March, many Kiwis trying to get to grips with the scale of the violence unthinkingly said that since I came from Sri Lanka, I was far more used to dealing with terrorism. I suppose that’s in a way true. Mundane things done every day have their own logic and reason that no one from outside cycles of violence would understand. In Kabul, a city where so much is wrong and getting worse, I feel completely at home amidst the detours, convoys, checkpoints, occasional explosion, news of imminent attacks and sporadic gunfire – or the sound of an engine back-firing shrugged off as gunfire, obviously the lesser evil there. The assumption that the more time one spends with it, the greater the ease in dealing with terrorism is, however, untrue. Terrorism is tragedy as theatre, and it is always terrible. The cataclysmic Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka and its aftermath this week leads to the weaponisation of everything and this fear that anything, anyone, anywhere, and at any time, can cease to exist. In this terrible equation, both familiar to some and entirely new to others, a traffic jam, the queue to pay at the supermarket, a film screening, pumping petrol, attending religious worship or going on pilgrimage, having brunch or going out for a meal, having a coffee in a hotel lobby, living next door to someone one hasn’t spoken with, sharing the lift, going to work in a high-rise building, parking underground, going to the park, using public transport, seeing off a friend at the airport or just wearing an item of clothing one chooses to can set off a violent response, or be a location where violence is unleashed.

The very real, growing anxiety this creates is a marketplace ripe for and often rife with rumour.

It is this aspect that from afar, I’ve studied in some detail this week. The same government that ignored intelligence reports about an imminent terrorist attack, we are asked to believe, blocks social media after hundreds have been killed or maimed out of an abundance of care for the safety and security of its citizens. The deep anger and revulsion against those in government is not what I want this column to reflect. However, it is barely contained. A President who knows nothing by his own admission, then goes on to blame post-war security sector reform for the terrorism, a PM who also knows nothing and worse, is entirely bereft of any empathy and public, crisis or political communication skills, government spokespersons who laugh their way through a press conference organized the day after the attacks, intelligence reports leaking to the public domain, Ministers tweeting their ignorance or calling for their own government to act, no coherent communication and a near complete collapse of moral, political leadership. These are the dominant frames of our government today. I don’t think it will recover, soon or ever. Mid-week on Twitter, I quipped that the remedial measures and accountability called for by the government is not unlike after close to 300 have died from acute food poisoning, the management and chefs of the restaurant responsible decide to fire a few hapless waiters for bad service. Many will cover this debacle out of a genuine search for answers and accountability or out of more partisan, parochial interest, leading up to and woven into the Presidential election campaigns.

I’ve focused on conversations around and coverage of the terrorism social media, as well as the effectiveness of and reasons for the block. It bears repeating that my doctoral research involves the study of Facebook and Twitter at scale – which is to say, I look at records in the aggregate, ranging into the hundreds of thousands and often, tens of millions. At this scale, the data tells its own story, superseding purely anecdotal, episodic and partial takes by individuals proposing or opposing the block. Till Friday, the social media block had done nothing whatsoever to stem the tsunami of content production on Facebook. Twitter, which was never blocked, shows a significant increase in both active users and content production. Gossip, meme and Sinhala mainstream media on Facebook produced content that engaged tens of millions, generating hundreds of thousands of posts. There was misinformation, rumour, hate and calls for violence, variously produced and promoted. This, all the Western journalists who called me and our government as well, put down as the reason for why social media was blocked. The data tells me that on Twitter, the ACJU noting that it will not accept the bodies of the terrorists for burial, the wailing of a Muslim father in a mosque as he laid to rest his 13 year old daughter, a friend’s update from Batticaloa on how the community had come together to deal with the scope and scale of the loss, how an individual at a Coffee Shop in Colombo, in a completely bloodied shirt, was pictured as someone who helped others after the blasts, and messages condemning the violence from the PM and the former President were, by far, the most retweeted and liked. Also, by far, a clear interest in and the sharing of content from reputed journalists. Traditional media on Facebook over the week showed a dramatic increase in the content produced and shared, including well over 20 million video views. On Facebook, posts around lactating mothers offering to breastfeed infants who had lost their own mothers, citizens offering places to stay and meals for those displaced or stranded, Churches noting that they will provide protection for mosques to hold Friday prayers, signs, posters, photos and memes around diversity and a plethora of content on solidarity, shock and sadness are thrived in the marketplace of limited attention.

Sadly, a government that never has and still doesn’t understand or strategically leverage social media is not one capable of acknowledging, on the merits of data science, that they are wrong.

This is not to say misinformation and rumour don’t exist. This week, leading journalists and international correspondents got violent, venomous pushback on social media for what they were reporting from the ground. Without given them the oxygen of more publicity, I have read and reported all manner of other conspiracy theories too on social media that do risk the peace. Yet, these disturbing dynamics post-Sunday reflect what existed on social media well before the terrorist attacks. The government’s well-meaning response to this was to identify the BBC correspondent as a ‘true Sri Lankan’. By extension, this necessarily means that living amongst us, and perhaps in our own families and amongst our friends, are ‘false Sri Lankans’ or inauthentic, unpatriotic ones. In trying to suggest the BBC’s correspondent in the country was a ‘true Sri Lankan’, the MP who tweeted his support inadvertently shone light into and contributed to what remains a deeply divisive, othering, majoritarian perspective of an authentic or acceptable national identity. Further, if international media quoting sources from Sri Lanka’s intelligence community are to be believed, the feeling of never being accepted into or truly part of our national fabric may have contributed to planning and execution of this violence.

On Tuesday, when I spoke to my son, he just said that the violence doesn’t make sense. I didn’t have anything to add. I’ve forgotten the exact amount of Facebook posts, messages, emails and tweets I’ve read this week. They range in the thousands. Through it all, I kept coming back to Naren’s question, which was also an observation. Perhaps it captures our country’s cri de cœur, to figure out what went so wrong and to realise that though incalculable grief convinces us otherwise, it is through democracy that we must seek answers.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 28 April 2019.

Virtue signalling

Victor Hugo remercie tous les généreux donateurs prêts à sauver Notre-Dame de Paris et leur propose de faire la même chose avec Les Misérables. – Ollivier Pourriol

The quip by French philosopher Pourriol on Twitter, after the Notre Dame suffered catastrophic damage in a fire last week, was aimed at billionaires in France who at the time of writing this, had pledged close to a billion dollars towards the reconstruction of the beloved monument. Referring to the famous novel by Hugo, Pourriol’s tweet was a piercing critique of inequality in French society evident just in response to the disaster. He echoed others from France at a time when President Macron faces sustained and violent protests around festering socio-economic issues, including taxation of the very rich and corporate hubris in France.

Where and how in Sri Lanka the Notre Dame fire was captured on Facebook is worth highlighting. The morning after the fire, in over 1,000 pages I keep track of in Sri Lanka pegged to news, gossip, politicians, civil society, religious and other groups, three posts on it generated by order of magnitude more engagement than anything else. This is no mean feat, especially around an event that wasn’t linked to anything domestic or Sri Lankan. All three of the posts were from gossip pages. Two of the posts featured photos of the burning Notre Dame and explicitly framed the response through a Buddhist lens, expressing sadness, solidarity and the hope the fire would be brought under control, soon. The other post was more straightforward in its framing, without recourse to Buddhism. All three posts were in Sinhala. During the day, several other posts from two clusters in particular – gossip and Sinhala-Buddhist pages – went up with comparable levels of engagement. This aside, what’s interesting is the domestic context for this outpouring of grief and concern over the Notre Dame, much of which, I am sure, was genuine.

On Palm Sunday, a week ago, a Methodist place of worship was attacked by a violent mob in Anuradhapura. Just a day before the Notre Dame fire, Bishop Asiri Perera posted on Facebook a statement on the attack, which was picked up by UNP MP Harsha de Silva, and tweeted. Attorney-at-Law Viran Corea also tweeted about the incident. This wasn’t an isolated or random incident. Ethno-religious violence has a long history in Sri Lanka, and Anuradhapura according to a report by Verite Research, recorded one of the highest numbers of cases involving violence, intimidation and discrimination. The significant lack of awareness around these incidents and the socio-political, economic and cultural drivers of violence is largely linked to near complete absence of meaningful reporting or coverage in mainstream media. Considering the significant engagement around Notre Dame, one would have expected by extension and employing the same logic, a similar outcry around the violence against a Christian place of worship in Sri Lanka. Revealingly though, there was not a single reference to the incident on any media page, website, Facebook or Twitter, beyond the three sources flagged earlier, in Sinhala, English or Tamil.

Dr. de Silva continued to tweet about the incident mentioning the IGP, who is not on Twitter, the President, who doesn’t understand Twitter and the Prime Minister, who evidently gets on Twitter only when unconstitutionally deposed. The tweets implored these individuals to act against the perpetrators. Though criticised for tweeting instead of acting like a government representative with agency, Dr. de Silva’s motivations are best known to him and in the vacuum of media coverage, one was grudgingly grateful for his tweets. But they raised more questions than sought to answer. Why must President, PM or MPs always direct the IGP and Police, and that too often over social media, to investigate this sort of incident and violence against minorities? Is public tweeting now the basis of internal communications within government? What does it say about the rule of law, in what is proclaimed and projected as the best government and governance Sri Lanka’s enjoyed in a long time if the Police – as was later tweeted by senior journalist Arjuna Ranawana – asked the victims of the attack to stop worshippers from attending religious services? What arrant nonsense do we ask minorities to endure without question, that majority race and religion wouldn’t countenance for a second and Police would not dare propose? We are told an SLPP Local Government member said, in front of the Police no less, that he represented the attackers and threatened that the limbs of the dogs who came to worship would be broken. I risk being corrected to hazard a guess that the dhamma doesn’t exactly endorse this expression or mindset. And yet, the SLPP – overwhelmingly prissy on social media – is entirely silent about this, unsurprisingly condoning kinetic violence the party’s leaders so wantonly fertilise on social media, along with racism, right-wing ideology and communalism.

Let’s keep it simple. Each tweet provides 280 characters. A Facebook post offers over 60,000 characters. Social media easily embraces video, photos and sound recordings. In all the years, of all the times a Muslim or Christian place of worship has been attacked, it should, in theory, be quite simple to produce, publish and place on record a simple statement, written or recorded, that the violence is not in the name of political leaders. This goes for the President and PM as much as it does for the SLPP and its telegenic young members, as well as its effortlessly charismatic older generation, all of whom have influential social media accounts reaching millions. Why is this so difficult? Why is this never done? Why is false equivalence, side-stepping, excuses, denial or dismissal the more common menu on offer, for hapless victims to pick from and be satisfied with? If the dhamma clearly doesn’t reside in heart or mind of those who profess to act on its behalf, what purpose do temples, bo trees and statues of Buddha serve, and moreover, what need for Mahanayakes as custodians of what they preach but don’t encourage the meaningful practice of?

Ironically perhaps, the Notre Dame after the fire is a succinct, symbolic capture of Sri Lanka’s shambolic soul, where overt grandeur masks a hollowed shell, with glowing embers that risk ready conflagration. The Notre Dame though is so much more, and its near destruction was enough to elicit tweets from our political leadership. Closer to home though, an incident more concerning and the latest in a history of violence goes without any mention. If Parisian icons and the grief of the French define what our politicians choose to focus on and frame, the Gandhian aphorism about actions expressing priorities springs to mind, and with an abundance of anxiety.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 21st April 2019.

When a law is not the answer

Wonderful news said all the Sri Lankans. But why Queensland, all the Australians asked. Fifteen years ago, a Rotary World Peace Fellowship award offered seven universities around the world to undertake a Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies. I chose the University of Bradford. I was awarded a place at the University of Queensland, in Brisbane. I didn’t complain. The scholarship was a chance to get out of Sri Lanka and rigorously study what I had till then done on the ground, at a time when violent conflict dynamics were, after some years of relative calm, rising rapidly. My Australian friends, however, were concerned that I would face in Queensland a degree of discrimination and intolerance they said I would never encounter in Sydney or Melbourne. I didn’t know enough to argue and expected the worst. After two years of extensive travel within the state and country, I returned to Sri Lanka experiencing very little along the lines I was warned about. Others though, at the same time, had a different experience – never physically violent, but far more verbally abusive. For them and I, this othering was at the margins of society. Well over a decade ago and without social media, violent extremism and ideology had to be actively sought after to be engaged with. Racism wasn’t digitally dispersed.

It is with an enduring affection of Australia that I am deeply concerned about disturbing new legislation, passed hurriedly last week, which uses the terrorism in Christchurch to justify overbroad controls of social media. The central focus of my doctoral research at Otago University is technology as both a driver of violence and a deterrent. How, today, social media promotes hate or harm is well known and widely reported. As with any generalisation, though elements of truth exist, the simplification of a complex problem results in illegitimate targets of fear or anger. Social media companies, for their part, are irascibly unmoved by what for years those like me have warned them about, around the abuse of platforms by those who seek to profit from violence. Coherence and consistency in policies that respond to the seed and spread of violence are lacking and resisted. However, significant changes in stance, response and policies are coming. The terrorism in Christchurch is responsible for accelerating globally what was sporadically mentioned or implemented with regards to safeguards around the production and promotion of content inciting violence, hate and discrimination. However, we must resist what appear to be simple answers to complex challenges, whether it comes from governments or big technology companies.

Violent extremism has many drivers, both visible and hidden. It doesn’t bloom overnight. Social media, inextricably entwined in New Zealand’s socio-political, economic and cultural fabric as it is back home in Sri Lanka, cannot be blamed, blocked or banned in the expectation that everything will be alright thereafter. Driven by understandable concern around the dynamics of how the terrorism in Christchurch spread virally on social media, the Australian legislation – rushed through in just two days without any meaningful public debate, independent scrutiny or critical input – doesn’t address root causes of terrorism, extremism or discrimination.

Amongst other concerns and though it sounds very good, holding social media companies and content providers criminally liable for content is a very disturbing template and precedent. American corporate entities are now required to oversee to a degree technically infeasible and humanly impossible, information produced on or spread through their services. This risks the imposition of draconian controls over what’s produced, judged by hidden indicators, with little independent oversight and limited avenues for appeal. As a global precedent, the law is even more harmful, allowing comparatively illiberal governments to project or portray as the protection of citizens, parochial laws essentially that stifle democratic dissent.

David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the freedom of expression, is also deeply concerned. In an official letter to the Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kaye stresses, amongst other more technical, procedural and legal points, the need for public review and proportionality, international legal obligations on the freedom of expression and imprecise wording in the law, which is entirely removed from how digital content is generated in society today, and by whom. And herein lies the danger for New Zealand too. Politicians, under pressure to respond meaningfully, need to assuage the fears of a grieving country through demonstrable measures. The tendency is to pick an easy target and push through solutions that look and sound strong. The underlying drivers of violence and conflict, however, simmer and fester. Measures taken to control and curtail gun ownership are welcome, and arguably, long overdue. Policymaking around social media, however, is a different problem set that cannot be as easily, or concretely, addressed.

This is not a submission to do nothing. Rather, it cautions against the understandable appeal of following the Australian response and law. Steps around the non-recurrence of domestic terrorism must certainly embrace aspects of social media regulation and related legislation. The public must be involved in this. We know already that social media reflects and refracts – mirroring values of consumers as well as, through ways academics are struggling to grasp fully, changing attitudes and perceptions of users over time. This requires governments to iteratively work with social media companies on checks and balances that systemically decrease violence in all forms.

Elsewhere in the world, politicians who know the least about social media seek to control it, and those who know more or better, often abuse it. Kiwis, led by PM Ardern’s government, have a historic opportunity to forge a response to terrorism – relevant and resonant globally – that incorporates how best government can work with technology companies to protect citizens from harm. Australia, with the best of intent, gets it very wrong. New Zealand, with a greater calling, must get it right.

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This article was first published in the Otago Daily Times on 16 April 2019, under the title ‘A Historic Opportunity’.

The candidate

“The lie is revealed. There was no summons served. The photo depicts a lookalike of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The FBI is engaged in an effort to ascertain who produced this false information”. The Facebook Page with this content originally in Sinhala also featured a screenshot of a news story from a leading private electronic media institution. This TV channel, with pages on Facebook in both Sinhala and English that regularly generate very high engagement, ran a story which strongly suggested news of Gotabaya Rajapaksa being sued in the US was false and incorrect. Also on Facebook and in response to the entirely unexpected development around the former Secretary of Defence when on holiday in the US, nearly a dozen posts in Sinhala venomously decrying those who brought the lawsuits, journalists who reported it and anyone who welcomed it was published in the space of a day. Each post saw very high levels of engagement by way of responses and sharing. The usual hate prevailed, with one post on a fan page with close to 100,000 followers noting that the entire pack of dogs who brought lawsuits against Gotabaya Rajapaksa would be chased out beyond the ends of the earth once he became President. Official social media accounts of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, at the time of writing this column, were silent on the lawsuits but published other content featuring meetings and gatherings in the US. Namal Rajapaksa, soon after the first reports of his Uncle being served at a car park in the US, tweeted a denial anchored to ignorance of the family around what at the time was carried in the media. A deluge of tweets around his birthday, the day after, soon subsumed this single tweet on the Uncle. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was completely silent, producing absolutely nothing by way of a vehement denial or a post indicating strong support. Google Trends, which showcases search interest over a term or phrase of a given period, showed a dramatic increase in interest around ‘Gotabaya’ from 8th April, by way of domestic as well as international traffic. Disaggregated by Google, much of the search traffic from Sri Lanka came from the Western Province, followed by the Central and Southern Provinces. On Twitter, the news spread rapidly. Just two tweets by BBC correspondent Azzam Ameen on the lawsuits respectively filed by Ahimsa Wickrematunge and the International Truth and Justice Project generated nearly 700 likes in under two days. Clearly, on account of this, vicious posts on Facebook against Ameen’s reporting appeared on pages linked to political parties and politicians allied to Gotabaya Rajapaksa or the SLPP. A motley array of braying apparatchiks on social media took to two common themes to dismiss concerns arising out of the lawsuits, noting that any publicity was good publicity and that the news served only to strengthen Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s appeal and prospects of candidacy. On WhatsApp, news of the development was repeatedly shared with me as well as the concern around the safety and security of those involved or referenced in the lawsuits, including family and relatives in Sri Lanka. Though not explicitly noted, there was fear and anxiety over even expressing an opinion around the development in public.

For a man who has yet to be officially nominated as a candidate for the Presidential election, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s every statement and move already generate tremendous levels of interest and related media content. There is clearly more on him than there is content produced officially by him, which fits a pattern. On the one hand, a strategic distancing from the frothing fans and their open racism, hate and violent nationalism. This allows for plausible deniability when the worst of this content is highlighted, while at the same time allowing the content to seed and spread amongst audiences it was clearly aimed for. On the other hand, through both Viyathmaga and official accounts pegged to the individual, the careful construction of an identity which is part saviour, part visionary and all about delivery. A cardinal mistake would be, entirely independent of the prospects of candidacy, to dismiss all this.

As with all populists, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a product of a system of governance that has fragmented polity and society. His appeal is in effect the desire for the good life by those who are tired of its pursuit and angered by its unreachability. While the deep or the dark-state economy will obviously throb and thrive under Gotabaya, the perception of so many whose comments I study online is that there will also be the opportunity for many others to succeed in a society where order and discipline prevail. This is a compelling fiction projected and promoted in extremely nuanced ways over many platforms. It is an illocutionary act, which disguises strong demands through utterances and content disguised as that which expresses the will of the downtrodden, forgotten or a majority interested in a better future.

The campaigns – and it is very much in the plural – of Gotabaya Rajapaksa are engaging studies in the adoption and adaptation of media for populist appeal. From creating enemies of elites to emphasising the sovereignty (or power) that resides in the people, campaigns also promote an exclusive Sinhala-Buddhist heartland which represents core values of culture, country and community. Problems are flagged, but instead of government or state responses or redress, Gotabaya’s campaigns perennially promise personal attention or action – promoting self and individual power over democratic institutions.

The lawsuits in the US will fuel the heightened production of content that is anchored to all this. But in a larger sense, the dynamics before the dramatic development in the US, endure at least in the complex media ecosystems I study and their relationship with electoral outcomes. Gotabaya is isolated from within the family, unable, yet, to elicit even a single tweet from Mahinda even after a significant development. Gotabaya attempts to cement, and soon, his candidacy as a given by feeding a large, pulsating fan base, tearing, straining and snapping at anything or anyone hindering an official nomination. It is this feverish, frothing, feeding frenzy that elder brother and nephew stand, for now, apart from. But this may change, and developments in the US may serve to in the short-term, strengthen domestic appeal, forcing the hand of those who have held back. The New Yorker magazine in 2011 published a fascinating account of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, where the writer was shown four sharks in his garden, in massive tanks. When describing them, Gotabaya giggled softly.

This succinct capture of man and mentality still gives me shivers. But he represents a growing disconnect between elected officials and ground realities, which cannot be defeated by derision, denial or dismissiveness. Gotabaya’s sharks, we are told, needed fresh sea-water every fortnight, which was trucked in. All predators thrive in conditions that allow them to feed and grow. Sri Lanka’s socio-political rot, decades in the making, is populism’s rich nutrient base. That’s the problem. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is just a symptom.

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First published in The Sunday Island,  14 April 2019.