Coup

Shun, don’t constitute
That house of men
Where the drums throb, and war
Rails against federation
An old world which
Bought us, but millions left before
Our future called.

Written for Tracy Holsinger, 8 November 2018.

Pulse points

Whether bound by country, city or community, the pulse of or, on Friday, the pain from a place like Christchurch can often be determined by the careful collection of social media updates published in the public domain. It is an interest in precisely this that brought me to New Zealand, where I study how Twitter and Facebook are integral to political communications and cycles of violence in Sri Lanka, my home. In South Asia, social media engagement drive attention towards or away from around key events, issues, individuals and institutions. Sport, religion, politics, elections and entertainment dominate content creation. The resulting conversations, to varying degrees, contest or cement opinions. Emotions drive engagement more than reasoned presentation or critical inquiry. Interestingly, though geographically distant and culturally distinct, a shared pattern of access and resulting behaviour on social media makes a younger demographic back home almost indistinguishable from their counterparts in New Zealand. This includes the heightened production of content on social media after an unexpected event.

Based on all this, I wasn’t surprised to discover that the violence in Christchurch last Friday generated a tsunami of content just over Twitter. In the hours and days after the killings, specific hashtags on Twitter captured a community grappling with trying to make sense of, and recover from, a scale and scope of violence unprecedented in its history. The study of this content – much of it extremely painful to read – offers a glimpse into how the violence in Christchurch resonated access the country, and far beyond.

Almost immediately after the first news reports of the killings, #christchurchmosqueshooting, #christchurchshooting, #christchurchterroristattack, #newzealandterroristattack and #christchurch started to trend on Twitter domestically. This means that content using one or more of these hashtags showed a dramatic increase over a short period. In just a day, around 85,000 tweets featured one or more of these hashtags. By the 16th, two other hashtags started to trend – #49lives and #theyareus. In just a day, these two hashtags generated close to 37,000 tweets. With a single tweet capturing 280 characters, I was curious as to what just over 34 million characters, in the first 24 hours after the killings in Christchurch, said about the event. This is not just of academic interest. Policymakers and others interested in or tasked with immediate response after a natural or man-made catastrophe can look at social media as a digital weathervane of public sentiment, crafting measures based on need, mood, reception or pushback.

When studied at scale, publicly shared content on social media is almost pathological. Key ideas, communities that assemble around specific individuals and content that goes viral can be gleaned through network science, which those like myself employ to understand key drivers and motivations behind content generation. This is easier to grasp by way of an example. Adil Shahzeb is in Islamabad, Pakistan and a television news presenter and host. And yet, on the 15th itself, he appears quite prominently in the content shared around the violence in Christchurch. This is, prima facie, utterly confusing. How can someone all the way in Pakistan become rapidly popular on Twitter around an event that happened in New Zealand? The answer is in a single tweet by Shahzeb, currently pinned to his Twitter profile, which identifies a man who tried to stop the killer as Naeem Rashid, with Pakistani origins. Rashid and his son Talha, the tweet noted, were tragically lost to the killer. This single tweet generated a considerable number of retweets and likes amongst those on Twitter, in both Pakistan and New Zealand. It is a similar story with Sunetra Choudhury, a Political Editor and journalist at NDTV, a popular Indian TV station. One of her tweets, featuring a clip of PM Ardern speaking to the affected community in Christchurch on Saturday, was viewed close to half a million times. The responses to the tweet, almost all from India, feature an overwhelming appreciation of the New Zealand PM’s political leadership. These are two great examples of how empathy, shock and solidarity – here expressed in Urdu, Hindi and English – were able to cross vast geographies in a very short span of time.

Another way to get a sense of what’s being discussed is to analyse the substance of the tweet. Through what’s called a word cloud, words used more frequently can be rendered to appear larger than other words used less frequently. This process ends up with a visual map of the conversational terrain that affords the closer study of specific terms. Different hashtags feature different word clusters, but across all of them, Muslim, condemns, reject, Muslims, victims, terrorist, mentally, deranged, mosque, name, remembering, grotesque, white, supremacist and love feature prominently. The thrust, timbre and tone of tweets that feature these words are overwhelmingly empathetic and ranges from the profoundly sad to the outraged. By way of a loose comparison, when awful violence directed against the Muslim community broke out in Sri Lanka almost exactly a year ago, public sentiment I studied on Twitter at the time didn’t feature anything remotely akin to the levels of solidarity and support channelled towards the Muslim community in New Zealand, since last Friday.

What academics call a ‘platform affordance’ is more simply known to all Twitter users as a mention. Prefacing an account with the @ symbol ensures that on Twitter, a specific account is notified of a tweet. This is also used to direct a tweet towards a specific recipient or group. Unsurprisingly, PM Ardern, the Australian PM, the American President and controversial Australian Senator Fraser Anning are amongst those referenced the most over the first 24 hours. #49lives started trending on the 6th, generating nearly 17,000 tweets in a single day. The instigator of the hashtag is American. Khaled Beydoun is a Professor of Law based in Detroit, Michigan and a published author on Islamophobia. It is perhaps this academic interest that drove him to create #49lives, reflecting the number that at the time was the official toll of those killed in Christchurch. Beydoun’s tweet, pinned to his profile, has generated an astonishing level of engagement – from New Zealand as well as globally. Liked nearly 146,000 times, retweeted just over 89,000 times and generated around 1,700 responses to date, the tweet prefigures PM Ardern’s assertion in New Zealand’s Parliament that she will not ever speak the killer’s name. “I don’t know the terrorist’s name. Nor do I care to know it.” avers Beydoun’s tweet, which also asks to remember stories around and celebrate the lives of the victims. #theyareus generated just over 20,000 tweets by the 16th, but the sentiment or phrase is anchored to a tweet by PM Ardern made on the 15th. In a tweet liked 132,000 times and retweeted 40,000 times to date, she noted that “many of those affected will be members of our migrant communities – New Zealand is their home – they are us.” However, it was two heartfelt tweets by Sam Neill, a businessman from Central Otago, that kick-started the hashtag trend. Speaking out against white supremacism and in solidarity with the Muslim community in New Zealand, Neill’s two tweets, published consecutively on the 15th and 16th, have cumulatively generated nearly 27,000 likes, 4,200 retweets and 300 responses to date.

In sum, a cursory top-level study of the nearly 85,000 tweets generated in the 24 hours after the violence on Friday shows a global community outraged or dismayed at terrorism, an outpouring of love, empathy and solidarity, engagement that spans many continents and languages, addressing prominent politicians and journalists, featuring hundreds of smaller communities anchored to individuals based in New Zealand and beyond tweeting in a manner overwhelmingly supportive of the Muslim community.

The Twitter data underscores the value of studying public sentiment on social media in the aftermath of a tragedy. Social media provides pulse points. Framed by moments in time and driven by an understanding of, amongst other things, context, technology, access and language, the study of content in the public domain often helps in ascertaining how violence migrates from digital domains to physical, kinetic expression. Christchurch offers the world another lesson, a glimpse of which I wanted to capture here. Just as social media helps extremist ideology take seed and grow, it also helps in healing, empathy, gestures of solidarity, expressions of unity, the design of conciliatory measures and the articulation of grief and sympathy. The admiration, bordering on adulation, PM Ardern has received since Friday for her political leadership on just Twitter alone indicates that New Zealand is already seen as a template for how a country can and should respond to terrorism. These are more than just ephemeral in nature. Long after the world has moved on to the next news cycle, domestic conversations around what happened in Christchurch will endure on social media. Understanding how these ideas, anxieties and aspirations grow and spread lie at the heart of measures, over the long-term, that address extremism, racism, terrorism and prejudice, in all forms.

Sanjana Hattotuwa is a PhD student at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (NCPACS), University of Otago. This article was first published on 21 March 2019 on Scoop New Zealand.

The infamy engines

Coming out of a long meeting, the first I heard of the violence in Christchurch was from those in Sri Lanka who had got breaking news alerts. I was both very disturbed and extremely intrigued. Terrorism as popular theatre or spectacle is not new, and some academics would argue is a central aim of terrorists, who want their acts recorded and relayed, not redacted or restrained. The use of social media to promote and incite hate, violence and prejudice is also not new. From ISIS to politicians elected into office through populist, prejudiced campaigns, social media is foundational in contemporary terrorist recruitment and political propaganda. What events in Christchurch last Friday brought to light was something entirely different, new and very unlikely to be resolved easily or quickly. The killer’s intentional use of the internet will have far longer reaching implications, requiring significant, urgent reform around the governance of large social media platforms as well as oversight mechanisms, including regulations, on parent companies.

Though Facebook New Zealand, Google and Twitter all issued statements hours after the attack that they were working with the New Zealand Police to take down content associated with the attack, the content had by then spread far and wide across the web. The video moved from platform to platform, edited, freeze-framed, downloaded off public streams which risked being taken down and then re-uploaded to private servers, which in turn served up the video to thousands more. As Washington Post journalist Drew Harwell noted, “The New Zealand massacre was live-streamed on Facebook, announced on 8chan, reposted on YouTube, commentated about on Reddit, and mirrored around the world before the tech companies could even react”. The challenge is significant because of the scale of the platforms, with billions of users each creating or consuming vast amounts of content every second. Managing the platforms is now largely algorithmic, meaning that only machines can cope with the scale and scope of content produced every second. There are serious limitations to this approach. Terrorists know and now increasingly exploit it, weaponising the unending global popularity of social media to seed and spread their ideology in ways that no existing form of curtailment, containment or control can remotely compete with. And that’s partly because of the way algorithms tasked with oversight of content are trained, which is entirely opaque. It is entirely probable that algorithms trained to detect signs of radical Islamic terrorism are incapable of flagging a similar violent ideology or intent promoted in English, anchored to the language and symbolism of white supremacism or fascism.

In March 2018, Facebook’s Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Mike Schroepfer noted that the company was using artificial intelligence (AI) to police its platform, and that it was “fairly effective” in distinguishing and removing “gore and graphic violence”. Last Friday’s killings highlight the risible falsity of this claim. Hours after the killings, dozens of videos featuring the same grisly violence as the original live stream were on Facebook. One had generated 23,000 views an hour, with nearly 240,000 seeing it. Though Facebook notes it blocked 1.5 million videos in the days after the killings from being uploaded, it has tellingly withheld statistics on how many the original live stream reached or why 300,000 related videos were not identified soon after upload, which means they too were viewed – even for a short time – by hundreds of thousands. And this isn’t the first time graphic, wanton violence has resided on the platform for hours before it was taken down, by which time, the strategic aim and intention of producers have been met. The problem doesn’t end there. Neal Mohan, YouTube’s Chief Product Officer, is on record saying how Christchurch brought the company’s moderation and oversight to its knees. Unable to deal with tens of thousands of videos spawned across its platform that showed the grisly killings – one every second at its peak. In two unprecedented moves for the company based on the severity of the challenge, his team decided to block search functionality that allows users to search recent uploads and also completely bypass human moderation, trusting even with the possibility of false positives, content possibly linked to the violence in Christchurch flagged by its algorithmic agents. Mohan has no final fix. The company just has no better way – even in the foreseeable future – to deal with another incident of this nature. Terrorists simply have the upper hand.

The Christchurch killer knew this and used it to his advantage. He won’t be the last. The appeal to internet subcultures, famous personalities, memes, the very choice of music, expressions, gestures and popular references are a new argot of communications intentionally designed to use online cultures as means to amplify and promote violent ideology (called red-pilling). At the same time, malevolent producers can almost entirely bypass existing controls and checks on the distribution of such material. The scale of social media is the hook, with the inability to oversee and inadequacies around governance, weaponised. Academics call this a wicked problem – a challenge that is so hard that even partial responses to any single aspect or facet increase the levels of complexity, often exponentially.

Generating greater friction around the production, promotion and spread of content is not in the interests of social media companies, who will continue to maintain – not without some merit – that billions of users producing vast amounts of mundane yet popular content daily is what primarily drives research and development. Read profits. Not without some irony, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg wrote in 2018 a glowing tribute to New Zealand’s Prime Minister in Time magazine’s list of 100 ‘Most Influential People’. After PM Ardern noted that the live streaming of the grisly killings would be an issue she takes up with the company and perhaps mortified that this incident will strengthen calls around more robust regulation in the US, Sandberg had reached out after the violence, though it is unclear with what intent or assurances.

This rough sketch of the context I locate my doctoral studies in masks far greater complexity, anchored to community, culture, context and country. What is true of social media Sri Lanka, my home and the central focus of my research, doesn’t always hold sway in New Zealand. There are however strange parallels. Repeated warnings around the weaponisation of Facebook to incite hate and violence, since 2014, went entirely unacknowledged by the company until severe communal riots almost exactly a year ago. In Myanmar, the company’s platforms were flagged by the United Nations as those that helped produce, normalise and spread violence against Muslims. Till 2018, the company did little to nothing to address this, despite warnings and ample evidence from local organisations. YouTube’s recommendation engine – the crucial algorithm that presents content that may interest you – has long since and openly been flagged as extremely problematic, beguilingly guiding users towards far-right radicalisation. The Christchurch killer’s release of a 74-page document before his rampage shows an acute understanding of how all this works, by transforming tired conspiracy into highly desirable material through strategic distribution just before an act that serves as the accelerant to infamy.

Alex Stamos, the former Chief Security Officer at Facebook, posted in the aftermath of Christchurch a sobering reminder of just why this violence goes viral. He notes that the language used, links provided and even excerpts of the violent video broadcast by news media only served to pique interest in the killer’s original document and full video. This is a disturbing information ecology where content produced by terrorists cannot be taken down easily or quickly because the surge of interest generated around discovery and sharing will overwhelm attempts to delete and contain. If this is the world we now inhabit and by using social media, contribute to cementing, the questions directed at companies and governments may be better directed at ourselves. How many of us searched for the video, and shared it? How many of us, without having any reason to, searched for, read and shared the killer’s document? If we cannot control our baser instinct, then we become part of the problem. The terrorists are counting on this, and us, to succeed. We should not let them win.

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Sanjana Hattotuwa is a PhD student at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (NCPACS), University of Otago. This article was first published on Stuff New Zealand on 20 March 2019.

Terrorism in Aotearoa

Do you love New Zealand, asked the extremely inebriated young white man and his companion as they suddenly blocked my path at the Octagon, a few weeks after I arrived in Dunedin. Of all the people on the sidewalk at the time, I noticed they only followed me for a while. Not knowing quite how to respond, I said affably that I liked what I had seen so far. Entirely uninterested in my answer, coming closer and with their bodies and fingers arching towards me, they said that they were willing to die for New Zealand and that I needed to know this. Recalling a poet from Sri Lanka who in verse noted that it was far better to live for one’s country, I decided just to smile somewhat incredulously. Satisfied that whatever point they had wanted to make had got through to me, they left and lunged into a wine and beer shop.

Claims of New Zealand’s innocence lost after Friday’s attack in Christchurch need to be tempered with stories that abound around how those who are perceived to be different to or somehow not Kiwi are subject to, every day, the language and looks of condescension, incomprehension and suspicion. Not noticing this othering or not being subject to it is the privilege of those who are, and are seen to be Caucasian and Kiwi. New Zealand is isolated by geography but despite popular belief isn’t as exceptional to be immune from ingrained prejudice and latent racism. Especially in the light of the strong political leadership responding to the attack last Friday in Christchurch, endeavouring to define New Zealand as multicultural and diverse, the acknowledgement of any underlying bias amongst society is arguably hard. Some may argue it is an insensitive or inopportune moment to raise systemic issues, when the more urgent need is to respond to an episode of wanton violence. An argument can be made to pursue both, recognising that longer-term policymaking requires the unearthing of deep-seated anxieties.

I came to the University of Otago to study the role, reach and relevance of social media in political communication. My research is primarily based on Sri Lanka, where I come from and call home. Friday’s events have resulted in the frames and foci of my research, directed more to a city, community and country I never expected would be a primary site of study or analysis. This is personally jarring, but not entirely surprising. White supremacism and fascism, when those terms are employed, are frightening concepts and unfathomable to most. But fear of strangers is more common. It is also  shared, present both amongst communities in New Zealand and those who are new immigrants. When channels to address this fear aren’t present – through robust dialogue, sustained interaction, education or official policy – alternative vectors of information come into play and take root. Bizarre but compelling conspiracy theories, demonisation and othering thrive online, amplifying our worst fears by mutating legitimate sources of grievance or anxiety into vast communal or civilizational faultlines, perverting over time any appreciation of diversity and demos.

A document uploaded to the Internet by the killer – a self-proclaimed fascist – is instructive reading on this score. First, the language is simple and clear, even if and indeed, particularly because, the logic is so twisted. The entirely subjective and strategically selective are presented as indubitable fact and authoritative history. Existential concerns about the economy, jobs, and particularly important for New Zealand, the environment, are posited as those immigrants and Muslims, in particular, are to blame for. Islam is singled out as a violent religion. Various purported features of the Muslim community are defined as significant threats to a way of life that predates their problematic, polluting entry. Though the document is anchored to right-wing extremism, what’s remarkable is in how much of it resonates with the anti-Muslim rhetoric spewed by extreme Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist monks in Sri Lanka, and their equivalent in Myanmar. The targets of hate are the same. The unborn, women, children and men, brick and mortar structures as well as Islam itself are identified as threats that need to be eliminated – urgently and everywhere – for the greater good and the survival of a more exalted and antecedent culture, congregation or community.

Aside from the physical and kinetic, the process of othering also happens at scale when communities – and especially the young – are divorced from any direct engagement with diversity yet increasingly connected over social media. In the absence of meaningful interaction between diverse groups, faiths, genders or identities, clusters of the like-minded form online, almost immediately putting up high-barriers to inflows of opinion, information and perspectives that contest or question widely held assumptions. Over time, the illusion of diversity based on only the smallest of divergence supplants a more open discussion that embraces radically different ideas. Author Eli Pariser warned us about this many years ago, noting how algorithmically, our social media accounts feed us what we want to see, instead of what we need to engage with. It is online and by careful design that Friday’s fascist found his most receptive audience. As Washington Post journalist Drew Harwell noted, “The New Zealand massacre was live-streamed on Facebook, announced on 8chan, reposted on YouTube, commentated about on Reddit, and mirrored around the world before the tech companies could even react”. Policymakers who may not even recognise some of the platforms here have a steep learning curve ahead. New Zealand authorities must now pivot an existing intelligence apparatus geared to hone in on the projected threat of Islamic radicalisation, to as or more adroitly pick up signals around the very real presence and rapid spread of white supremacist ideology.

Which begs the question – should the response to Friday be primarily one that is anchored to national security? Coming from Sri Lanka, I sincerely hope not. In my country, legislation purportedly drafted to prevent counter-terrorism has resulted in a convenient framework for successive governments that condones extrajudicial torture and the rampant abuse of human rights, for decades. The slow erosion of civic rights begins, invisibly, with the emotional appeals to protect all citizens or certain groups from violence. And the very technologies that help with identifying threats are also turnkey solutions that increase surveillance. The necessary balance between proportional responses to new and increasing threats and the protection of civil liberties has escaped Sri Lanka, where more parochial and communal interests have held sway. New Zealand’s story, in the months and years to come, must not be this.

Flagged and framed in my social media accounts since Friday is the contrast between a moral and political leadership so visibly present here, yet markedly absent in other countries after a cataclysmic event of this nature, including my own. Terrorism of this scale, speed and scope is new here. Many of who come to and seek refuge in New Zealand are no strangers to much worse and for a lot longer. But what is both remarkably different and since Friday, reassuring, is the language employed by and actions of this country’s political leadership. Faced with an unprecedented loss of life, all official responses – without exception – were anchored to denouncing extremism and fringe lunacy, not communities and faiths present in, or part of, New Zealand. Ironically, it may not even be recognized as exceptional by those living here, but it is precisely that for those of us who are more used to, tired of and frustrated with politicians who are in effect as racist as the terrorists and terrorism they often seek to denounce.

Though profoundly distressed by the events of Friday, I am hopeful that the tragedy will result in local and national conversations which lead to, through policy and practice, social, political and cultural templates for other countries to emulate in responding to, and preventing, terrorism. The encounter at the Octagon fresh into my sojourn in Dunedin was not the only time I have been subject to wary looks and violent language. It is worse for others, identified as belonging to a faith or community that is feared more. The pain of acknowledging this is – more than or at least alongside revisions to legislation around gun ownership – a necessary step towards a country that may never be able to prevent terrorism, but always sees it as entirely alien to its core values, beliefs and principles rooted in decency, dignity, diversity and democracy.

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Sanjana Hattotuwa is the Founding Editor of Groundviews. He is currently pursuing doctoral studies at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (NCPACS), University of Otago. An edited version of this article was published in The Otago Daily Times on 20 March 2019.

The web at 30

Our wait for a telephone was just a few years. At the time, in the early 90s, we knew of families who were on a waiting list for close upon a decade. I was at school when Sri Lanka Telecom had installed the rotary device. Like the first mobile phones from Motorola to hit Sri Lanka, the unit weighed about the same as and was more akin to gym equipment than anything remotely akin to what is today considered a phone. I was enthralled, and dialled, for no reason than to just use the telephone, a friend I had seen not more than an hour ago. He lived in Mount Lavinia. We both had five-digit phone numbers. We were both excited to talk at length about nothing of consequence before my father subtlety reminded me that the call was expensive. It was the first time I learnt of peak and off-peak charges. It wasn’t yet possible to just dial an international number. That required prior approval and an up-front payment, in addition to hundreds of rupees a minute, depending on the country dialled. There was no Internet. There was no web. Smartphones hadn’t been invented. Social media hadn’t been invented. I didn’t own or even have access to a computer. It was a purely analogue world, with the only sign of digital made by Casio and strapped to my wrist.  The few conversations I had, at the time, were always prefaced by a few minutes of sheer wonder that the call connected, followed by amazement we were talking over a telephone.

The godayata magic moments continued after I was given my first PC, with access to what at the time was a web just 6 years old. Before this, and even around this time, there were several bulletin board systems that Sri Lankans had set up which I had heard about, but never once accessed. The entire processing power of that first computer is now exceeded, many times over, by the phone in my pocket. Back then, the promise of the web – to connect people, no matter where they were geographically located – was fresh, wonderful and exciting especially for someone who had never left the country or travelled much within. I was drawn to the early Yahoo and Alta Vista. My father started what at the time was a very expensive subscription to the British PC Magazine, which every month, bundled a CD-ROM full of content ranging from videos and photos to trial programmes (Shareware). This was also a time in my life where I was an avid gamer, going for first-person shoot ‘em ups and flight simulations (Quake, Duke Nukem 3D and Super Eurofighter 2000 were firm favourites) over role-playing or strategy games.

I got into dissembling my computer and putting it back together again, in the process learning about integrated circuits, motherboards, electronics and how everything worked. If something worked perfectly, I broke it, but only to figure out why things ran without a hitch. But it was the web that I kept returning to the most. Having taught myself the HTML – I set out to build my own websites and hosted the first on Geocities. I cannot recall anything close to the toxicity now taken from granted in any social media platform. I signed up with Hotmail, where I was delighted to get all of 2Mb as storage. A few years later, just before I left for University in the late 90s, I signed up with Yahoo, which at the time offered twice as much storage. In Delhi, I used ramshackle computers in cyber cafes to access Yahoo – almost exclusively to write to my parents. Occasionally, and as a treat to myself, I used to go to the British Council in New Delhi and pay dearly, for half an hour, to use a computer (Compaq’s, if I recall correctly) that looked clean, smelt fresh and worked without frequent crashes. I still have those emails, with those two accounts. But for Archchi and Seeya, I still used to handwrite and post aerogrammes.

It was not until 2004, with the introduction of Gmail featuring at the time a mind-boggling 1Gb of storage, that emails weren’t something one sent and almost immediately deleted. I recall how at the time, the few invitations one got to share with others to join Gmail became a high valued currency of their own. In Australia and doing my Masters at the time, I recall a friend who even inveigled a date based on the promise of sharing an invite to Gmail if it went well. The web by the mid-2000s was already very different from what it was in the 90s. Netscape and Microsoft had had their browser wars. Chrome hadn’t yet been developed. I preferred Netscape, but everything at the University was designed to run only on Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. The iPhone was still many years away, but I had a Nokia phone that could take photos and video – the sort of pixelated junk that today would be considered art, if any of it survived. I got into blogging around this time, joining a small community on Kottu.org – a blog aggregator that is around even today.

By 2008, based on a hunch that mobile phones would in years to come dominate access to web content, I created the country’s first Facebook page for a media platform and also mobile-specific versions of the site. A YouTube video of my old Nokia 3110c accessing a text-only version of a website on its tiny, low-resolution colour screen never fails to bring a smile to my face. We have come a very long way technically but regressed in the tone, timbre and tenor of public communications, conversations and content creation.

Though often asked, I don’t quite know what the next 30 years of the web holds. If the past three decades have been anything to go by, it is an entirely futile task to envision today what connectivity and digital content will be like in 2049. If I’m around then, I will miss even more the sound of modems connecting to the internet – a cacophony of communications protocols agreeing to be nice to each other, rendered loudly through both a tiny and tinny speaker that made it impossible to connect on the sly, or quickly. I will still remember my parents asking me to disconnect from the Internet so that they could make a call. I will remember, but not miss the relatives who said they could never call my parents, because the phone seemed to be always engaged. I will sorely miss the indestructibility of old Nokia phones, which connected me through what are now rudimentary but far more meaningful ways to those I really wanted to be in touch with. I already miss – as I am sure most connected to the web in the 90s also do – the spirit of a large, essentially welcoming community, collegiality and an essential decency on it. The web then was entirely peripheral to life, society and politics, which is perhaps why it attracted only hobbyists, geeks, the very young or a much older demographic.

The creator of the web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, is rightfully concerned that his creation has transmogrified in ways he never imagined or intended. Last week, celebrating the first three decades of the web, he issued a manifesto around how things must change. It is unclear if he will succeed because what was at first technical, with high barriers to access and mostly peripheral to socio-political life and civic identity, is now central to it. The web Berners-Lee created really only exists as a network protocol. His original creation is now indistinguishable from what frames and fuels politics, elections, society, institutions, identity, communications, relations and community. To be alive, for billions, is to be connected. The next 30 years will see the effects of all this, for better and worse.

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Published in The Sunday Island, 17 March 2019.

On cinemas

The seats creaked all the time. Patrons never figured out if a slow, staggered, apologetic recline or a quick, assertive thrust back was less disruptive. This excruciating decision needed to be revisited many times during a screening because though the seats were worn and threadbare, the coil springs remained tense and fought off any attempt to unwind. This meant that throughout any movie, an organic, unending and unique soundtrack was created by the conscious and inadvertent movement of seats – especially by those like myself whose feet, at the time, barely touched the ground when we sat. The official soundtrack was billed as stereo, emanating from the back of the screen. There was a lot of deep bass that rattled and shook loose fittings, not a whole lot of treble and nothing else. It wasn’t stereo. It was just sound, amplified more than any home stereo, with scant regard for balance or fidelity. There was no phone, online or mobile booking. Advance bookings were possible, but only for some films and select screenings. This meant going to the cinema twice. Once to buy the ticket. The other to watch the film. There was popcorn, which even then was de rigueur for any film. The trip to Colombo, the film, the Elephant House ice-chocs, Kandos Choconuts and prawn crackers sold by a man with a large tray of heavenly delights strapped to shoulders, and if time permitted, a stop at Elephant House for a hot-dog, was planned for weeks by my family. It was an event we dressed up for. There were no reviews of movies we read before seeing one. I never saw a trailer for a movie which enticed or convinced me to watch it till well after 2000. I cannot recall sitting in specific seat numbers, but this may be because I didn’t have to bother about such things and sat wherever my parents and sister did. I remember going early, in order to be at the front of the queue at the box office to get tickets to the balcony – which were prized and pricier than ODC tickets.

The first film I remember watching in a cinema was ‘Love in Bangkok’ in 1991, featuring Sanath Gunatillke and a very thin, wiry Ranjan Ramanayake. It was at the Savoy. I cannot remember anything about the film save for one cringe-worthy dance sequence and another fight sequence involving the male protagonists over an indeterminable reason, after which the female protagonist emerged in dance, celebrating what exactly I cannot recall. But it was very funny, appealing to and made for the lower middle classes with their enduring interest in forbidden love, any hint of sex, lascivious relationships, coyness and conspicuous foreign travel. The film was obviously family friendly, so all this was hidden in a ribald script that entertained the adults, and Chaplinesque acting, which enthralled us kids.

The film I do recall far more was the first Jurassic Park, which came to Liberty Cinema in 1993. Newspaper articles around the computer-generated special effects, more than any movie before it, created a keen sense of excitement. I hadn’t read Crichton’s book at the time I saw the movie. I didn’t know – and I don’t think anyone who saw the movie at the time in Sri Lanka knew – who Spielberg was. We all went to see the dinosaurs. I wore socks and shoes because one obviously didn’t want to see a T-Rex roar and ravage on screen, for the first time, in anything more casual. I was, literally, on the edge of my seat. What in 2019 would look and sound terrible, tortuous, incredible and implausible was nearly 30 years ago, simply magical. While every other film we saw till then suffered from all manner of analogue artefacts resulting from overused and abused projection equipment, Jurassic Park was from start to finish utterly captivating and without fault. I don’t know what it would have been like as an adult to watch it. As a kid, the film was the first to transport into living, colour film, what till then only lived in our imagination. Knowing that I would only watch it once with my family, I frowned at every involuntary blink, fearing something important would happen or be shown in that fraction of a second which I would be deprived of.

At the old Satyam Cinema in Delhi, I watched ‘The Matrix’ in 1999 as an undergraduate. The premiere, which somehow a friend of mine at University inveigled invites to, was just before first-year finals. Not that anyone cared. By this time, the hype around a film – and especially this film – involved the publication of articles in newspaper featuring interviews with the lead actors, director and early reviews. The entire cinema, which was a ramshackle affair in the main, was bedecked in green hieroglyphs, code and other artefacts. The film absolutely entranced us, and it was also the first movie I went back to see again. But it was the screening of Fire, during the time I was a student in Delhi, that I recall even more vividly. An epochal moment in Indian cinema, Mehta’s film generated a level of controversy that spilt over to violence. I couldn’t watch the film the first time I went, with at the time someone I was dating. We both knew to expect a hostile reaction to the film. What we didn’t plan for, well into the film, was the very rapid creaking of seats and groans of grown men. We beat a hasty exit from a phantasmagoric hall full of men pleasuring themselves before exploding in righteous anger. I only saw the film many years later, at a private screening.

From the first IMAX cinema I went to in Vancouver, to the wonderfully intimate subterranean  BAM Rose Cinema in Brooklyn, from the old, mercurial Liberty and Savoy to Majestic City, my love of film is inextricably entwined with the architecture, ambience, feeling and experience of going to the cinema. From the old, seedy cinemas that screened the most wonderfully titled soft-porn during the day – now almost all sadly shuttered – to those today that offer an experience in Colombo comparable to any cinema in the West, I take in and am picky about where I go see a movie, as much as the movie itself. I am nostalgic for how a trip to the movies used to be growing up, not unlike the wonder and grandeur of air travel several decades ago. The dressing up for, trip to, experience in and time together, as a family and in the cinema was as important as whatever we all went to see.

A few hours after I pen this column, I will see Captain Marvel with my son at a cinema sporting the latest digital sound and projection, and also unlikely to have a single free seat. I think I will wear brogues.

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First published in The Sunday Island newspaper, 10 March 2019.

Shaping minds

Two consecutive presentations on Saturday and today, Sunday, provided an opportunity to talk about the implications of social media on two significant and inter-related issues – electoral processes and constitutional reform. With nearly 700,000 voting for the first time at the local government election held just over a year ago, and just under a million at the presidential election held in January 2015, statistics from the Elections Commission reveals a young demographic is around 15% of the electorate. Every survey, poll and study and all the existing research flag the fact that this demographic gets their news and information through social media, which is just media to them. The words ‘social’ or ‘new’ prefacing media is already outmoded and outdated – used the most by a much older generation who consume, conceive of and occasionally produce content for media in a way distinct to and different from their children or grandchildren. Columns in the past have looked at some of these dynamics and resulting socio-political implications. The research for the two presentations over the weekend provided more insights in this regard.

Sporadic bursts of life mark Sri Lanka’s constitutional reform process, and that too, mostly through negative publicity, misinformation, fear mongering and oppositional framing. In other words, the entire discourse around a new constitution, the substantive nature of the proposals, the need for one, the process by which a new constitution will be brought about and the consultations around what should go into it and why is marked by fear, anxiety, ignorance and apathy. The growing vacuum that exists around informed debate on this score alone is the result of a government unable and unwilling to embrace the potential of media to capture the imagination, inform opinion, shape input and address opposition. In 2016, the PM noted that “for the first time ever, social media will have a role in drafting a new constitution”. He was right, but not in the way he intended and many of us expected. The role reach and relevance of social or new media in constitutional reform is indubitable, important and influential. What the PM indicated, and what frankly was expected as basic common sense if not as political acumen, strategic design and desirable outcome, was a government that would tap into well-springs of public support and rivers of debate through the adroit management of media, in order to push through a reform agenda. But no. Nothing of the sort happened. There is no indication whatsoever that anything of the sort will happen.

For the presentation on constitutional reform and its discontents, I looked at the prevalence of ‘constitution’ and separately, ‘nawa (new)’ as well as ‘vyavasthawa (constitution)’ in Sinhala, across around 1,000 pages on Facebook I monitor, from 2015 to 2018. Facebook was chosen for its influence in framing politics amongst a demographic that overlaps with the young vote base. Ascertaining the contours of public debate around any topic or issue is an imperfect science, with much that is not captured and cannot be captured. For example, I have no way of knowing how much content is shared on constitutional reform – whether for or against it – over instant messaging apps like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. These caveats aside, the search terms used were both loose enough to capture supportive and oppositional frames, and strict enough to exclude extraneous topics and issues. The resulting data is revealing. There were around 73,000 posts in Sinhala compared to just around 4,000 in English. The posts in Sinhala generated around 706,000 comments, compared to around 40,000 in English. Content in English was shared around 45,000 times and generated about 185,000 likes. In Sinhala, the posts generated nearly 4 million shares. Just over 14 million liked the posts. With nearly 76 times more likes and 88 times more shares, the Sinhala framing and foci on constitutional reform overwhelm what is produced and published in English.

In 2015 and early 2016, the President and pages aligned to him or the government, in English, produce the most amount of content. By late last year, both in terms of volume and frequency, it is the SLPP producing the most amount of content. In Sinhala, extremist Sinhala-Buddhist groups feature as prominent producers of content. Leading private mainstream media institutions and content they upload to Facebook in Sinhala dominate engagement, along with gossip sites. The qualitative study of a fraction of this content (with numbers ranging in the millions, it isn’t possible to study every post, photo or production) very clearly indicates that the framing and projection of the reform process, or specific aspects of the proposed constitution, are reviled, rejected or risibly ridiculed. There is not a single pro-government or progressive account in the top five most loved photos anchored to the search words in Sinhala. Ditto with the shares of Facebook status messages. The top two producers of the most viewed videos around the search terms are private media stations deeply and openly opposed to the PM and UNP.

The dynamics of how media shapes public opinion formed the basis of my second presentation, delivered at a workshop on reforming campaign finance. Two years ago, a confidential memo drafted for and presented in person to the Elections Commission warned against what at the time were embryonic measures at manipulation and misinformation, ranging from human-produced digital propaganda to algorithmic output (through automated accounts on social media, and at scale). The challenges have increased, with early trends that have not just endured but are now entrenched. At a macro-level, both the complexity of the risks and the inter-related nature of challenges requires a new language to describe them, particularly for officials who are not aware of research and policymaking published in English. At a more granular or local level, social media is still seen as entirely distinct from traditional or mainstream media, with attendant challenges only impacting a minor or marginal percentage of the total electorate. India is ahead of us in this regard. Given Lok Sabha elections in about a month or two, India’s Elections Commission (ECI) has issued strict guidelines around political campaigning and advertising on social media. It is also working with Google, Facebook and Twitter to maintain oversight on, regulate and control campaign expenditure on digital propaganda, ensuring transparency and accountability to the extent possible. A document released last week by ECI looks at issues around authenticity, manipulation, expenditure declarations and the need to embrace social media campaigns in policies and regulations that already govern traditional media during electoral processes. Tellingly, Sri Lanka’s Elections Commission, around the local government election last year and for the first time, also noted that social media fell under the guidelines issued for traditional media, and by extension, all propaganda online also needed to stop 48 hours before the election. Unsurprisingly, with little to no capacity for oversight and the lack of any punitive measures, campaigns on Facebook and Twitter continued up until and even on the day of the election.

The central issue over the longer-term is not so much one election, but the nature of elections. Research from around the world, which now concern governments, suggests the manipulation of public mood, sentiment and opinions over the longer-term can result in or are increasingly aimed towards skewed electoral outcomes. Whereas in the past, electoral fraud took place on the day of the election, at the ballot box or when counting votes, today, the impressionable minds of a key demographic, suffering from poor media literacy, are hacked. This means that even if the election itself is free of incident, violence or malpractice, the manipulation of voters for a much longer time undermines the trust in democratic institutions and electoral processes.

The conversations around all this need to take place at the level of government and civil society. Nothing less than our ability to reclaim and retain Sri Lanka’s liberal, democratic potential is at stake.