Hollow Men

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless

The Hollow Men, T.S. Eliot

There is a flipside to what hasbeen another extraordinary week. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s untouchable veneer assaviour has taken multiple blows. Maithripala Sirisena stands confirmed, as ofFriday night if not well before, a very small, mediocre man. And as with men ofhis diminutive stature, the over-compensation for what one lacks comes by wayof a vaulting ambition that drives one into, first, blindness, and very soon,to madness. That all this unfolded in three weeks, as opposed to a longer-termentrenchment after an electoral contest, can be a useful reminder of what theelectorate must vote against in the future, and concertedly fight against now.

President Sirisena needs to be removed from office. The office of the Executive President needs to be removed from our constitution. Both need to be done urgently and without qualm or question. MPs who attacked policemen, the Speaker, and did other unspeakably awful, violent things in the full glare of the media – both domestic and international – need to be arrested, charged for criminal acts, jailed or at the very least, debarred from entering Parliament. A Code of Conduct for MPs, adopted mid-April this year, allows citizens to lodge complaints against any MP. The process and procedure aren’t hard. Active citizenship requires, and a responsibility, holding those in power accountable for their actions. Citizens must lodge complaints, and in their hundreds. Foreign governments must look at targeted sanctions against individuals who are captured in photographs and videos throwing, of all things, hardbound copies of the constitution, weaponising chilli paste and powder, breaking chairs, pummelling other MPs, throwing dustbins, destroying public property, and quite literally, are enemies of democracy who are breaking the law. The instigator of this catastrophic, historically unprecedented chaos, the President, must be shunned and shamed at every possible international event, for as long as he is alive and especially while he retains powers he is manifestly incapable of directing towards democratic designs.

The propaganda of the SLPP, vastly aided by large private media corporations who in addition to state media, command and control millions of followers over social media, has followed a predictable pattern. It has amplified positive narratives, drowned out critical perspectives and entirely censored opinions that are inconvenient. The machinery on social media is akin to a hub and spoke – there are central accounts that spread disinformation, which spread to other accounts, that in turn amplify this content. A range of other accounts, loosely affiliated to these central nodes, produce content based on this original source material. Gossip on Facebook provides a useful distraction. Commanding the most eyeballs, by far, of any content production on Facebook alone, these sites show photos of babies, children, the Buddha, soldiers posing, nature, and funny memes that in the present context, by distraction, seeks to do two things. One, the normalisation of the coup – as something not even worth producing some gossip around. Two, key frames for followers to appreciate and accept militarisation, politics favourable to Mahinda Rajapaksa and the superiority of Sinhalese and Buddhism. Entirely unlike the overtly racist, extremist and Islamophobic pages I monitor, gossip sites do not engage in open slander or hate (even though the very often unmoderated comments in response to the content frequently incite hate and violence). The goal here is longer-term indoctrination, done in a far subtler manner – with entertainment, veneration, exclusion, partial framing, the frequency of posts, photo selection, street-smart vernacular expression, virality and visual appeal as core elements, among others.

To readers of this newspaper, this is not a world they would remotely be aware of leave aside comprehend. It is, however, an old recipe, done over digital means. The Russians called it ‘active measures’, and while at the time of the Cold War, this sophisticated output designed to deceive populations (as opposed to the intent of propaganda which is to convince people) was limited to radio, newspapers and subsequently, TV. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are the new accelerants of disinformation, and you don’t need the Kremlin’s backing or support to launch active measures. Of course, it helps if you do. Letters from the Ambassador of Sri Lanka in Moscow leaked into the public domain, plus numerous visits to Russia by the Rajapaksa siblings offer, at the very least, interesting frames to better appreciate the grand design of what at first appears to be episodic and disconnected.

Think of it like ocean currents, which invisible to naked eye, shape the very nature of the sea. The SLPP is very good at the design of conversational currents, and that is a significant understatement. My doctoral research involves the study of content creation on social media at scale, looking at trends and patterns through the analysis of hundreds of thousands of individual pieces of content. Before the Supreme Court’s interim relief, the conversation was all about going to the courts if anyone wanted to contest Rajapaksa’s appointment. After interim relief was granted, the conversation pivoted to, amongst other anchors, a list of ten points – several of which actively targeted petitioners including Prof. Hoole as a Commissioner, projected and painted as partial or partisan. With Rajapaksa’s position in Parliament clearly hopeless, the shrill brigade started a campaign around voter suppression and the erosion of electoral democracy. After three dramatic dismissals of Rajapaksa’s legitimacy and the President’s lunacy, active measures are now anchored to obfuscating the constitutional legitimacy of Parliamentary proceedings and in particular, the Speaker. At every stage, there is design and premeditation. Hashtags are coordinated, and there is clear collaboration around the sharing of key messages, slogans and foci. Some vent. Others deny. Some push out counter-narratives. Others target key accounts of activists. Some flood by republishing. Others take the cue and publish, at scale, content that mirrors the original intent. Some of this is carefully structured and coordinated. Much of it follows its own logic, like the study of fluid dynamics of physics. All of it is toxic to democracy.

Repeatedly, the question is asked, why? What is in this unholy babel for Mahinda Rajapaksa? He, his son in Parliament, the President, leading members of the SLPP and supporters of the coup are all now indelibly marked by the international community. Domestically, many won’t realise the diplomatic censure and opprobrium, including on Friday after the violence in Parliament, the President and Mahinda Rajapaksa have brought upon themselves. These will have economic, political and diplomatic consequences. Despite all their efforts, even on social media, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s actions are being severely criticised not by those who have always hated him, but by self-declarations of those who respected or voted for him. This gives a glimmer of hope. As I noted on Twitter on Friday, despite the millions of US dollars offered as bribes, the near total media control and censorship, the historically unprecedented violence and intimidation in Parliament, veiled and open threats in public by those from and partial to the SLPP, the proroguing of Parliament and the hostile take-over of all key government departments and ministries, the President and Mahinda Rajapaksa still haven’t established the legitimacy of their actions and appointments.

Sri Lanka’s democracy is alive, but not well. Another tense week on life-support, punctured by the temerity of hollow men, seems inevitable.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 18 November 2018.

New beginnings

A significant disadvantage of being in a country several hours ahead in time is that I wake up to news from the final hours of the day in Sri Lanka. On the 26th of October, I woke up to news of the President swearing in Mahinda Rajapaksa as PM. On the 10th of November, I woke up to the news that Parliament had been dissolved. If not already evident for long-time readers of this column, I consider the first and most treacherous act to be a debilitating blow to our democracy, the results of which polity, society and Sri Lanka’s economy have been reeling from over the past fortnight. The second exponentially compounds the problems and extends the chaos. Sri Lanka, based on the actions of the President, no longer holds true to its official name as a Democratic Socialist Republic. We have left democracy behind, and jettisoned it along with our constitution. We are no longer a republic, because the people have been divested of their power and elected representatives denied their opportunity to reflect the people’s will – one way or the other. Given the revelations around the eye-watering sums of money offered to MPs to join the ranks of Mahinda Rajapaksa, neither are we remotely socialist nor are we heading towards communism. These are governance frameworks that love or hate, are defined by established theories of power, politics and economics. There is some order, even in the madness. Sri Lanka today is just pure madness. It is an unmitigated, unprecedented constitutional crisis, unimaginable just three weeks ago.

To be very clear, I consider the present state of the country far worse than the context of 2014’s presidential election. Mahinda Rajapaksa, at his worst, introduced the 18th Amendment through parliament – of course, making a mockery of proceedings and informed debate in the chamber, but still, in retrospect, without doing away with the constitution altogether. Maithripala Sirisena considers the constitution entirely optional to what he wants to do, see or bring about. This makes him, incredibly, more illiberal and undemocratic than the President he replaced. That really takes some doing. At stake is, in fact, more than every single democratic gain and every single law, institution, process, body, commission and structure set up since 2015. At stake is the very democratic fabric of the country,

Not that readers of this newspaper would necessarily know. Brutishly taking over the newsrooms and newspapers of State media was considered action to shape the public imagination, by deforming news, deflecting critical opinion, denying access to alternatives perspectives and decrying political opponents. It was also signalling to private media to stem or stop critical perspectives. Both are working, and very well. We are back to the authoritarian’s rulebook.

A case in point is the coverage, or lack thereof, afforded to the speeches made at Ven. Maduluwe Sobitha’s Memorial last week. Speaker after speaker, including the very architects of the political movement that saw the incumbent President emerge as the common candidate to Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2014, vehemently decried his actions. Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda’s deeply intense, insightful and incisive keynote in Sinhala, lasting around 40 minutes, was widely shared and referred to over social media. And yet, there was almost no coverage in print or electronic media. And even on social media, very influential accounts controlled by mainstream media on Facebook and Twitter simply didn’t give the speech or event the coverage it deserved. Amplify this across a broader spectrum. Well over a hundred statements, messages or updates from the international community – India, the UN, Commonwealth, EU, British, American and Australian governments included – transnational civil society including Nobel laureates, internationally renowned jurists, Sri Lankan constitutional experts including Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne who was entrusted with drafting the new constitution, leading academics from abroad and universities in Sri Lanka, artists, activists, citizens who have gathered every single day in Colombo and many more have since the 26th strongly and on solid principled, legal ground, condemned the President’s actions. Very little, if at all, has made it to print or broadcast. It is clear this almost complete capture of the mainstream media will be further entrenched in the weeks to come.

I need to recalibrate and rethink this column. These are unprecedented times, in a context where the retaining or capturing power has lives at stake. Prof. Uyangoda’s repeated warning around the possibility of violence to emerge as a consequence of the current political instability is real, present and growing. Our winner takes all, zero-sum political culture, evident in all its clawing, repulsive horror since the 26th, joins a hyper-partisan polity and society. Anything can be a spark, whether engineered or inadvertent.  And everyone is on edge. Sirisena cannot turn back. Rajapaksa is caught in a bind, and has no option but go with what Sirisena started. Wickremesinghe is, rightfully and as the legitimate PM, not backing down. And yet, merely saying this is enough to set off an enfilade of comments by those hell-bent to equate those of us interested in constitutional supremacy with those who vote for a political party or politician. It’s truly an awful, toxic time to be a public commentator!

This weekend is too early to opine where this will all go or how it will be resolved. It is, however, a good place to start reflecting on how we all have, and will always have, democratic agency as citizens. To so clearly cede it to those who are clearly unprincipled, untrustworthy politicians, as we have done for so long, at elections, requires a rethink. Entirely independent party political love, loathing or indifference, an overriding interest in retaining Sri Lanka’s democratic credentials must guide our considered engagement, reflection and action. On social media, the urgency and importance of this message is much greater, amongst a key electoral demographic that is rent asunder by partisan opinions and other communal, religious, language, identity and economic fault lines. But elections seen as scorecards around tenure can shift perspectives to reflect on what was really done, instead of what is promised. The course correction even from 2015’s Presidential election is clear and significant. We must not ask voters, anymore, to believe in a saviour. There are none. As Bertolt Brecht warned us, pity the country that needs heroes.

While those in power are battling for survival or supremacy, citizens – as custodians of democracy, invigilators of governance and as an engaged, questioning, informed body – must consider the long-term implications of the present moment. We must and may differ, on who can and should deliver the good life. How economics should be managed. What our foreign policy alignments should be. Whether fuel pricing formulae are sensible or risible. But the negotiation of differences must be pegged to democratic norms. What I hope, though through awful circumstances, is that this pivotal moment brings about a greater, fuller understanding of what it is to be a citizen. And how important it is, flowing from this, that we have an absolute, unwavering commitment to constitutional governance. Our ignorance, partisan loyalty or blind faith in personalities is what politicians count on, seed and harvest to get away with what they do. What is happening in Sri Lanka is a travesty. Pushing back with every sinew is an expression of citizenship. Ceding to it risks its repetition and entrenchment, meaning that anyone, at any time, for any reason, can do anything as Executive President. Clearly, this wretched office needs to go, but the start of a renewed democratic struggle is not by trying to change the world. It must start within, and with ourselves.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 11 November 2018.

Rajapaksa rising

Extraordinary times, these. Aside from everything already published on the President’s actions, my fear – which has grown since 2015 – is that politics in Sri Lanka amongst the largest vote base is negotiated through and predominantly framed by vicious, divisive commentary and content, robbing electoral processes of vitality and validity. Most of what I’ve done in recent years, written on, championed and studied is around the net effects of ever greater division over social media, and how that, in turn, impacts kinetic, real-world interactions.

This is why the President’s actions are so devastating.

He has, single-handedly and overnight, normalized the illegal, unconscionable and unconstitutional. The immediate effect of this was to render constitutional rule optional instead of integral to and inextricably entwined with democratic tradition – one which Sri Lanka has even through the worst violence, never once risked or ridiculed in this way. The legacy will be felt for decades hence, if not reversed through Parliament. It will impact everyone, including everyone who volubly cheers on, or is apathetic towards, Sirisena’s actions. Further, the appointment of Rajapaksa has visibly galvanized physically – as awfully evident in the photos and broadcasts from last week – as well as exponentially over social media, racist, nationalist, xenophobic voices who are amongst the chief architects of and apologists for ethno-religious violence, post-war. Finally, Sirisena has abrogated in spectacular fashion any and all promises around good governance, bringing back into power the very individuals he has publicly and privately, spoken out again, and with good reason. The impact on young voters who supported him and were galvanized by a promise of a different, more decent, democratic political culture, is incalculably devastating.

Revealingly though, the capture and transfer of power, both unprecedented and unconstitutional, hasn’t been met with widespread opposition by the citizenry. My doctoral research affords a unique perspective into these terrible developments. Read the following in light of the brutish takeover of state print and electronic media on Friday night itself, and extending to the weekend, the immediate and complete deletion of all content from the Prime Minister’s official website, the insertion of a photo of Mahinda Rajapaksa on its homepage, pictures of the military and the IGP saluting, exchanging tokens, pleasantries and plans with Rajapaksas, a traditional propaganda machine on overdrive and not a single domestic media channel, paper or platform courageous enough to critically question key individuals involved in the constitutional coup.

Gossip sites, in Sinhala, are the predominant purveyors of political news and opinion. They are by order of magnitude engaged with more than Sinhala mainstream news accounts. English mainstream news sources, quite literally, flatline in comparison. The qualitative nature of content on these sites, this week, fetishized the army, militant Buddhist monks and former members of the armed forces in custody, on trial for murder. Overall, content overtly partial to Mahinda Rajapaksa as an individual, the Rajapaksas as a family and the SLPP as a political party, overwhelmed all other content from political actors over Facebook and Twitter, in Sinhala and English. The total control of state media led to framing and content that openly celebrated Mahinda Rajapaksa and ridiculed the incumbent Prime Minister, and his party. Over social media, private media partial to the Rajapaksa, with massive numbers of followers and engagement, also engaged in the legitimisation of the President’s actions. On social media, several user of Twitter noticed a rapid increase in bots following them, suggesting the activation of investments around what’s called algorithmic propaganda – the use of computational methods to influence public perceptions on social media. On social media, misinformation – the deliberate spread of falsehood – dominated every single Facebook and Twitter account partial to Sirisena or the Rajapaksas. This included a Photoshopped letter purportedly penned by Ranil Wickremesinghe asking UN Peacekeepers to come into the country  – a risible request, but one that even when clearly, officially and repeatedly denied, was engineered to spread virally. Memes generated on Facebook, engaged with and shared by the tens of thousands if not more, celebrated Rajapaksa and often venomously decried Wickremesinghe. I summed it up on 30th October, after the quantitative study of hundreds of thousands of posts and the individual, qualitative study of a lesser number, that the content pro-Rajapaksa, SLPP, JO, Sinhala-Buddhist, racist, communal, violently exclusive, vicious, anti-UNP and anti-Wickremesinghe. The SLPP sported an amazing array of self-styled experts on constitutional matters, offering the most ridiculous interpretations and yet by virtue of airtime, broadcast and publication, managed to galvanise public attention. A rally organized by the UNP, joined by others organized by civil society, barely got any coverage on state media or domestic, private media. The astonishing, anomalous fact that at the end of the week, only China, Burundi and Pakistan had recognized Mahinda Rajapaksa as PM, and every single other bilateral, multilateral entity including the UN, EU and the governments of India, UK, US, Australia, Canada, Norway and others, calling for a restoration of democracy and the reconvening of Parliament, wasn’t reported in domestic media.

The common term ‘echo chambers’ to describe the partisan divides online don’t capture what I observed last week. Pro-UNP or Wickremesinghe supporters or those interested in constitutional rule who were bunched up with this group versus those in favour of Rajapaksa or Sirisena constituted competing frames of contemporary politics at complete, violent odds with each other. Each group is large and growing, but the pro-Rajapaksa group dominates the discourse and framing, by far – supported by algorithms that clearly reward content that the more viciously contentious, is the most visibly viral. The intoxication of engagement hides the toxicity of the exchanges. And very clearly, live video on Facebook now competes with, and very likely far exceeds in a certain demographic, terrestrial TV broadcast. Some of the video streams feature over ten thousand comments.

All this suggests, if nothing else, that the Rajapaksas (greatly aided now by Presidential fiat) have calculated and planned for – with great accuracy and skill – Sirisena’s actions to be judged in the domain of populist politics, and not on the basis of constitutional merit or legality. It is clear from the SLPP’s public rhetoric that they do not want to risk the fragile legitimacy of Mahinda Rajapaksa domestically, and the near-total non-recognition of his appointment internationally, with physical violence. This is why, combined with what has traditionally been an entirely decrepit, elitist and utterly useless communications strategy, at best, from the PM and by the UNP, the Sirisena-Rajapaksa combine has focused so much attention on the media. In what I see today on social media, signature misinformation strategies of certain countries, well-studied elsewhere in recent years, are evident, and clearly used to seed, sow and subsequently reap the benefits of a hyper-polarised polity and society, partial to authoritarianism in the guise of national security, stability, security, safety and economic growth.

Coupled with a purchasing power measured in the millions of dollars, more than equal to the greed of politicians, Basil Rajapaksa’s brilliant political strategizing, Namal Rajapaksa’s rock-star appeal, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s undying charisma, Sirisena’s power and authority extending to the abuse of state resources, the near total control of social media framing and the blanket coverage of misinformation broadly accepted as factual, normal, legally sound or fair, I am not optimistic about a return to or restoration of democracy. We have crossed a Rubicon. I have been repeatedly asked this week as to what the future holds. Frankly, I just do not know, because as of the 26th of October, anything goes. We should all be deeply anxious, apprehensive and angry. Tellingly, only a few of us are.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 4 November 2018.

Monitoring Media Ownership

“A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself”.

Arthur Miller

 

The public launch this week of the Media Ownership Monitor (MOM) website – a collaboration between Reporters Without Borders and the Colombo based Verite Research – gives, for the first time in Sri Lanka, readers and researchers alike the chance to study deep, dark signatures of bias and parochialism that run through our leading print, electronic and internet-based media. The significant and exemplary research that undergirds the presentation of material on the website places in the public domain damning information around – or conversely, the equally revealing absence of data on – the ownership of leading TV and radio stations, newspapers and news websites. This is significant. For the first time, we now have an authoritative platform for independent data and evidence-based critique of mainstream media ecosystems, traditionally utterly resentful of and resistant to scrutiny.

Take the insights the website itself provides. 75% of all print media in the study are under the direct ownership of media organisations by the state or former/current Members of Parliament. The same indicators for Radio and TV are 55% and 50% respectively. 77% of TV viewership is commanded by four owners – Maharaja, Derana, Hiru and state TV, in that order. 75% of the readership of newspapers is also controlled by four owners, with Wijeya Newspapers alone controlling just over 47% through 18 publications. Lake House, Upali and Ceylon Newspapers follow. Though a bit harder to access, the website also provides interesting insights into the owners themselves. Noteworthy is the fact that some of the owners of the largest and most influential TV and radio stations also control leading marketing and advertising agencies. The combination is a potent one, and for obvious reasons. Other newspapers belong to and are controlled by just one family, with long-standing party-political connections and interests. The dominance of government in the control and ownership of state media risibly ridicules any independent, sustained and meaningful critique of governance by these institutions.

What at present the MOM website does not cover are insights into how the nearly 50 media platforms studied command and control the attention of a younger demographic, over social media. This is the domain of my doctoral studies. MOM provides a comprehensive framework to consider how content pushed, promoted and produced by leading media institutions appeal to and are engaged with by a demographic between 18 to 34, in comparison to terrestrial broadcast, print and traditional websites. By way of Sri Lanka’s population, they are the largest segment. By way of those eligible to vote, they constitute the largest demographic, growing to boot. Through this column and for over three years, I’ve explored in some detail key aspects around this demographic engages with and shares information on social media, including political content.

When the cross-media categorisations used in MOM are applied to study the social media domain, things get both very interesting and disturbing. MOM looks at media from the Capital Maharaja Organisation, ABC (i.e. Hiru), Power House (i.e. Derana), government (SLBC, SLRC, ITN), Wijeya Newspapers, EAP Broadcasting Company, Asset Radio Broadcasting (i.e. Neth) and Upali Newspapers. The single most significant difference between media consumption as captured in MOM and what I study on social media is the presence of gossip accounts. More on this later. I gathered all the official Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts associated with the publications, stations, magazines and media flagged in MOM, belonging to these entities.

First off, the reason I write to the Sunday Island is that Upali Newspapers does so horribly on and over social media. It’s primary demographic and enduring appeal is with a much older audience, uninterested in and perhaps profoundly suspicious of the kind of media diet their grandchildren are on. Consequently, Upali Newspapers barely registers as a blip on Facebook. It is entirely absent on Twitter. But this is the exception. Every other entity in MOM has a strong presence on social media, though all aren’t equal. For this column, I focussed on just Facebook and Twitter though Instagram is emerging as a major locus of growth and, consequently, information exchange and political contestation. Finally, I looked at data over the past year, going back to 22 October 2017.

ABC, or the Hiru ecosystem, dominates Facebook engagement with nearly 24 million interactions (e.g. a ‘like’ on a post). Maharaja comes second with around 10.5 million interactions. Government media manages, in comparison, just around 1.6 million interactions. Photos and video dominate over text. A like on a page can be generally interpreted in the same way as a subscription to a newspaper – the user is interested in the content features on the page and wants to see more of it. By this metric, ABC has just over 8.5 million likes, followed by around 3.2 million by Maharaja. What’s important here isn’t just the difference between these two numbers, but the fact that these are two very distinct conversational and information domains. And this goes for all the other accounts as well. A diversity of opinion or the presentation of different, competing perspectives isn’t a feature of any of them. Twitter in Sri Lanka is a shadow of Facebook by way of content production and engagement. Facebook generated 56 million interactions over the accounts studied. Twitter, over the same year, just over 232,000. Wijeya commands the most engagement on Twitter, followed by Maharaja.

Independent of MOM and as part of my research, I monitor 51 leading Sinhala gossip accounts on Facebook. Though hard to believe, when the traffic from these gossip accounts is factored in, all the media accounts captured by MOM pale into insignificance.  The gossip sites have close to 71 million interactions. Nearly 13 million have actively gone and liked one or more gossip account on Facebook. As the first and arguably enduring voice or vector that frames contemporary events, both domestic and international, nothing in Sri Lanka comes even remotely close to these gossip sites in Sinhala. Problematically, Hiru or ABC, captured in MOM, also produce content for their own, branded, gossip sites. There’s a whole set of issues around this phenomenon linked to ethics, journalistic integrity and professionalism. But perhaps most or more damning is how between English, Sinhala and Tamil as well as within the Sinhala media domain, audiences engage with entirely different frames, often invisibly but strategically guided by partisan political interests or objectives. Over the past 12 months, what generates the most engagement in each of the MOM categories on social media are stories that have no remote connection with each other, or a common, overarching, national narrative. Think of each MOM category as a sun, which audiences on social media gravitate towards. What we see are multiple solar systems, each with their sun, entirely distinct from and independent of each other. Belong or relate to one system, and everyone else is alien. It doesn’t take much to imagine how damaging this is, now and over the long-term, to the health of our public debate.

There are a range of other patterns, trends and signatures I observe that support, over social media, what MOM compellingly unpacks around terrestrial broadcast and print. My research dovetails with what is a broader, growing debate, by individuals and institutions across many countries including the private sector, to look at the inadvertent consequences of technologies that promised to bring us closer to each other. The democratisation of media production was supposed to unshackle us from the tyranny of a few media owners. MOM clearly brings out how in Sri Lanka, ironically, the move towards digital media production and consumption has strengthened the power these few individuals have to shape our understanding of society, politics and ultimately, ourselves. Fuelled by some of them, as well as growing exponentially independently, gossip sites have for a younger demographic already replaced anything remotely connected to what readers of this newspaper will consider journalism.

How these fluid dynamics will shape society, politics and ultimately, how we see, talk to and treat one another, isn’t just an academic pursuit. Simply put, engaging with MOM is important because Sri Lanka’s post-war democratic potential is almost entirely dependent on the degree to which the media can capture our better angels. The media is, after all, us. To demand more or better from media is really to ask of each of us to become better, more engaged, citizens.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 27 October 2018.

The demographic divide

Aside from enduring popularity with most dogs (cats being entirely inscrutable), I do very well in two demographics – those between 2 and 10 and those over 65.

Children find me, as I often see them, infinitely interesting. I am an adult who in their company becomes a child – making funny noises and faces, tickling, happy to go on all fours in an instant, wholly and utterly oblivious to context or company in our interactions. Those slightly older, as I re-discovered this week hanging out with five from the same family, are entirely surprised to find an adult who is as excited as they are about something they’ve just read, heard or seen. They remind me of what I was like at their age. Some of my earliest memories are of my grandmother reading to me, Muwanpalassa playing softly on the AM radio, something from Wettasinghe or Munidasa. More than anything else from childhood, I remember lovingly reading dozens of Ladybird books passed on from my sister, the Childcraft anthology that took up an entire rack, the vicarious participation in many adventures on Kirrin Island, and Blyton’s other classics including the Folk of the Faraway Tree and Just William. In fact, my love of dogs I can peg to how much I wanted to have a dog like Timmy – loyal, loving and intelligent. Looking back, I recognise this was also a need, satiated only through reading at the time, for a companion. A best friend. I naturally connect with children who are curious, independent and offer an opinion based on something they’ve read or overheard their parents talk about. This week, while a two-year-old grappled with the challenge of eating chips with just six teeth, I engaged his four siblings – two girls and two boys. We talked about the mental acuity of dinosaurs and whether in fact sauropods and stegosaurs had two brains. We talked about the exciting life of sea creatures, including the dissection of a shark that had washed ashore, shown on TV. We spoke about palaeontology, and why one sibling wanted to be an astronaut, while the other wanted to be an astrophysicist. Salient points were debated over an indeterminable drink that would have immediately killed a diabetic. There are things kids hate – condescension, lecturing, hectoring and bluffing. They are smart and value more the admission of ignorance – which gives them the chance to explain what they are referring to or talking about – than an empty claim of knowledge or expertise. They are born storytellers, so no matter how important a point one has, if it isn’t packaged and presented the right way, one simply doesn’t find a receptive audience. This often leads to the entirely erroneous belief that kids aren’t interested in what you have to say, or the lessons one seeks to impart. Children read and engage with an open mind and thus come to conclusions that initially appear naïve, but can be profoundly insightful. As any pre-school or Montessori teacher will attest, they are a tough audience to capture the attention of, but if one wins their confidence, is rewarded with a love and trust that doesn’t dissipate easily. Some aspects here resonate with the dynamics of those much older, and how they interact with each other online.

Those over 65 I also generally get on rather well with. Just this week, I was invited with two other colleagues to speak to the local community on the core tenets of my doctoral research, which deals with social media, data science and peacebuilding, post-war. To put this in context, New Zealand is the second most peaceful country in the world. Conflict, as reported in the Otago Daily Times, the leading provincial newspaper, is generally around the mysterious disappearance of cows, or last week, a duck that had been shot in the back, reportedly leading those in that community to feel unsafe. Given the average age of the audience, and since over supper before our presentations, many lovingly recalled memories of travel in a country called Ceylon, I wondered if my research and the context I was conducting it in would resonate at all.

I knew that with this demographic, it helps to frame things in ways they can empathise with through decades of experience. Recognising the verdant beauty of New Zealand, I projected my research as one not different to gardening, with the study of content and conversations online similar to the bloom or blossoming of flowers, sometimes stunted by weeds and parasites. I likened to the frequent consumption of fast food, and its effect on health and the human body, what is a media diet on social media amongst millennials in Sri Lanka predominantly anchored to gossip. I explained how conversations morphed and merged online by showing an animation of bubbles, noting that their form, shape, texture and ephemeral nature reflected many of the dynamics seen in the study of content generation, spread and engagement online. Going by the engagement after I spoke and an email of appreciation sent to the Faculty the next day, my effort at connecting with this audience seems to have paid off. Many – about as far removed in every imaginable way from the landscape of my research – grasped why I did what I did, and around what. And that’s really all one can hope for.

Strategic and creative communication, as I see it, is what connects my interactions with these two demographics. The ages in between are too often engaged in, entrapped by or enraptured through the hubris of ignorance, paraded and promoted with almost militant fervour – choosing the gluttony of social media banality or niche fiction over more foundational and critical writing on politics and society. Those who are young I connect with over books, stories, ideas and videos I recall once being excited about as well, and now engaged with through interactive means that weren’t even dreamed of, much less invented, when I was their age. Those who are much older I connect with by speaking to what their lives have been – what they have loved to do, want to see more of, are nostalgic over, choose to spend their time on, or want to see their grandchildren become. With the younger demographic, there is a certain give and take – I listen, but also shape and influence, through my responses, how they engage with what we talk about. With those much older, whose minds, opinions and habits are far less malleable, I choose to anchor what I do and like to see, to their self-interest. Sometimes it is by asking them to recall the heady impulses of childhood and youth. At other times, it is by appealing to legacy or succession, and what – in a very personal way – they would like to leave behind, who they would like to take over and how they would like to be remembered.

After a long period of anxiety, I am increasingly at peace with the fact that for the demographic in between these two groups, I find no easy or sustained traction, interest, acceptance or entry. To compete for attention amongst this demographic – the more I study the dynamics, drivers and domains of content and conversations on social media – is a Sisyphean endeavour. A universe of content sparkles with ever greater intensity on newsfeeds, apps and platforms. While I am able to help others package their advocacy, activism and politics in a way that stands the best chance of engagement on or over these social media constellations, I now personally gravitate towards spending more time with those who can reflect back on a full life or those, much younger, who look at life with unbridled optimism, trust and love. This, coupled with slow reading and dogs, is increasingly a safe refuge from a world, the more I study, the less I understand.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 21 October 2018.

A few good men and women

“Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”- Winston Churchill

I first met Mangala Moonesinghe, who passed away two years ago, in 1997. He was at the time Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in Delhi. The Sri Lankan mission, with its unmistakable wall in the diplomatic enclave of Chanakyapuri, was a haven for students. The Moonesinghe’s had an open door policy. Over twenty years ago, Sri Lanka had the second largest student community in Delhi next to those from Seychelles. We were around 750 at the time, mostly undergraduates at the University of Delhi and a few dozens doing post-graduate studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, or JNU as it was always called. Over the three years, Mangala and Gnana invited me over for lunch to talk about the state of the student body, my studies, Sri Lankan politics (though I was studying English, we established a mutual interest in politics beyond partisan frames very early on) and literature. We often used stories in the Economist as a point of reference for our conversations. He had a subscription. I was very far removed from being able to afford one. He used to give me copies from a month or two ago, with specific instructions to read some pieces. A remarkable memory meant I was asked for my opinion on the pieces he had recommended the next time we met, though admittedly, the bigger draw to their company was the delicious, freshly made food. Suitably satiated, all three of us talked in what was I recall the living room of the High Commission over some of the best tea I had tasted up until then. Clearly, the Foreign Service was at the time able to source a grade of Ceylon tea unavailable for the average Sri Lankan consumer. The late 90s in India was a time of vast, unprecedented economic change. Mangala talked of how he saw the changes at the time, from the vantage of interactions with the Indian government and others in the diplomatic community. I spoke of what I saw as a student, and in my last two years, around a range of varying perspectives cultivated from speaking and interacting with the mass of humanity in the city who only ever conversed in Hindi. Mangala was always patient and attentive, locating my limited experience in what he had lived through, knew and observed.

As a student at S. Thomas’ College in the mid-90s, I used to read Lanka Monthly Digest for one column – ‘The Roving Diplomat’ by Deshamanya Vernon L.B. Mendis. LMD has in recent years taken to the republication of Vernon’s columns, which are as interesting to read today as when they were first penned. My first frames of diplomacy, democracy and a world outside of the very violent Sri Lanka I grew up in were through these columns. Vernon’s insights on Indian diplomacy, the meaning of high-profile visits, the need to restructure SAARC, the place of the US, China and Russia in what at the time was an emergent new world order, ethno-political tension in Africa, prescient critiques of the G77 and importantly, a number of columns on the UN and the importance of processes like the Millennium Declaration were all seminal in an appreciation and awareness of a world beyond the strict confines of personal experience and perspectives.

And then there was a meeting with the late Lakshman Kadirgamar, late 2004. Because it was a relatively menial task no one else was around or willing to do, I was asked to accompany a well-known Canadian academic to meet the then Foreign Minister at his official residence. Kadirgamar – a large, commanding presence, in an immaculate ironed shirt and chinos – talked at length about constitutionalism and aspects of power-sharing. During all of this, I was as invisible as the furniture in the room and less useful. I took notes, but wasn’t looked at, referred to, or asked anything. While I was versed with Kadirgamar’s reputation, writing and his political outlook, I didn’t dare open my mouth. After the meeting was over, Kadirgamar pivoted his chair to face me. I recall giving the sort of silly grin one would expect a child to give Santa Claus spotted crawling out the chimney on Christmas. Calling me ‘young man’ at first, and upon discovering my name, referring to my surname after that, he asked me about school, university and what I thought about what they had discussed. I must have said something asinine about the last thrust of inquiry, because he commanded me more sternly to really say what I thought of what he had talked about, and as a young person, how it resonated. I had never before been asked by someone from the government for my opinion, much less the Foreign Minister. He then proceeded to ignore the Canadian academic completely and for the last five or ten minutes of our time together, engaged me about what at the time were the then government’s policies around peacebuilding and aspects of the ceasefire agreement related to media engagement. He was diplomatic and strategically silent around what were obvious cracks and failings, but told me that if my generation’s imagination wasn’t captured by what government said and did, then all would be lost.   

News today captures our diplomats acting as porters, mired in corruption, nepotism, the worst sort of influence peddling and how since 2005, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Service has seen the insidious, intentional evisceration of professionalism and meritocracy. Who today, amongst our leading diplomats, can pen a masterful essay on diplomats as writers and poets, anchored to the life and work of Pablo Neruda, as Jayantha Dhanapala did in the 90s? One reads about Susantha De Alwis and others at the time adroitly negotiating the intricacies of Sri Lanka’s role in hosting the Non-Aligned Summit. A tribute by Vernon Mendis to Yogendra Duraiswamy, published posthumously after Duraiswamy’s passing in 1999, speaks to a calibre, professionalism, vision and integrity we are hard pressed to identify in our Foreign Service today. I grew up reading what these diplomats wrote, wanting to be like them. The profound importance of these first frames of reference, especially amongst youth today, cannot be under-estimated. In uncertain times locally and globally, the vision, skills and strategic thinking required of diplomats can help steer complex, multi-dimensional discussions and processes, including in domestic theatres, beyond purely parochial and partisan frames.

Amongst others, the writings of and on Mendis, Moonesinghe, Kadirgamar and Dhanapala helped shaped my worldview. The absence of comparable voices today is a measure of the moral, ethical and intellectual fibre of our society and polity. All, however, is not lost. In some of the accounts I am fortunate to follow on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, I see spirited, intelligent, cosmopolitan young Sri Lankans already deeply engaged in various domestic and international institutions & fora. Decades hence, I hope they will be able to withstand pressures of mindless conformity and partisan servility to become far better ambassadors of their country than those we see and hear about in the media today.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 14 October 2018.

Reading and social media

The postgraduate study of social media often dates me. Someone with a proclivity to what I have in recent months learnt is a phenomenon called ‘rage-tweeting’ sent me a letter last week that was at the time circulating amongst a limited number on Facebook. The affordances and nature of the platform, I knew, would result in the creation of outrage that would soon spill over on to Twitter and Instagram. It took less than two days. From alumni to those who wait with baited breath to join a chorus that takes issue with who they see as the elite of Colombo, the rage brigade has expressed shame, shock, disbelief, disappointment, disdain and horror, support for the victim, the condemnation of those in authority, various critiques of Sri Lanka’s education system, the small-mindedness of teachers, regressive social values, the dangers to a child’s self-expression and a whole range of opinion on gender, sexuality and queerness and its place in educational institutions. Many others took a monosyllabic route, of starred or completely spelt out expletives, to capture what I can only imagine is a disappointment so great, it has entirely robbed the power of a more comprehensive critique. Some even took to memes. Social media has made black-American actors the standard torchbearer now, through animated images and short video-clips, for an outrage so profound, it cannot be written down.

Kony 2012 on Youtube, over six years ago, is now a well-studied harbinger of the manufacture of outrage over social media, with an intended aim and outcome. I distinctly recall sharing it on my newsfeed at the time, and how much it went on to be commented on and shared subsequently, at a time when Facebook had not yet been tainted by scandal, breach and distrust. That was then. The banality of outrage today is brilliantly framed by digital anthropologist John Postill as an ‘age of viral reality’, where political reality is increasingly if not entirely framed by rapidly and widely shared digital content, particularly amongst a younger demographic. In an age of triumphant populism, the weaponisation of social media, misinformation, socio-political divides over decades exacerbated by digital echo chambers, poor media literacy, catastrophic breaches of privacy, unprecedented and complex attacks on electoral processes, sophisticated influence operations, disinformation campaigns, partisan media coupled with the myopia of social media users and you have a perfect storm – endlessly interesting and fodder for academic research, yet deeply worrisome, beyond partisan lines, for the health of democracy.

Rather than rant and rave against the evil of it all, or seeking through censorious legislation, overbearing government, panoptic surveillance and most of all, terrible parenting, the reinstitution of an ostensibly more straightforward analogue world, it bears some reflection as to how our better angels can be harnessed through the technologies that govern our comprehension of context, country and citizenship. For starters, and counter-intuitively, it is through encouraging the lost art of reading. And by this, I don’t mean the style, nature and pattern of reading that I recognise I am also now hostage to when dealing with a tsunami of social media. It is a very different pace, focus, engagement and selection of reading that comes from borrowing or buying books. Here too, I care little for the distracting debate on whether Kindle or paper is most effective. It is the substance of what one reads, and the breadth of subjects that matters more to me than the form of how text is consumed. I remain biased to print. The tactile nature of spine, page and jacket, coupled with the olfactory signature of each book, brand new or much thumbed, gives me as much pleasure as reading whatever I’ve picked up. But I have no issue with those who prefer e-books. What matters more is that critical reading is encouraged, as something sorely lacking amongst those who are some of the most ardent consumers and producers of social media. An individual who is one of the most gifted photographers I know of, I discovered, hadn’t read Sontag’s seminal work, to better understand framing, politics and craft. The adoration and adulation generated by fans online serve to boost ego without the necessary often painful realisation through critical review, editing, marking or wider reading, that one is wrong, misguided, ill-informed and unoriginal. The private realisation of all this comes with reading. The more public lessons are learnt in university, but also through the friendship or tutelage of friends, family and colleagues. At its simplest, it is to impart the joy of getting lost in a library amongst rows of books, which is a life experience unmatched by even the most amazing recommendations by Amazon. Many on or over social media are enraged by minutiae, confusing or conflating the episodic with the systemic. Academic literature calls this ‘momentary connectedness’ or ‘digital togetherness’ – the feeling of being part of a larger community who by collectively raising their voice over social media, brings about change.

Critical reading can help harness what is today an unprecedented potential to raise awareness about social injustice, where it matters the most. Around long overdue education reform, the overhaul of pedagogy and the reboot of syllabi, instead of a single school, student or teacher. Around the need to be more open to critical reflection and narratives that are different to and contest core beliefs, instead of the screening or censorship of a particular film. Social media masks the need for systemic reform by the proclivity, anchored to the nature of online networks, to frame specific incidents, individuals and institutions. Critical reading, around a range of subjects, gives pause to the immediate sense of outrage by helping us locate the episodic in a landscape of similar incidents, or a history of injustice, a longer process of discrimination or evolution, or parallel developments that may complement or content.

My first impulse of an acerbic response, share, like, quip or jibe I now increasingly hold in check, realising how quickly the spell of social media blinds me to what is more important – which is the study of the drivers, motives and intent of the most emotive or explosive content online. It is easy to stop at bemoaning at how ill-informed and self-referential these cycles of outrage are. To dismiss everyone on social media and decry how everything today is a fad – what Sontag called being a tourist in one’s own reality as the defining frame of our online cultures. And yet, through the simple yet subversive emphasis on more, wider and deeper reading  – books, journals, long-form, magazines, poetry, prose, fiction – we can expand what is a reductionist and limited frame of reference blindly paraded on online with a sense of time, place, relative merit and scale.

There is today abundant optimism, verdant activism and an innate sense of justice amongst so many on social media, from a young age. Yet, the worst of us and our worst impulses rendered in the most appealing ways online, stunt the potential of this reservoir to fertilise a better, more just society. This must change – not by eschewing the digital, but by leveraging it to prise open minds and eyes enslaved to ephemera.

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Published in The Sunday Island, 7 October 2018.