Democracy & peacebuilding using the internet and new media

Many South Asian countries share complex socio-political histories. Intertwined with pre-colonial heritage, post-colonial histories and post-independence travails with democracy, countries such as Sri Lanka continue to grapple with the design and application of governance mechanisms that strengthen pluralism & diversity. However, the divide between the democracy preached and democracy practised is, in some countries, widening. This widening gap has resulted in cycles of violence, ethnic strife, under-development, poverty, exclusion, hopelessness and terrorism.

It is in this larger context of socio-political unrest that discussions on the use of the Internet and new media for social advancement are located. In Sri Lanka for instance, the potential of Internet and web mediated social communication is severely constrained by the corrosive effects nepotism, corruption, parochialism and zero-sum politics.

Through the specific example of Sri Lanka, this paper explores the challenges of new media and the Internet in the promotion of democracy and peace in the Global South. The central contention of this paper is that Internet and new media are inextricably entwined with peacebuilding and conflict transformation in countries coming out of ethno-political strife, or that still feature violent intra-state conflict. This requires proponents of ICT to engage with the complex dynamics of politics, systems of governance, and the theory and practice of peacebuilding if they are to construct inclusive and sustainable frameworks and systems for the promotion of democracy.

A page from history
Recounting 25 years of violent conflict in Sri Lanka briefly runs the risk of caricature and gross over-simplification. Nevertheless, a few salient points stand out. Few in Sri Lanka, irrespective of their identity or social background group, have escaped unscathed by the war, though communities hardest hit reside in the North and the East of the country. Over 25 years of war, ultra-nationalist insurgencies in the South, extra judicial killings and disappearances and the erosion of law and order contribute to a society awash with trauma and deeply pessimistic of peace processes and democratic governance .

The roots of terrorism in Sri Lanka is deeply linked myopia of successive governments after independence. As the noted anthropologist Stanley Tambiah has argued, the island’s violence is a late-twentieth-century response to colonial and postcolonial policies that relied on a hardened and artificial notion of ethnic boundaries. In the 30 years from the mid-1940s, successive governments took measures to reduce the number of Tamils in the professions and the public sector. These measures interacted in diverse and complex ways with a potent Sinhala Buddhist exclusivism which gradually became the animating ideology of the Sri Lankan state. Particularly amongst the arriviste, lower caste Sinhalese, the spread of anti-Tamil chauvinism was soon perceived as a promising means of increasing economic opportunity. As time passed, the electoral promise of pandering to this chauvinism tempted even the most cosmopolitan of Sinhalese politicians.

The most adverse legislation for Tamils came from the language policy of S.W.R.D Bandaranaike’s government. The introduction of the 1956 ‘Sinhala Only’ Act, which replaced English with Sinhala as the language of official government business, clearly disadvantaged large numbers of Tamils. Exacerbating this deliberate marginalisation, the introduction in the early 1970s of communal quotas for university entrance led to the exclusion of merit-worthy Tamil students and set the ethnic powder keg alight. With ‘standardisation’, it became clear that the Tamils had lost the education and employment opportunities which had conditioned their commitment to a unitary Sri Lanka in the first place. Large numbers of young Tamils came to the understanding that their socio-economic aspirations could only be fulfilled within a separate Tamil state – Eelam – the seed for a separatist movement that became the Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE) one of the world’s most ruthless terrorist organisations today.

The signing of a ceasefire agreement (CFA) between the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE in February 2002 ushered some hope to a battle scared country, but was not to last. 4 years on, with the peace process in tatters and all out war again the order of the day. Ironically, this is a war resulting out of a deeply flawed peace process, that in design and application, failed to connect with the hearts and minds of the masses, thus severing its public legitimacy and ensuring its dramatic failure. To blame, for the most part, the lack of any holistic communications strategy to help those at the grassroots better understand the necessary compromises in a peace process. While the LTTE and the Tamil diaspora used the web to its advantage, the Sri Lanka state floundered, under-utilising the power of new media, the internet and the web to connect the various tiers in the peace process.

The Internet in Sri Lanka
The Internet age in Sri Lanka officially began in 1995 with Lanka Internet Services (Pvt) Ltd providing the first commercial and unrestricted Internet facilities via a local server based in Colombo. The market has grown considerably since, with over 30 companies currently holding licenses for Internet Service Provision, over 823,000 fixed access (Sri Lanka Telecom) telephone lines in service and over 86,000 internet and email subscribers to date ; predominantly concentrated in Colombo, followed by Kandy and Galle, cities in towards centre and south of the country respectively. However, many government institutions still have limitations to absorb ICT, such as low computer literacy amongst (particularly vernacular) State sector employees, the very limited availability of standardised vernacular fonts, the lack of sustained capacity development and training, the absence of promotions based on meritocracy and capacity that vitiates the incentive to learn new technologies and the lack of understanding of how ICTs, used in context, can support development.

However, given UNDP Human Development Report in 2001 classifying of Sri Lanka as “innovative and adaptive” in the use of new technology, a number of web and Information Communication Technologies (ICT) initiatives for community development, e-governance and peace building have taken shape over the past few years in spite of infrastructural and human resource limitations. That said, Sri Lanka today shows a marked inability to harness the potential of ICTs for social development . A study conducted in 2001 by Govinda Shreshta and Saman Amarasinghe brings out the following qualitative features of internet use in Sri Lanka :

• Over 60% of the respondents were members of their respective ISPs for two or less years, and over half had first used a computer sometime during the 1990-99 period.
• Sixty-two percent of the respondents had sent 10 or more e-mails per week over the past six (or less) months, and 52% had received 15 or more e-mails per week during the same period.
• Nearly half of the respondents used a computer at home, and 48% indicated 33.6K as the baud rate to connect their ISPs.
• Seventy-eight percent of the respondents spent 1-9 hours per week sending and receiving emails, and a large majority (68%) spent 1-9 hours surfing the Web.
• A majority of the respondents were positive about conditions in the workplace, such as the number and quality of opportunities for training and skill development, the quality of telecommunications facilities, and the quality and reliability of Internet connections.
• An overwhelming majority of the respondents indicated that ISP subscriber fees, computer hardware and software costs, and telecommunications charges were generally high.
• Most respondents were generally positive about 1) the quality of access to the Internet, 2) the quality of access to e-mails, Web pages and other Internet-based features, and 3) various benefits of Internet access.
• Seventy-one percent of the respondents were male; nearly half were younger than 35, and a large majority were educated (with at least a high school diploma.) Private company employees and people in business comprised over half of the respondents.

In the years after the survey, the introduction of ADSL, ISDN and wireless (WiFi) capabilities from many ISPs at least to urban areas, and the promise of large footprint wireless internet access (WiMax) touted by several telecoms companies, have led to increasing numbers going online for the first time, at speeds far above dial-up modems. This said, the availability of bandwidth is abysmal in Sri Lanka – so-called broadband networks only offer a trickle of information, ISPs suffer poor customer service, low network maintenance, untrained technicians, poor skills development and the development of ICTs in general suffer from a familiar litany of issues that ranges from extremely corrosive partisan political influence that govern policy, to the lack of a holistic approach to ICT – concentrating on the infrastructure development for instance, without equal emphasis given to the development of appropriate content.

However, pertinent to the next section of this paper is the exponential growth of mobile phones in Sri Lanka, which by some estimates is over 50% year on year . Central to the discussion on community empowerment using ICT are the ways in which technology already in the hands of millions of users in a country can be leveraged to support social movements that strengthen democracy, sustainable development and peace.

New Media
Often defined in contradistinction to newsprint, New Media – understood here to be media that is generated by citizens using a variety of web, internet and electronic means, published on the web and consumed using a variety of devices ranging from PCs to mobile phones – brings with it unique opportunities for traditional consumers of information to participate in the selection and framing of news stories. New Media transforms “products” of Old Media, such as newspapers and radio stations – into virtual “places” of contestation and debate. It opens up what is essentially one-way communication of newsprint into multi-faceted many-to-many dialogues that feature voices from communities and groups marginalised by mainstream media. This citizen journalism, as it is called, enable citizens to contest the hegemonic control of information by a few media moguls and create new trusted sources of social commentary.

New Media is a symbiotic construct – nourishing and nourished by democratic impulses. There is obviously great resistance to New Media. Deeply entrenched cultures of secrecy, fear, the threat of dire consequences for those who stand in opposition to corruption and the erosion of human rights, a general climate of insecurity inevitably colour the creation and application of New Media and stunts its potential in countries such as Sri Lanka.

The construction of political opinion is a two-way street – mainstream media and national level political rhetoric shapes and is shaped by aspirations of the commons. As we have witnessed in countries such as the Philippines, information in the hands of a public equipped with mobile phones can be a powerful democratic imperative that brings down an authoritarian and corrupt government .

However, success stories such as this run the risk of romanticising the gravity of problems that bedevil post-conflict democratic reform. The traditional power of politicians in rigid social structures, a clientelist political architecture along with rampant nepotism and corruption erode the onset of democratic social transformation as promised by the New Media and the Internet.

Expanding access?
Democracy, seen as a dynamic construct reflecting the aspirations of all peoples and the desire for a life free from want and fear, is a living organism kept alive by the degree of citizen participation. This relationship between government and citizens is symbiotic – stable democracy strengthens plural societies who in turn more fully participate in democratic processes to ensure their voices interwoven into the frameworks of governance. Beyond the rhetoric and the hyperbole, we need to examine what is really meant by expanding access – for instance, what does expanding access mean with populations that grapple with the daily strife of life in the deathly pall of violent conflict? How can New Media and the Internet empower those who have been erased from national debates on governance and democracy regain their citizenship? Is the measure of expanded access quantitative – e.g. the number of mobile phones / PCs per capita – qualitative – e.g. the availability of websites in the vernacular and literacy to understand and communicate through the web – or a mixture of both? Is talk of a Information Age a cruel misnomer to the conditions of life that exist in the terrains of hopelessness?

Firstly, expanding access must take into account the complex web of human relations. Put another way, Internet / web access methodologies envisioned from urban centres rarely acknowledge geo-political considerations that impact access to information in the field. Constructing a cyber-café or Internet resource centre in contested geographies requires acute knowledge of local conditions, ethnic sensitivities and other causes of conflict.

On the other hand, expanding access through mobile phones and the soon to be introduced Wi-Max technologies promotes knowledge creation and sharing amongst communities hitherto voiceless. The ability for communities to bear witness to gross human rights violation, grassroots corruption and other systemic impediments to development, democracy and peace is facilitated by increasingly easier modes of information access, storage and dissemination. The advancements in mobile technologies that allow for audio, video and text are the backbone of operations in support of human rights monitoring and peacebuilding in the next decade. These large footprint internet access technologies allow for a qualitative improvement of communication as well, since expansion must not only be seen in light of increased numbers who use the internet. These democratic dialogues are the bedrock of a vibrant polity and society. Rather than rely on the communication mediated by biased politicians and political architectures, blogs (, collaborative photo albums ( websites that capture oral histories (, community mediated news platforms ( along with the use of PCs and audio-visual peripheral devices capture, through Folksonomies , the pulse of communities who are alienated from mainstream processes of governance. We see real-life examples of the power of expanded access to communication and information in the use of mobile phones in the Philippines, where those in support of democracy used SMS to overthrow an authoritarian regime .

Following from above, the potential of expanded access to the Internet and the web is deeply linked to the availability mechanisms and devices that operate in the vernacular (not just in English). The qualitative measure of communication in support of peace in post-conflict scenarios is in its ability to contest, amongst other issues, the corrosive structures of politics and governance that gave rise to violence and terrorism. It is a central problem of all peacebuilding movements to engender the groundswell of opinion in support of peace, over the long term that is an effective bulwark against a resurgence of violence. This groundswell of opinion can only be built using communication frameworks that operate in the vernacular. Useful in this light is to use ICTs to examine the ways through which communities communicate on the ground – through metaphors, oral histories, hagiography, ritual, mysticism etc – that digitally captured, stored and disseminated, can help communities transcend cycles of violence with support from other communities, the diaspora and an international support network and be a powerful social history of a country’s movement from conflict to peace. A community able to articulate its alienation from processes of governance is able to better engage with local and international actors capable of delivering the necessary reform. At the very least, the large well-springs of support marginalised communities can tap into, especially in the diaspora, is a vital bulwark against the depreciation of hope that in turn is a strong factor in the rise of terrorism.

Earlier, I’ve called the terrains of hopelessness the locations where the digital age is most deeply contested. It is also important to realise the transcendental and transformative potential of ICT and New Media. As noted above, the use of New Media and the internet that strengthens existing local conditions, social relationships and frameworks in support of democracy can aid in the structural reform necessary in any peace process.

Thus, expanding access is much more about the geographical expanse of ICTs, the number of people who are able to surf the web, the number of PC’s per capita or the cost of access. It is all this, but much more – the qualitative nature of web mediated discussions in support of democracy, most importantly in the vernacular, is the only measure of authenticity when determining the impact of improved access.

Redefining control – by whom, for whom?
The central importance of the Internet and New Media is that it is a uniquely open two-way communicative architecture. Traditional communications media, such as television and radio, fail to enable full democratic participation due to lack of two-way communication. For example, on-line message boards and chat rooms allow people to exchange opinions and even pose questions to candidates and elected officials in a way that broadcast television can not support. The Internet provides any electorate with a pervasive voice that cannot be ignored or easily cast aside. People feel more connected when they are able to participate in dialogue, instead of idle recipients of information doled out to them. The Internet’s structure allows for a diversity of views and exchange of information that is impossible in any other communications medium. The key to this communication is the decentralization of the information; no source has near exclusive control on the diffusion of information, as is the case in television and radio.

Expanding access is only one part of initiatives that seek to use the Internet and new media in support of democracy and peace. The architectures of information control prevalent in many countries – such as China – are overwhelmingly in opposition to the promise of expanded access. Such governmental control is especially problematic in countries where democracy is suspect or where democratic processes are under the hegemonic control of a single ethnic group or a coterie of politically connected families, not uncommon in Asia.

The central thesis of redefining control rests on the submission that any control of information to, in and from the public domains must be in the interests of the commons. Legislation on the Right to Information, in this light, is central to the discussion on redefining control of information architectures. Centres of power that control information, however, go beyond the government. Protracted conflict and peace processes perversely share a common tendency for actors playing a central role to jealously guard information. In the peace process in Sri Lanka, for example, international donors, local NGOs, post-tsunami disaster relief organisations and even individuals are equally responsible for promoting a culture wherein sharing information is anathema. We see other locations power and control at the grassroots. The English teacher, the School Principal, the village head monk, the graama sevaka niladari (local government representative) and in general, the complex interplay of gender, caste, age and religion oftentimes curtail the full participation of all members of a community in democratic processes.

Redefining control must take into account this complex web of relationships and sub-altern realities if it is to devise ways to expand access and promote the public ownership of information and access to it. Central to the thesis of redefining control is the identification of information bottle-necks in an effort to overcome the control mechanisms in play. This requires a careful delineation of control architectures on the macro, meso and micro levels of polity and society, along with the concert of technologies required at level to bypass and subvert information controls.

On the other hand, technology itself redefines control.

A mobile phone in the hands of a citizen subverts the blanket censorship of governments. A blog is a powerful medium through which the ground realities of conflict can be communicated to counter propaganda of the antagonists. Picture phones can monitor ground conditions and in real-time generate images that influence key policy decisions in support of peace. New technologies that mix satellite imagery with Geographical Information Systems (GIS) are able to monitor movements of IDPs and refugees that are able to counter statistics given out by various actors with vested interests in keeping the numbers low.

All this however is only sustainable in a larger context of media freedom. People’s voices are important, but the architectures of power and politics in the Global South make it difficult for them to organise and take initiatives, sans funding or outside support, to promote democracy in the long term.

This brings us full circle to existing frameworks and locations of control. The promotion of technology can’t address the challenges posed by state and non-state actors resistant to information exchange and dissemination. Central to a process of redefinition of traditional architectures of control is the need to articulate a vision that galvanises the imagination of those not in favour of loosening control as well as increasing the volume of those in support of greater flexibility and openness in information architectures. Such a unifying vision is hard to come by, but essential in order to undergird a movement for greater democracy in the information age.

Fundamental to this vision is the aspirations of communities. Redefining control needs to bring closer the sources of information production and knowledge creation in communities to the policy-making levels of government. The existing divide between government and citizens results in social policies impervious to real needs of citizens. E-government is often proclaimed as a process through which formulation of policy is handed back into the hands of people by enabling electronic interactions with representatives in all tiers of government. While much has been written on the topic, the promise of e-government remains elusive, despite millions of dollars of funding. The majority of existing government websites in Sri Lanka lie dormant, with content only in (poorly written) English, dysfunctional feedback mechanisms and out-dated contact details. The pervasive and vicious cycles of corruption also erode e-government strategies – since government officials are less keen to support initiatives without the possibility of kick-backs or underhand payments. Conceptually, and perhaps inadvertently, many e-government models mirror the top-down approaches to user interactions that bedevil governance frameworks in real life. For example, the lack of responses to user feedback, lack of privacy clauses that protect the personal registration information of users, a server – client network architecture instead of a far more responsive and open Peer-to-Peer (P2P) architecture as well as government controlled data centres that house all e-government websites unfortunately give governments even more control of information.

New Media offers a different set of possibilities in this regard.

The emphasis of new media is on information produced by citizens for their own benefit – empowerment from within, as opposed to empowerment delivered by the largesse of the ruling elite. While many e-government initiatives seek to open up information within government to citizens, new media works the other way, promoting citizen driven content to a larger audience that includes government. In this paradigm, control of information rests with the citizens themselves, with the technologies of access almost impossible to control. With the introduction of vernacular language capable mobile phone handsets and the increasing affordability of multimedia mobile devices, it is increasingly difficult for governments to stifle voices from the ground giving a picture radically different to that which the government seeks to promote.

Mitigating the potential of new media is its insular nature – with a focus on local specificities. This said, increasingly porous systems architectures of new media, with websites cross-fertilising discussions, both the technology itself and a networked community contribute to a redefinition of control that wrestles control away from power centres to a more democratic diffusion.

Information, knowledge and wisdom
Much of this paper is about expanding access or redefining control of information. There is however a difference between the availability of information and the ability to use it. For sure, greater information access on a rich spectrum of issues helps promote transparency and dialogues in support of democracy. But the availability of information alone isn’t a sufficient catalyst for social change. Communities unused to modes of information access and dissemination as promoted by the Internet and new media stand the risk of information overload. This is never more obvious than in Google searches, where even the seasoned user is at a loss to wade through the millions of hits in response to a search on peacebuilding, democracy or conflict resolution.
This requires us to re-assess how we measure social change engendered through ICT. I’ve written earlier about the dangers associated with the assumption that greater internet access and more PCs automatically result in empowered communities:

Reading the wealth of literature on ICT, it is easy to forget that it is not a panacea for problems facing developing nations. Normative assumptions about ICT tend in most cases to outstrip knowledge of how technology is actually used . ICTs cannot magically liberate people, alleviate poverty, erase the ‘digital divide’ , and ensure prosperity. Much of the literature written on ICT does not treat it as one factor amidst a myriad of others that shape inter-state and intra-state relations in developing countries. Furthermore, in planning for and using ICT, many countries often concentrate on the intervention itself, rather than what they want to accomplish through it. It must be remembered that ICT is a means to an end, not an end in itself .

It is a valid question as to whether those who use the Internet to support progressive social policies adequately realise the long term nature of social transformation. The caveat of many who tout the potential of the Internet and New Media for social transformation and empowerment is that the expectation of the time taken for such processes is much shorter than what may be necessary for communal healing after decades of violence. Furthermore, many social activists online suffer from the myopia of believing in short-term social change initiatives automatically resulting in longer-term social change. Unless sustained and constantly adapted to respond to dynamics in polity and society, initiatives for conflict and social transformation that use Internet and web based new media have little chance of success in the long run.

Transforming information to knowledge requires context. Context requires education and the ability to discern bias. Given the problems associated with syllabi and public education in general in regions of protracted conflict, further research is needed to examine the ways in which the internet and new media may contribute to existing racial and ethnic stereotypes on account of wider access promoting biased information that is uncritically read and understood as the truth.

Wisdom and knowledge are not features of technology – at least not yet. Our digital age is an age of information. More knowledge is still to be found in good library than on the internet or web – simply because the brick and mortar architecture of a library contains within in not just information in the form of printed matter, but human guides to help hone in one related material, the clustering of similar topics in sections and the sense of place which one is hard pressed to find even in sites like Google Print . For many communities in the Global South, eschewing a global fascinating with knowledge networks and information sharing, more wisdom is found in the tale of a village elder than all of Google combined. We are many decades away from technical architectures that rival the ability of humans to store information, gather knowledge and grow Wisdom – today’s best Artificial Intelligence (AI) programmes struggle to parse natural language queries and spelling errors, issues humans overcome with ease.

However, with all the caveats, the Internet and new media raise the potential of information in aid of democracy and peacebuilding to be accessible and used by far more people than anytime in history. With several multi-million dollar book digitisation initiatives, the growth of the web, the availability of low cost mobile devices that can access the internet and the ubiquity of technologies that allow for 24/7 access to the web form a concert of initiatives that will inevitably engender social transformation in the decades ahead.

However, a large measure of humility is required is our estimation of the power of the Internet and new media to engender social change. Societies entrenched in conflict are often awash with information through various ICT initiatives, but lack the capacity to transform this information to usable ideas and visions that help them in their struggles for peace.

This capacity is the hardest to build. Social policies with regard to access to and quality of education, healthcare, public utilities etc are more possibly important to address than Internet and new media related initiatives in the embryonic stages of a peace process.

Final thoughts
A discussion on Communication Technology and Social Policy in the Digital Age is one that hasn’t, as yet, global appeal. Billions of people exist without any awareness of the Internet or its potential for social change. There are more pressing social issues in some regions than the digital divide – famine, HIV / AIDS, poverty and ethnic conflict continue to take their toll on mankind. Corruption and authoritarian governments worsen the situation. The exceptional nature of academic conferences that discuss the pros and cons of the digital age and ICT is made acute when juxtaposed with the strife of those living in conflict zones and far removed from the promise of ICT and new media.

However, the terrains of violence and conflict also hold within them the possibilities of democratic dialogue mediated through the Internet. Some ideas of this paper in pursuit of such possibilities are;

• Defining requirements and systems that enable community participation in policy making on the expression of needs by the community itself and not by national level politicians, traditional power-centres or the social elite;
• Creating New Media based initiatives that amplify community aspirations for peace while at the same time sensitive to the fragile and complex web of socio-political relations in the context of on-going peace processes;
• Expanding a community’s social capital through enhanced access to the internet, while eschewing the facile notion that access to the internet based information itself is indicative of community empowerment;
• Using the internet and web to devise communities of practice that transform information to trusted and verifiable knowledge that aids conflict transformation within and between communities;

Animating the potential of new media and the Internet is the existence of a vibrant democracy. A vibrant democracy in turn is nourished by a culture of open discussion on core issues of governance and as they are felt by citizens in all regions of a country. This symbiosis between democracy and dialogue, between new media and its influence on progressive social policy, between the promise of the Internet to empower communities and the appropriation of ICT by communities to strengthen their engagements with justice and peace, is a qualitative and quantitative measurement of the health of a nation.

In sum, the author submits that the emerging understanding of the use of the Internet and media in support of progressive social reform, especially in post-conflict nations, is a vital tool in addressing the challenges of post-conflict nation building and the strengthening of democracy.

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