“We strongly protest against the hypocritical foreign intervention against the Sri Lankan Government” are posters plastered around immigration counters at the Bandaranaike International Airport. The government’s own statistics suggest tens of thousands of tourists and travellers to Sri Lanka will see these posters. In daylight hours, they may also see the large banners – spanning across the road to the airport – the good people of Ja-Ela have ostensibly put up. One notes, “USA Please do not support terrorism” and another, “Do not allow to separate Sri Lanka”. It is impossible to accurately glean how many times Channel 4’s award winning documentary, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, released last year, has been viewed to date. Yet even conservatively, the numbers are at least in the tens of millions – given the documentary’s official web streaming, public screenings in many capital cities and repeated terrestrial broadcasts in the UK, India, Australia and other countries. The film’s presenter Jon Snow, writing on his blog in June 2011, said “Additionally, it is bound to go viral via YouTube”. Also writing in June last year, José Luis Díaz, Head of Amnesty International’s United Nations Office wrote that the film “shocks you into silence”, and was also aimed at “shocking the UN into action”.
Shock and viral tactics also underpin KONY 2012, a slick new production released a week ago to raise international awareness of Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army and a wanted war criminal. KONY 2012 is 30 minutes long, extremely well produced and if you knew little or nothing about Kony, the LRA or the complex politics of the region, incredibly compelling. Mind-bogglingly, the video, in just four days, was watched close to 60 million times on YouTube and another 15 million times on Vimeo. It’s trended globally on Twitter and resulted strident criticism of the video, the organisation that created it and the simplistic politics that guide its framing and tone. These criticisms have themselves generated millions of views and tens of thousands of comments, all under a week, over a person, outfit and region in Africa few of those engaging and watching would have known, or cared to comment about, before.
What links the posters at BIA, the banners in Ja-Ela, Channel 4’s documentary and KONY 2012? Clearly, one difference is that the banners and posters are tactile, whereas Channel 4’s documentary and KONY 2012 exist as digital media. All however seek to simplify what is a complex context. Channel 4’s documentary does not look at Sri Lanka’s frustratingly fluid post-war party politics, the contest of ideas on reconciliation and accountability within the country, the problems of regime change when juxtaposed against a systemic decay of party politics that offers no discernable or viable alternative to the incumbents in the near term, or the continued popularity of the Rajapaksa regime and as a result, the palpable challenges of activism and advocacy for war crimes accountability within Sri Lanka. Yet there is merit in these productions. The posters at BIA and Ja-Ela, contrary to why they were originally put up, help focus attention on Sri Lanka’s atrocious human rights record to thousands entering the country. C4’s documentary changed the government’s outright dismissal about civilian casualties, and despite braggadocio, forced them to look at inconvenient perspectives from and on Nandikadal. C4’s 2011 video and KONY 2012 appeal to a younger demographic, keen to engage and help. BIA’s boring banners and Ja-Ela’s petty posters appeal to and are produced by a parochial, older demographic. Importantly, critiques of documentaries like C4’s Killing Fields help as much as the original production to shape international and domestic discourse.
Attention-based advocacy is littered with pitfalls. However, with the new C4 documentary just days away from public release, it behoves the government’s shrill dismissal of allegations of war crimes to consider the long-tail and influence of web media. If KONY 2012 is anything to go by, viral web videos capture and sustain global attention. They persist and cannot be censored. The more they are discussed, the more nuanced the study is of key actors and issues. The more study over time, the more action there will be.
Good news then for those interested in systemic change in Sri Lanka.
Published in The Nation, 11 March 2011.