Openly hidden

I teach social media verification, and recalled during a class I am teaching this week some of the content that came my way in the first half of 2009. The media landscape in general, and social media in particular, wasn’t then what it is now. Self-censorship was the norm, and high. Mainstream media, out of fear of violence or forcibly through the strict control of advertising revenue, accepted and published the government’s propaganda without question. Social media was still a novelty – Facebook and Twitter seven years ago weren’t platforms known or used to the extent they are today. Flickr and YouTube were used for photos and videos respectively, and were the primary platforms to feature various accounts from Nandikadal and elsewhere were the war was reaching its bloody end, including from ostensibly first-person perspectives. I remember clearly one Flickr account, belonging to an organisation connected to the LTTE based in the United Kingdom, which published photos that claimed to be from 2009, but were in fact taken previously, during what was also a mass exodus due to heightened violence. The scenes were gut-wrenching – destitute women and children who were walking skeletons, macabre injuries and the hardest of all, awful wounds on children and infants. As any indication of hostilities in the early part of 2009 though, they were not just useless – they were also entirely misleading and often deliberately so. While the LTTE and its international proxies put out (by 2009’s standards) a tsunami of video and photographic updates, the Sri Lankan government relied on its near total control of mainstream media and a few embedded journalists reporting the Army’s script. Whereas the Army and government were interested in a domestic media consumer, the LTTE’s media was clearly aimed at the international community and sections of the diaspora. Much of this content published in the public domain is now almost impossible to find, but clearly, helped corner the Sri Lankan government soon after May 9th2009, by downplaying or literally erasing the LTTE’s own atrocities and highlighting shelling and bombing by the Army. Reciprocally, by attempting to control the narrative through its own brutish censorship, the government ultimately lost control of it entirely and the plot to boot. The Army’s own propaganda – often hilariously badly produced – served only to increase scepticism. Each side became a parody of the other.

If anything, the media landscape has over the past seven years become even more complex. What was once published in the public domain, is now distributed over Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, popular instant messaging apps for smartphones and tablets. This makes it close to impossible to monitor the production and dissemination of content that may in fact be entirely false and designed only to inflame tensions. Hate speech resides openly in Sinhala on Facebook, mocking attempts by Facebook itself to address the growth of content that violently targets individuals and communities. The grand strategy of elections now embraces social media as vectors to influence hearts and emotions, minds be damned. Policies no longer play any discernibly important role in elections, as we are guided more by what we feel about a candidate or party.

Media shapes what we feel by framing what we hear, see or read. What’s different from seven years ago is that today’s propaganda is ephemeral (in say the case of Snapchat, an app that deletes content after a certain time), hidden in the open (in the case of mobile chat apps) and is quickly spread over a dizzying spectrum of media (animated images over Twitter called GIFs, short video clips, compelling infographics, immersive maps, and increasingly, interactive 3D content).

In light of these developments, I am often asked the question as to whether another Nandikadal could occur today, or years into the future, given the ubiquity of eye-witness technology. My response is to observe Syria – possibly one of, if not the most recorded violent conflict over social media. We have thousands of hours of video, possibly millions of photographs, tweets, Facebook posts, articles on the web. And yet, the violence continues. Clearly then, social media’s ubiquity is no guarantee against war. This is partly because of social media’s very success. Cricket. Entertainment. Inspirational quotes. Coffee and food. Holiday destinations. Dogs and pets. Outfits. Families and selfies. This is usually my newsfeed on desktop and mobile. Increasing choice has led to increased isolation, and our awareness of and engagement with the world is now largely determined by a new, transnational, unaccountable yet extremely powerful censor – the algorithms that govern social media timelines. What we like and share, in turn determines what we see and know. If we don’t know what to ask, or haven’t the curiosity (and courage) to go where we are uncomfortable, what we see and understand as the world is largely determined by what we believe in, and our own socio-economic circumstances.

What this splintering has done is to make it almost impossible for government to truly control a narrative. Attempting to really control media production around an offensive similar to Nandikadal today would be to face with challenges that didn’t exist in 2009 – from cinematic quality cameras on drones to devices like the Narrative Camera which take photos continuously in very high resolution of whatever it is facing, and can subsequently be uploaded online, indexed by location or date and time. All this is ripe for the worst sort of propaganda as well – just look at ISIL and their slick, well produced recruitment videos. And there is also the matter of algorithmic news selection. Today’s censors are in fact far more powerful than the Rajapaksa’s ever were, and their greatest success lies in how they are perceived, at best, or being benign agents of content delivery, or occasionally, regime change. This is Facebook. This is Twitter. This is Google. Readers of this newspaper may come from a demographic that sees these platforms as purely the domain of their children or grand-children, and yet, their influence radiates far beyond those that just use them on a daily basis. Anger or alienate, somehow, any one or more of these giants, and you will cease to exist even though you may have a web address that is public, a story worth telling and content worth sharing.

Social media verification for me, from 2009, was guided by a yearning to go to the heart of a story, by either verifying as true content presented to me, or by proving it false. But it’s not about technology really. I believe media – civic, social, electronic and print – should shape how we engage with what matters the most to our present and future, instead of just pandering only to what sells, generates the most likes, retweets or views. A disturbing paradox of vastly increased choice and incredibly diminished media literacy defines our social media age. I am struggling to teach how best to overcome what surely will be a landscape where wars do happen, just not with our knowledge – or interest. There is no guarantee of success.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 17 April 2016.

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