Harnessing connectivity

I’m in Myanmar for a week. I’ve come here two or three times a year since 2014. On my first visit, the best connection to the Internet in Yangon was at the Shangri-La near Sule Pagoda, and that too for an exorbitant price. The State telecoms company held the monopoly on SIM cards, which on the black market cost a great deal. And yet, even then, many young people I saw around the city sported Samsung smartphones. I didn’t know what they used it for – calls were expensive, the connectivity was spotty, data was prohibitively expensive and even 3G services didn’t really exist. Maybe it was a status symbol. My understanding is that at the time, content – from videos and photos to reading material – was pre-loaded on to these phones by agents and shops customers went to top-up their accounts. Smartphones at the time were essentially treated as one would a Kindle, Walkman or portable DVD player – with no connection, literally, to the Internet and web. It’s a different country now. One obvious change is in the usage of smartphones – now leveraged to interact over Facebook, stream YouTube videos and converse over instant messaging apps. Another is in the ubiquity of smartphones, which no longer are just in the hands of millennials. Everyone has one. It is hard to communicate the pace of change around connectivity – from being off-grid, to an era of hyper-growth now resulting in millions creating, consuming and exchanging content creating on, and primarily for, mobile devices.

The growth offers much by way of economic, political and social opportunities. It also comes with significant challenges around the timbre, quality and sources of content. The parallels with post-war Sri Lanka are striking here. The rise of dangerous and hate speech over the Internet closely follows the trend of mobile phone adoption and growth in data services. Inflammatory, abusive content, as well as more sophisticated, insidious propaganda, aimed at more long-term mind-set change amongst a young, politically active demographic, is evident. Vectors for the rapid spread of hate and false news are the very apps and platforms millions now rely on to get information on their country, politics and society. What in the US is only after the election of Trump as President-Elect a source of much handwringing was evident both in Myanmar and Sri Lanka for some years – how Facebook as a platform, by default and even before completely algorithmic, human oversight free news feed curation, actually aids the spread of content that often puts at risk communal harmony. And while arguably changes can in theory be made to how Facebook treats and features content, no technical means are there to curate, verify and refute on demand content exchanged through instant messaging apps like Viber, Line or WhatsApp.

I have for some years maintained that rapid growth in digital content produced and exchanged amongst a population can actually exacerbate existing socio-political tensions and faultlines, if there is no parallel increase in media literacy. Again, long before Trump and a ‘post-factual’ US, study after study demonstrated that content over social media was treated with a higher degree of trust, and shared more as a consequence, no matter what the actual veracity of information. In other words, those who for example had a healthy scepticism of State media, and the propaganda often promoted on it, would not apply the same degree of scepticism to news and information that was featured on their social media news feeds, especially if re-tweeted, liked or somehow visibly endorsed by a friend, fan or follower.

This is both disturbing and difficult terrain for policymakers. Interrogating the non-implementation of laws in Sri Lanka to deal with hate speech, in physical and digital domains, has taken a backseat to calls made by those in government to bring about legislation against hate speech. For the best of intent, this can lead to the worst of outcomes. Illiberal governments and powerful individuals (in the future) can rather conveniently avail themselves of expedient definitions of hate speech to fit a parochial agenda aimed at silencing inconvenient truths, expressed in public, which risk personal profit, votes or political office. On the other hand, Myanmar today presents a media landscape that cannot be wished away – where the pull and embrace of social media content overwhelms critical engagement. Racists and extremists know this, and produce content that appeals to the emotions and heart, while government and civil society too, far too often, only ever produce content that engages the mind and intellect. Emotions win. Technology helps hate. But can it also help combat it?

This is an on-going debate, and also an emerging field of practice. While here, I had a brief engagement with journalists and civil society around the verification of content on social media. This mirrors what a few of us initially, and now a growing tribe, have done in Sri Lanka. During Aluthgama’s riots, leading up to both elections last year, around the presentation of the budget, in response to comments by politicians, comments in the Hansard, the diatribes of robed thugs, the content of press releases, key reports, when those linked to or part of the Rajapaksa regime try to reinvent history and themselves, content in the public domain has been scrutinised, verified, corrected and debunked. What is still missing is a parity of critical analysis – the majority consume content without questioning, a few who do question find it difficult to spread counter-analysis and fact-checked content with the same appeal, reach and speed.

There is however no going back – without or without the aid of Silicon Valley, the tools activists, extremists and governments will use to shape public opinion will often be the same. This presents an unprecedented opportunity, for those in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and elsewhere too to unleash their imagination – bots on Facebook Messenger that, linked to local variants of Snopes.com, can fact check and stop rumour. WhatsApp hotlines for crisis management and response. Proactive SMS messages that when targeted by location, community or issue, can help decrease tension. Initiatives like Panzagar here in Myanmar, PeaceTXT in Kenya, the Digital News Initiative in Europe (supported by Google) supporting innovation that can be adopted for and adapted in Asia showcase just how much can be done. My enduring fear is that in the US post-Obama, in a Myanmar more interested in censoring information from Rakhine and in a Sri Lanka where violent monks and frothing racists find ready audiences over social media, the negative impact of connectivity and misleading content will always colour public debate and appreciation of the Internet. And then we have protectionism and paternalism from government, fuelled by concerned parents, clergy or self-appointed custodians of culture influencing law making that in turn only ever ensures, whatever the intended outcome, the worst voices endure online.

Myanmar’s digital future and its democratic potential are inextricably entwined. Same goes for Sri Lanka. I hope our countries find a way to harness the potential of increased connectivity, beyond just parading numbers of those who are connected.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 20 November 2016.

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