The propaganda landscape

“If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer… And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.”

Hannah Arendt

Columnists are already writing in favour of or warning against the ascendency of Gotabaya Rajapaksa by 2020, along with the resurgence of the old political order in a new guise. The non-delivery of campaign promises coupled with a non-existent communication strategy makes the current government its own worst enemy. All the JO has to do is to hope climate change continues to wreak havoc with our harvests, activate violent elements in the deep state still partial to the old guard when necessary, clandestinely support anti-government demonstrations at key traffic choke points in and around Colombo and re-activate what was in late 2014 a well-oiled propaganda machine. It’s that last part which interests me the most, if only because interactions with multiple sections of government over two years suggests the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration has no plan, capacity or resources to counter a sophisticated misinformation and disinformation campaign engineered by the JO.

A lot has changed since 2014’s Presidential campaign. Psychometrics is playing an increasing role in how media campaigns target individuals. For example, many wouldn’t think twice about granting access to a simple, engaging game, an interesting poll, astrology or cricket app that requires Facebook to work. My newsfeed on Facebook is littered with those who have provided access to a third party, resulting in pseudo-insights that are fun to share and result in what is really intended – the viral sharing of content that in turn provides access to more social media accounts. This in turn provides insights around how carefully crafted communications can sway undecided voters and strengthen the fears of those opposed to a party or candidate. While all this requires significant investment and expertise, it is not impossible, certainly by 2020.

Add to this advancements in technology itself. Adobe, the maker of the eponymous photo editing suite, showcased last year a new product that allows the sophisticated manipulation of audio. Though it won’t for several years at least work in Sinhala or Tamil, by 2020 we will have technology in the hands of anyone with a computer to manipulate a voice recording to make any speaker in English say whatever it is you want them to say, in their own voice. The listener will be none the wiser. Also in 2016 came the preview of technology that manipulated the face of a speaker on TV in real time. This meant that a recording of an individual broadcast on TV, for example, could with audio manipulation software be made to say anything you wanted them to say. The consumer would both see and hear sentences, which they would go on to believe and act on, that the original speaker never really said. These are new frontiers of propaganda that we don’t even know how to comprehensively identify, much less guard against.

Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion and outspoken critic of Putin tweeted in December that the “point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth”. Repeat a lie often enough, and counter-narratives are buried. Fake news is another useful tool – not just by way of producing and disseminating misleading content, but also by volubly decrying critical content and commentary as fake, serving to increase scepticism and fuel apathy which benefits the suppression of facts. The average citizen and media consumer will be oblivious to any of this. Sri Lanka’s very high literacy helps with the dissemination of and engagement around news. On the other hand, the country’s very poor media literacy helps the spread of unverified rumour as well as content without any basis in fact. Coupled with what continues to be high growth in smartphones and data consumption, there is a readymade foundation for the manipulation of information and news the closer we get to 2020.

The government’s reaction to this will be to set in motion mechanisms that monitor social media for content that seeks to inflame communal tensions, and spread rumours. This is both a danger and a false hope. The JO is decentralised, which is its power. It has access to sophisticated marketing and advertising firms that in turn have access to market research data, historical polling data down to polling division, psychometric profiles and sophisticated media monitoring mechanisms across all languages. There is an overarching strategy with decentralised execution – individuals and institutions follow a comprehensive strategic vision laid by a few architects, but aren’t micro-managed and are free to execute campaigns in support of campaign goals as best they see fit. Conversely, the government’s response will be highly centralised and by extension, inflexible. We will see a return to, albeit through an inversion, the kind of media output last seen late 2014 in the lead up to the Presidential election. It is the JO today better at messaging, not government. And all it has to do is to generate one of two things – an interest in registering opposition to government policies or by strengthening apathy, increasing the non-participation around referenda or elections. The government will most likely respond to what it cannot control by reverting to the same methods and tactics used in the past to suppress the spread of content. This in turn will backfire, leading to condemnation from within and outside of Sri Lanka. The JO will gain credibility.

The thing is, even knowing the contours of the threat doesn’t generate measurable interest from government in tackling it with the sophistication and urgency it merits. This must be the most laid back government in history, going into a contentious, historic referendum later in the year. There is no political leadership. There is no coherent plan around generating a Yes vote. There is no discernible strategy to counter moves to strengthen the No vote. It’s almost as if there is no real interest in the referendum itself. But for whatever reason may be a disinterest in this year’s plebiscite is no indicator of a similar attitude closer to 2020. The retention of power when confronted with the loss of political authority, given a zero-sum culture that defines our partisan politics, will invariably result in an unprecedented information war. This is evident even today. Take SAITM. The Hambantota Port. Mattala. The Port City project. The transitional justice agenda. The constitutional reform agenda. The one leitmotif across all these issues is confusion, a deluge of news and commentary with competing viewpoints, leading to frustration, anger and disengagement. There is a set of strategic architects behind all this, and it isn’t government. What in the short term are efforts to foster opposition to constitutional reform will seamlessly migrate into campaigns to secure power.

What’s sinister about what is otherwise a perfectly democratic and legitimate interest in re-election is the weaponisation of voters. Unable to critically question, fed up with non-delivery of promises, left out in decision making, talked down to by government, ignored by policies they can’t identify with, frustrated by a daily commute, unable to afford a basic food basket and fed instead with carefully engineered propaganda, the JO will aim to destabilise polity and society and in the ensuing chaos, offer a vision of calm, prosperity and stability – giving life to the popular expression that even with corruption, “there was something done and development you could see” under the Rajapaksa’s, not unlike the nostalgia today around the brutal Premadasa era.

The researcher in me is really interested in how this will all pan out. As a citizen, I am deeply fearful of what this will mean for the quality of our democracy. What is fertile ground for study is also the terrain for despair. The dynamics of 2014’s electoral campaigning are going to get more complex closer to 2020, and my fear is that Sri Lanka’s citizens aren’t ready or willing to critically engage. And that suits at least one power bloc in our country just fine.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 19 March 2017.

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