When a law is not the answer

Wonderful news said all the Sri Lankans. But why Queensland, all the Australians asked. Fifteen years ago, a Rotary World Peace Fellowship award offered seven universities around the world to undertake a Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies. I chose the University of Bradford. I was awarded a place at the University of Queensland, in Brisbane. I didn’t complain. The scholarship was a chance to get out of Sri Lanka and rigorously study what I had till then done on the ground, at a time when violent conflict dynamics were, after some years of relative calm, rising rapidly. My Australian friends, however, were concerned that I would face in Queensland a degree of discrimination and intolerance they said I would never encounter in Sydney or Melbourne. I didn’t know enough to argue and expected the worst. After two years of extensive travel within the state and country, I returned to Sri Lanka experiencing very little along the lines I was warned about. Others though, at the same time, had a different experience – never physically violent, but far more verbally abusive. For them and I, this othering was at the margins of society. Well over a decade ago and without social media, violent extremism and ideology had to be actively sought after to be engaged with. Racism wasn’t digitally dispersed.

It is with an enduring affection of Australia that I am deeply concerned about disturbing new legislation, passed hurriedly last week, which uses the terrorism in Christchurch to justify overbroad controls of social media. The central focus of my doctoral research at Otago University is technology as both a driver of violence and a deterrent. How, today, social media promotes hate or harm is well known and widely reported. As with any generalisation, though elements of truth exist, the simplification of a complex problem results in illegitimate targets of fear or anger. Social media companies, for their part, are irascibly unmoved by what for years those like me have warned them about, around the abuse of platforms by those who seek to profit from violence. Coherence and consistency in policies that respond to the seed and spread of violence are lacking and resisted. However, significant changes in stance, response and policies are coming. The terrorism in Christchurch is responsible for accelerating globally what was sporadically mentioned or implemented with regards to safeguards around the production and promotion of content inciting violence, hate and discrimination. However, we must resist what appear to be simple answers to complex challenges, whether it comes from governments or big technology companies.

Violent extremism has many drivers, both visible and hidden. It doesn’t bloom overnight. Social media, inextricably entwined in New Zealand’s socio-political, economic and cultural fabric as it is back home in Sri Lanka, cannot be blamed, blocked or banned in the expectation that everything will be alright thereafter. Driven by understandable concern around the dynamics of how the terrorism in Christchurch spread virally on social media, the Australian legislation – rushed through in just two days without any meaningful public debate, independent scrutiny or critical input – doesn’t address root causes of terrorism, extremism or discrimination.

Amongst other concerns and though it sounds very good, holding social media companies and content providers criminally liable for content is a very disturbing template and precedent. American corporate entities are now required to oversee to a degree technically infeasible and humanly impossible, information produced on or spread through their services. This risks the imposition of draconian controls over what’s produced, judged by hidden indicators, with little independent oversight and limited avenues for appeal. As a global precedent, the law is even more harmful, allowing comparatively illiberal governments to project or portray as the protection of citizens, parochial laws essentially that stifle democratic dissent.

David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the freedom of expression, is also deeply concerned. In an official letter to the Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kaye stresses, amongst other more technical, procedural and legal points, the need for public review and proportionality, international legal obligations on the freedom of expression and imprecise wording in the law, which is entirely removed from how digital content is generated in society today, and by whom. And herein lies the danger for New Zealand too. Politicians, under pressure to respond meaningfully, need to assuage the fears of a grieving country through demonstrable measures. The tendency is to pick an easy target and push through solutions that look and sound strong. The underlying drivers of violence and conflict, however, simmer and fester. Measures taken to control and curtail gun ownership are welcome, and arguably, long overdue. Policymaking around social media, however, is a different problem set that cannot be as easily, or concretely, addressed.

This is not a submission to do nothing. Rather, it cautions against the understandable appeal of following the Australian response and law. Steps around the non-recurrence of domestic terrorism must certainly embrace aspects of social media regulation and related legislation. The public must be involved in this. We know already that social media reflects and refracts – mirroring values of consumers as well as, through ways academics are struggling to grasp fully, changing attitudes and perceptions of users over time. This requires governments to iteratively work with social media companies on checks and balances that systemically decrease violence in all forms.

Elsewhere in the world, politicians who know the least about social media seek to control it, and those who know more or better, often abuse it. Kiwis, led by PM Ardern’s government, have a historic opportunity to forge a response to terrorism – relevant and resonant globally – that incorporates how best government can work with technology companies to protect citizens from harm. Australia, with the best of intent, gets it very wrong. New Zealand, with a greater calling, must get it right.


This article was first published in the Otago Daily Times on 16 April 2019, under the title ‘A Historic Opportunity’.


Pulse points

Whether bound by country, city or community, the pulse of or, on Friday, the pain from a place like Christchurch can often be determined by the careful collection of social media updates published in the public domain. It is an interest in precisely this that brought me to New Zealand, where I study how Twitter and Facebook are integral to political communications and cycles of violence in Sri Lanka, my home. In South Asia, social media engagement drive attention towards or away from around key events, issues, individuals and institutions. Sport, religion, politics, elections and entertainment dominate content creation. The resulting conversations, to varying degrees, contest or cement opinions. Emotions drive engagement more than reasoned presentation or critical inquiry. Interestingly, though geographically distant and culturally distinct, a shared pattern of access and resulting behaviour on social media makes a younger demographic back home almost indistinguishable from their counterparts in New Zealand. This includes the heightened production of content on social media after an unexpected event.

Based on all this, I wasn’t surprised to discover that the violence in Christchurch last Friday generated a tsunami of content just over Twitter. In the hours and days after the killings, specific hashtags on Twitter captured a community grappling with trying to make sense of, and recover from, a scale and scope of violence unprecedented in its history. The study of this content – much of it extremely painful to read – offers a glimpse into how the violence in Christchurch resonated access the country, and far beyond.

Almost immediately after the first news reports of the killings, #christchurchmosqueshooting, #christchurchshooting, #christchurchterroristattack, #newzealandterroristattack and #christchurch started to trend on Twitter domestically. This means that content using one or more of these hashtags showed a dramatic increase over a short period. In just a day, around 85,000 tweets featured one or more of these hashtags. By the 16th, two other hashtags started to trend – #49lives and #theyareus. In just a day, these two hashtags generated close to 37,000 tweets. With a single tweet capturing 280 characters, I was curious as to what just over 34 million characters, in the first 24 hours after the killings in Christchurch, said about the event. This is not just of academic interest. Policymakers and others interested in or tasked with immediate response after a natural or man-made catastrophe can look at social media as a digital weathervane of public sentiment, crafting measures based on need, mood, reception or pushback.

When studied at scale, publicly shared content on social media is almost pathological. Key ideas, communities that assemble around specific individuals and content that goes viral can be gleaned through network science, which those like myself employ to understand key drivers and motivations behind content generation. This is easier to grasp by way of an example. Adil Shahzeb is in Islamabad, Pakistan and a television news presenter and host. And yet, on the 15th itself, he appears quite prominently in the content shared around the violence in Christchurch. This is, prima facie, utterly confusing. How can someone all the way in Pakistan become rapidly popular on Twitter around an event that happened in New Zealand? The answer is in a single tweet by Shahzeb, currently pinned to his Twitter profile, which identifies a man who tried to stop the killer as Naeem Rashid, with Pakistani origins. Rashid and his son Talha, the tweet noted, were tragically lost to the killer. This single tweet generated a considerable number of retweets and likes amongst those on Twitter, in both Pakistan and New Zealand. It is a similar story with Sunetra Choudhury, a Political Editor and journalist at NDTV, a popular Indian TV station. One of her tweets, featuring a clip of PM Ardern speaking to the affected community in Christchurch on Saturday, was viewed close to half a million times. The responses to the tweet, almost all from India, feature an overwhelming appreciation of the New Zealand PM’s political leadership. These are two great examples of how empathy, shock and solidarity – here expressed in Urdu, Hindi and English – were able to cross vast geographies in a very short span of time.

Another way to get a sense of what’s being discussed is to analyse the substance of the tweet. Through what’s called a word cloud, words used more frequently can be rendered to appear larger than other words used less frequently. This process ends up with a visual map of the conversational terrain that affords the closer study of specific terms. Different hashtags feature different word clusters, but across all of them, Muslim, condemns, reject, Muslims, victims, terrorist, mentally, deranged, mosque, name, remembering, grotesque, white, supremacist and love feature prominently. The thrust, timbre and tone of tweets that feature these words are overwhelmingly empathetic and ranges from the profoundly sad to the outraged. By way of a loose comparison, when awful violence directed against the Muslim community broke out in Sri Lanka almost exactly a year ago, public sentiment I studied on Twitter at the time didn’t feature anything remotely akin to the levels of solidarity and support channelled towards the Muslim community in New Zealand, since last Friday.

What academics call a ‘platform affordance’ is more simply known to all Twitter users as a mention. Prefacing an account with the @ symbol ensures that on Twitter, a specific account is notified of a tweet. This is also used to direct a tweet towards a specific recipient or group. Unsurprisingly, PM Ardern, the Australian PM, the American President and controversial Australian Senator Fraser Anning are amongst those referenced the most over the first 24 hours. #49lives started trending on the 6th, generating nearly 17,000 tweets in a single day. The instigator of the hashtag is American. Khaled Beydoun is a Professor of Law based in Detroit, Michigan and a published author on Islamophobia. It is perhaps this academic interest that drove him to create #49lives, reflecting the number that at the time was the official toll of those killed in Christchurch. Beydoun’s tweet, pinned to his profile, has generated an astonishing level of engagement – from New Zealand as well as globally. Liked nearly 146,000 times, retweeted just over 89,000 times and generated around 1,700 responses to date, the tweet prefigures PM Ardern’s assertion in New Zealand’s Parliament that she will not ever speak the killer’s name. “I don’t know the terrorist’s name. Nor do I care to know it.” avers Beydoun’s tweet, which also asks to remember stories around and celebrate the lives of the victims. #theyareus generated just over 20,000 tweets by the 16th, but the sentiment or phrase is anchored to a tweet by PM Ardern made on the 15th. In a tweet liked 132,000 times and retweeted 40,000 times to date, she noted that “many of those affected will be members of our migrant communities – New Zealand is their home – they are us.” However, it was two heartfelt tweets by Sam Neill, a businessman from Central Otago, that kick-started the hashtag trend. Speaking out against white supremacism and in solidarity with the Muslim community in New Zealand, Neill’s two tweets, published consecutively on the 15th and 16th, have cumulatively generated nearly 27,000 likes, 4,200 retweets and 300 responses to date.

In sum, a cursory top-level study of the nearly 85,000 tweets generated in the 24 hours after the violence on Friday shows a global community outraged or dismayed at terrorism, an outpouring of love, empathy and solidarity, engagement that spans many continents and languages, addressing prominent politicians and journalists, featuring hundreds of smaller communities anchored to individuals based in New Zealand and beyond tweeting in a manner overwhelmingly supportive of the Muslim community.

The Twitter data underscores the value of studying public sentiment on social media in the aftermath of a tragedy. Social media provides pulse points. Framed by moments in time and driven by an understanding of, amongst other things, context, technology, access and language, the study of content in the public domain often helps in ascertaining how violence migrates from digital domains to physical, kinetic expression. Christchurch offers the world another lesson, a glimpse of which I wanted to capture here. Just as social media helps extremist ideology take seed and grow, it also helps in healing, empathy, gestures of solidarity, expressions of unity, the design of conciliatory measures and the articulation of grief and sympathy. The admiration, bordering on adulation, PM Ardern has received since Friday for her political leadership on just Twitter alone indicates that New Zealand is already seen as a template for how a country can and should respond to terrorism. These are more than just ephemeral in nature. Long after the world has moved on to the next news cycle, domestic conversations around what happened in Christchurch will endure on social media. Understanding how these ideas, anxieties and aspirations grow and spread lie at the heart of measures, over the long-term, that address extremism, racism, terrorism and prejudice, in all forms.

Sanjana Hattotuwa is a PhD student at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (NCPACS), University of Otago. This article was first published on 21 March 2019 on Scoop New Zealand.

The infamy engines

Coming out of a long meeting, the first I heard of the violence in Christchurch was from those in Sri Lanka who had got breaking news alerts. I was both very disturbed and extremely intrigued. Terrorism as popular theatre or spectacle is not new, and some academics would argue is a central aim of terrorists, who want their acts recorded and relayed, not redacted or restrained. The use of social media to promote and incite hate, violence and prejudice is also not new. From ISIS to politicians elected into office through populist, prejudiced campaigns, social media is foundational in contemporary terrorist recruitment and political propaganda. What events in Christchurch last Friday brought to light was something entirely different, new and very unlikely to be resolved easily or quickly. The killer’s intentional use of the internet will have far longer reaching implications, requiring significant, urgent reform around the governance of large social media platforms as well as oversight mechanisms, including regulations, on parent companies.

Though Facebook New Zealand, Google and Twitter all issued statements hours after the attack that they were working with the New Zealand Police to take down content associated with the attack, the content had by then spread far and wide across the web. The video moved from platform to platform, edited, freeze-framed, downloaded off public streams which risked being taken down and then re-uploaded to private servers, which in turn served up the video to thousands more. As Washington Post journalist Drew Harwell noted, “The New Zealand massacre was live-streamed on Facebook, announced on 8chan, reposted on YouTube, commentated about on Reddit, and mirrored around the world before the tech companies could even react”. The challenge is significant because of the scale of the platforms, with billions of users each creating or consuming vast amounts of content every second. Managing the platforms is now largely algorithmic, meaning that only machines can cope with the scale and scope of content produced every second. There are serious limitations to this approach. Terrorists know and now increasingly exploit it, weaponising the unending global popularity of social media to seed and spread their ideology in ways that no existing form of curtailment, containment or control can remotely compete with. And that’s partly because of the way algorithms tasked with oversight of content are trained, which is entirely opaque. It is entirely probable that algorithms trained to detect signs of radical Islamic terrorism are incapable of flagging a similar violent ideology or intent promoted in English, anchored to the language and symbolism of white supremacism or fascism.

In March 2018, Facebook’s Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Mike Schroepfer noted that the company was using artificial intelligence (AI) to police its platform, and that it was “fairly effective” in distinguishing and removing “gore and graphic violence”. Last Friday’s killings highlight the risible falsity of this claim. Hours after the killings, dozens of videos featuring the same grisly violence as the original live stream were on Facebook. One had generated 23,000 views an hour, with nearly 240,000 seeing it. Though Facebook notes it blocked 1.5 million videos in the days after the killings from being uploaded, it has tellingly withheld statistics on how many the original live stream reached or why 300,000 related videos were not identified soon after upload, which means they too were viewed – even for a short time – by hundreds of thousands. And this isn’t the first time graphic, wanton violence has resided on the platform for hours before it was taken down, by which time, the strategic aim and intention of producers have been met. The problem doesn’t end there. Neal Mohan, YouTube’s Chief Product Officer, is on record saying how Christchurch brought the company’s moderation and oversight to its knees. Unable to deal with tens of thousands of videos spawned across its platform that showed the grisly killings – one every second at its peak. In two unprecedented moves for the company based on the severity of the challenge, his team decided to block search functionality that allows users to search recent uploads and also completely bypass human moderation, trusting even with the possibility of false positives, content possibly linked to the violence in Christchurch flagged by its algorithmic agents. Mohan has no final fix. The company just has no better way – even in the foreseeable future – to deal with another incident of this nature. Terrorists simply have the upper hand.

The Christchurch killer knew this and used it to his advantage. He won’t be the last. The appeal to internet subcultures, famous personalities, memes, the very choice of music, expressions, gestures and popular references are a new argot of communications intentionally designed to use online cultures as means to amplify and promote violent ideology (called red-pilling). At the same time, malevolent producers can almost entirely bypass existing controls and checks on the distribution of such material. The scale of social media is the hook, with the inability to oversee and inadequacies around governance, weaponised. Academics call this a wicked problem – a challenge that is so hard that even partial responses to any single aspect or facet increase the levels of complexity, often exponentially.

Generating greater friction around the production, promotion and spread of content is not in the interests of social media companies, who will continue to maintain – not without some merit – that billions of users producing vast amounts of mundane yet popular content daily is what primarily drives research and development. Read profits. Not without some irony, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg wrote in 2018 a glowing tribute to New Zealand’s Prime Minister in Time magazine’s list of 100 ‘Most Influential People’. After PM Ardern noted that the live streaming of the grisly killings would be an issue she takes up with the company and perhaps mortified that this incident will strengthen calls around more robust regulation in the US, Sandberg had reached out after the violence, though it is unclear with what intent or assurances.

This rough sketch of the context I locate my doctoral studies in masks far greater complexity, anchored to community, culture, context and country. What is true of social media Sri Lanka, my home and the central focus of my research, doesn’t always hold sway in New Zealand. There are however strange parallels. Repeated warnings around the weaponisation of Facebook to incite hate and violence, since 2014, went entirely unacknowledged by the company until severe communal riots almost exactly a year ago. In Myanmar, the company’s platforms were flagged by the United Nations as those that helped produce, normalise and spread violence against Muslims. Till 2018, the company did little to nothing to address this, despite warnings and ample evidence from local organisations. YouTube’s recommendation engine – the crucial algorithm that presents content that may interest you – has long since and openly been flagged as extremely problematic, beguilingly guiding users towards far-right radicalisation. The Christchurch killer’s release of a 74-page document before his rampage shows an acute understanding of how all this works, by transforming tired conspiracy into highly desirable material through strategic distribution just before an act that serves as the accelerant to infamy.

Alex Stamos, the former Chief Security Officer at Facebook, posted in the aftermath of Christchurch a sobering reminder of just why this violence goes viral. He notes that the language used, links provided and even excerpts of the violent video broadcast by news media only served to pique interest in the killer’s original document and full video. This is a disturbing information ecology where content produced by terrorists cannot be taken down easily or quickly because the surge of interest generated around discovery and sharing will overwhelm attempts to delete and contain. If this is the world we now inhabit and by using social media, contribute to cementing, the questions directed at companies and governments may be better directed at ourselves. How many of us searched for the video, and shared it? How many of us, without having any reason to, searched for, read and shared the killer’s document? If we cannot control our baser instinct, then we become part of the problem. The terrorists are counting on this, and us, to succeed. We should not let them win.


Sanjana Hattotuwa is a PhD student at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (NCPACS), University of Otago. This article was first published on Stuff New Zealand on 20 March 2019.

Terrorism in Aotearoa

Do you love New Zealand, asked the extremely inebriated young white man and his companion as they suddenly blocked my path at the Octagon, a few weeks after I arrived in Dunedin. Of all the people on the sidewalk at the time, I noticed they only followed me for a while. Not knowing quite how to respond, I said affably that I liked what I had seen so far. Entirely uninterested in my answer, coming closer and with their bodies and fingers arching towards me, they said that they were willing to die for New Zealand and that I needed to know this. Recalling a poet from Sri Lanka who in verse noted that it was far better to live for one’s country, I decided just to smile somewhat incredulously. Satisfied that whatever point they had wanted to make had got through to me, they left and lunged into a wine and beer shop.

Claims of New Zealand’s innocence lost after Friday’s attack in Christchurch need to be tempered with stories that abound around how those who are perceived to be different to or somehow not Kiwi are subject to, every day, the language and looks of condescension, incomprehension and suspicion. Not noticing this othering or not being subject to it is the privilege of those who are, and are seen to be Caucasian and Kiwi. New Zealand is isolated by geography but despite popular belief isn’t as exceptional to be immune from ingrained prejudice and latent racism. Especially in the light of the strong political leadership responding to the attack last Friday in Christchurch, endeavouring to define New Zealand as multicultural and diverse, the acknowledgement of any underlying bias amongst society is arguably hard. Some may argue it is an insensitive or inopportune moment to raise systemic issues, when the more urgent need is to respond to an episode of wanton violence. An argument can be made to pursue both, recognising that longer-term policymaking requires the unearthing of deep-seated anxieties.

I came to the University of Otago to study the role, reach and relevance of social media in political communication. My research is primarily based on Sri Lanka, where I come from and call home. Friday’s events have resulted in the frames and foci of my research, directed more to a city, community and country I never expected would be a primary site of study or analysis. This is personally jarring, but not entirely surprising. White supremacism and fascism, when those terms are employed, are frightening concepts and unfathomable to most. But fear of strangers is more common. It is also  shared, present both amongst communities in New Zealand and those who are new immigrants. When channels to address this fear aren’t present – through robust dialogue, sustained interaction, education or official policy – alternative vectors of information come into play and take root. Bizarre but compelling conspiracy theories, demonisation and othering thrive online, amplifying our worst fears by mutating legitimate sources of grievance or anxiety into vast communal or civilizational faultlines, perverting over time any appreciation of diversity and demos.

A document uploaded to the Internet by the killer – a self-proclaimed fascist – is instructive reading on this score. First, the language is simple and clear, even if and indeed, particularly because, the logic is so twisted. The entirely subjective and strategically selective are presented as indubitable fact and authoritative history. Existential concerns about the economy, jobs, and particularly important for New Zealand, the environment, are posited as those immigrants and Muslims, in particular, are to blame for. Islam is singled out as a violent religion. Various purported features of the Muslim community are defined as significant threats to a way of life that predates their problematic, polluting entry. Though the document is anchored to right-wing extremism, what’s remarkable is in how much of it resonates with the anti-Muslim rhetoric spewed by extreme Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist monks in Sri Lanka, and their equivalent in Myanmar. The targets of hate are the same. The unborn, women, children and men, brick and mortar structures as well as Islam itself are identified as threats that need to be eliminated – urgently and everywhere – for the greater good and the survival of a more exalted and antecedent culture, congregation or community.

Aside from the physical and kinetic, the process of othering also happens at scale when communities – and especially the young – are divorced from any direct engagement with diversity yet increasingly connected over social media. In the absence of meaningful interaction between diverse groups, faiths, genders or identities, clusters of the like-minded form online, almost immediately putting up high-barriers to inflows of opinion, information and perspectives that contest or question widely held assumptions. Over time, the illusion of diversity based on only the smallest of divergence supplants a more open discussion that embraces radically different ideas. Author Eli Pariser warned us about this many years ago, noting how algorithmically, our social media accounts feed us what we want to see, instead of what we need to engage with. It is online and by careful design that Friday’s fascist found his most receptive audience. As Washington Post journalist Drew Harwell noted, “The New Zealand massacre was live-streamed on Facebook, announced on 8chan, reposted on YouTube, commentated about on Reddit, and mirrored around the world before the tech companies could even react”. Policymakers who may not even recognise some of the platforms here have a steep learning curve ahead. New Zealand authorities must now pivot an existing intelligence apparatus geared to hone in on the projected threat of Islamic radicalisation, to as or more adroitly pick up signals around the very real presence and rapid spread of white supremacist ideology.

Which begs the question – should the response to Friday be primarily one that is anchored to national security? Coming from Sri Lanka, I sincerely hope not. In my country, legislation purportedly drafted to prevent counter-terrorism has resulted in a convenient framework for successive governments that condones extrajudicial torture and the rampant abuse of human rights, for decades. The slow erosion of civic rights begins, invisibly, with the emotional appeals to protect all citizens or certain groups from violence. And the very technologies that help with identifying threats are also turnkey solutions that increase surveillance. The necessary balance between proportional responses to new and increasing threats and the protection of civil liberties has escaped Sri Lanka, where more parochial and communal interests have held sway. New Zealand’s story, in the months and years to come, must not be this.

Flagged and framed in my social media accounts since Friday is the contrast between a moral and political leadership so visibly present here, yet markedly absent in other countries after a cataclysmic event of this nature, including my own. Terrorism of this scale, speed and scope is new here. Many of who come to and seek refuge in New Zealand are no strangers to much worse and for a lot longer. But what is both remarkably different and since Friday, reassuring, is the language employed by and actions of this country’s political leadership. Faced with an unprecedented loss of life, all official responses – without exception – were anchored to denouncing extremism and fringe lunacy, not communities and faiths present in, or part of, New Zealand. Ironically, it may not even be recognized as exceptional by those living here, but it is precisely that for those of us who are more used to, tired of and frustrated with politicians who are in effect as racist as the terrorists and terrorism they often seek to denounce.

Though profoundly distressed by the events of Friday, I am hopeful that the tragedy will result in local and national conversations which lead to, through policy and practice, social, political and cultural templates for other countries to emulate in responding to, and preventing, terrorism. The encounter at the Octagon fresh into my sojourn in Dunedin was not the only time I have been subject to wary looks and violent language. It is worse for others, identified as belonging to a faith or community that is feared more. The pain of acknowledging this is – more than or at least alongside revisions to legislation around gun ownership – a necessary step towards a country that may never be able to prevent terrorism, but always sees it as entirely alien to its core values, beliefs and principles rooted in decency, dignity, diversity and democracy.


Sanjana Hattotuwa is the Founding Editor of Groundviews. He is currently pursuing doctoral studies at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (NCPACS), University of Otago. An edited version of this article was published in The Otago Daily Times on 20 March 2019.

Manchurian Candidates

Novelist Richard Condon’s political thriller ‘The Manchurian Candidate’, written in 1959, deals with two central characters, both of whom are brainwashed through what’s often now called psychological operations or psy-ops for short. One character is programmed to kill based on a trigger – which in the novel is something as innocuous as the Queen of Diamonds card. Whenever the character sees the card or is shown it, he obeys orders, deeply uncharacteristic and extremely violent, which he does not consciously recollect. Condon’s novel resonates more in 2018 and amongst a broader population, than at any time since its publication.

We are all Manchurian Candidates. Reacting emotively to things we see online, many of us immediately put into words or action what we feel, instead of thinking through what a more reasoned response should and can be. Sometimes, and especially fed misinformation over time, this leads to violence by those who never knew they would be drawn to it. Knowing and gleaning information on socio-political triggers can vastly help destabilise any political context – no matter how seemingly stable it appears to be – to an extent where the promise of security, stability and sanity is enough currency to elect even those previously deemed unsuitable for public office. Conversely, inconvenient histories and truths no longer need the murder of journalists or the burning of printing presses to suppress or erase. Vast sections of polity and society can today, over a relatively short period of time be manipulated and mobilised to drown out, decry, deny or violently destroy narratives too explosive to be written into history. Perversely, those seeking or speaking the truth are the most vilified. Those who deny facts are perceived or projected instead as bearers of truth. Weaponising a combination of high adult literacy and low media literacy, social media in particular is leveraged to spread rumour and stoke anxiety, in ways that even many discerning citizens can’t easily distinguish as propaganda or sophisticated psy-ops.

This is no longer the sole domain of fiction or Hollywood. It’s real. It’s happening. And it will grow.

The extent of the problem is worth capturing, even in passing. Every year, Adobe, the makers of the eponymous photo-manipulation programme Photoshop, stage a massive conference, aimed at leading designers, programmers, architects, journalists, artists and others from across the world. Over the past two years, technologies they have demonstrated, which will in a few years or less be part of Photoshop and other programmes they make, have featured technologies that are absolutely fascinating and positively frightening in equal measure. Videos that manipulate the mouth and face of the person on screen and in real time to say whatever you want them to say. Audio that can be manipulated using the same voice as the speaker who is recorded, to say anything you want said. Images that can turn a sunny day into a winter storm. In sum, media digitally doctored so well, it is indistinguishable even to trained eyes from fact. All of this have huge commercial and creative applications of course – which is why they are being developed. But the implications of their use – inevitably and almost immediately – in political communications has very dangerous consequences.

Add to this suite of technologies the increasingly sophisticated attacks on electoral infrastructure, siphoning vital information, manipulating records, doctoring results on polls and elections, undermining public trust and confidence. The garnish on this nightmarish scenario is fake news, a term used and abused so much, it has lost its ability to capture the phenomenon it set out to capture – digital propaganda. The generation of narratives as smear campaigns against political opponents isn’t new. What’s new is the way in which digital content is being targeted at voters – right down to the neighbourhoods they live in, what they buy and from where, to which God they pray and what news media they consume. This laser focus is complemented by the manipulation of fear. Framed and fuelled by sophisticated media campaigns that often produce seemingly amateurish, emotive output geared for mass appeal, these fears metastasize over time to deeply influence thinking, behaviour and responses. An election today is won or lost well before the exercise of franchise at the ballot box.

We are talking about the hacking of minds. And this isn’t science fiction.

The revelations last week by the UK broadcaster Channel 4 into the inner workings of the company Cambridge Analytica reveal a world that in Sri Lanka, many don’t even know exists. In January, data scientist Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and I revealed the degree to which Namal Rajapaksa had weaponised his Twitter account, to an extent where those who questioned his chutzpah, hypocrisy or humbug where viciously attacked over social media. It’s a different kind of censorship or silencing at play here. Think of a pirith chant or a choir in Church. Now think of either at a volume so great, everything else is drowned out. Imagine this happening over extended periods of time. In turning sublime harmony to sustained cacophony, vital narratives are erased before they are even recorded. This is what the weaponisation of social media achieves to critical public discourse. When Wijeratne and I warned about all this happening in Sri Lanka, there were those who scoffed at the idea. And yet, the Channel 4 investigation was a sting operation anchored to a “rich Sri Lankan family”, an entirely fictitious construct which tellingly was enough to galvanise the sustained interest of a company which is not in the business of meeting clients who represent markets it cannot exploit, have hard data on or make a good sell in. That Cambridge Analytica was so interested in Sri Lanka and spoke about what they have done elsewhere – including in the Trump campaign – to a prospective Sri Lankan client – speaks volumes to the degree our electorate, electoral systems, polity and society are valuable to them and by extension vulnerable to psy-ops, at scale.

This then is our new political reality, globally and locally. We are living in a time where a tectonic shift has already occurred. Mediators of the public will – technology companies from Silicon Valley almost entirely unaccountable to governments, are new platforms of democratic dialogue as well as demagogic destruction. The platforms and the companies that own them, in their own defence, say they mere vehicles of public opinion and do little to nothing to amplify individual narratives. This is a risible lie at algorithmic, managerial, political and platform design levels.  But the most visible harm these platforms engender come in the form of companies like Cambridge Analytica, who harvest social media, not through data breach or hacking, but by careful logging, targeting, observation and analysis. They monetise and weaponise, by brokering vast amounts of private data, the very likes, shares, retweets, emoticons and comments we send each other, billions of times a day, every day. They do this invisibly – like ghosts, a word senior management of Cambridge Analytica actually use in the Channel 4 documentary to describe how they do what they do.

How then do we protect ourselves, and restore public faith in a truly democratic dialogue and the legitimacy of electoral processes? No quick fix or panacea, sadly. A public conversation – urgent, honest and sustained – needs to happen between government, technology giants and civil society, around ways through which the worst abuse of technology can be mitigated. This needs to be global and local. Media and information literacy needs to be part of school curricula. Our children need to be taught how to engage with media, in ways as adults, we were never warned against, through technologies we never had growing up and many still don’t understand. Fear can motivate the search for responses but must never overtake a democratic impulse or inform policies that censoriously regulate. We – you and I – are at the heart of the problem. Every like, heart, share, retweet, email, star, comment on or story we tell others we first saw on social media, is often to promote – consciously or unwittingly – sinuous lies or rumours that fuel fear and violence.

To reflect first, not react in haste and to question in order to quell are the keys to unravelling our world of misinformation. Cambridge Analytica, Facebook and others like them treat us as pawns in a game of their making. An informed citizenry and consumer can and must change this. There is no task more important, to my mind, than this.


First published in The Sunday Observer, 22 March 2018, at the invitation of the Editor, Dharisha Bastians.

College as it was then, and continues to be

Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.

An invitation from the Head Prefect to submit an article to the College Magazine is not one that can be refused easily or taken lightly. I last wrote to the magazine in the mid-90’s, before taking over as Editor. That’s before many who will read this were even born. Some of the technologies used in the magazine’s production then would be alien to those in charge of it today. I did the final version of an article on a typewriter, with freshly purchased ribbon so that the ink would be uniform and dark. I then shifted to WordPerfect, a programme and format that’s now entirely defunct. All the drafts were handwritten. The type-setting was done at the printers, which meant we had to meticulously go through proofs and mark on the margins everything that needed to be corrected, edited and adjusted.

The writing of, amongst others, leading public figures, lawyers, entrepreneurs, speakers, businessmen, activists and researchers today can be found in the pages of the College magazine at the time. The topics were diverse, ranging from science, technology, politics, literature and contemporary developments to more subject specific content or those based on personal experience. Satire was encouraged, and no one was spared. Allow me to recall one incident. In an article penned by me under a pseudonym, Coll Cops and even teachers at the time, loved or reviled, were taken apart by reference to Dryden’s poetry and the wider cannon of English literature. No real names were mentioned, but characteristic traits, phrases, mannerisms and behaviour served to identify the victims of an acerbic wit. A day after the magazine was out, the late Neville de Alwis, the Warden at the time, called me to his office. The Warden never once asked to see the final proof of a magazine before it went to print, but was invariably held accountable for its content. Knowing full well why he wanted to see me, I wanted to his office not without some dread. Magazine in hand, he inquired as to why I wrote what I did, because he had entertained complaints from the targets of my satire that they had been made fun of, and that too, in the College magazine, read by parents and old boys. I said it was essential to question those who taught us and were office bearers in school, because to obey authority without question ran against the very ethos of College. And that, I said, is what I thought makes a good Thomian. After a brief pause and another glance at the article, addressing me by my surname, Bakka (as Warden de Alwis was fondly or fearfully called at the time) cautioned me against riling the teachers and senior Prefects any further, but said he would stand by the piece. I never heard anything from him again on the issue, and I never knew what pushback he had to face from teachers and others around the content I had written and published. Even after this incident, he never once asked to see final proofs of the magazine before it went to print. Warden, and College – beyond just the brick and mortar of buildings, but the very spirit of our institution – instilled in us the belief that to truly learn, one needed to question. That one could be brutal with ideas and their contestation, but kind with people and their beliefs. That there was no one, and nothing, above questioning. And though none of us realised it at the time, to be entrusted with great responsibility at a young age was its own lesson – that once asked to be in charge of something, you took the blame and fall, but allowed others and College to take the credit for all that was good and great. Warden’s approach of entrusting students with responsibility, taking their side whenever they were not in the wrong, and non-interference in work, are lessons many of us have internalised and now define how we work.

College was the foundation of what we do, and who we are. And it was this light touch of guidance and freedom, or inspiration and education – beyond and often in spite of boring syllabi – that defined our time at S. Thomas’. This is also why it is so difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t gone to College why it is so fundamentally different to other schools – no less prestigious and staffed by those no less devoted to learning and education. College teaches life lessons without setting out to do so, and most of those lessons are learnt outside the classroom – in what we do, say and write in the fourteen years we spend in school.

I realise though things are different today. When I left College, the Computer Room still had Commodore 64’s, hooked up to individual TV screens. There was no broadband, and the cacophony of connecting to the Internet over dial-up was a dead giveaway that you were going to surf the web. Social media hadn’t been invented. There were no smartphones. There was no Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vimeo or YouTube. There was no Android or iPhone. No WhatsApp or any other instant messaging service. CellTell sponsored live updates at the Roy-Tho in the mid-90’s, and I was in charge of calling in the scores after every over on Motorola that was the size of a small car battery and about as heavy.

The advent and ubiquitous availability of technology, many in College and outside it fear, dilutes our values and principles, diverts our attention, divests education to various virtual agents and damages the fabric of school, especially for sentimental old fools – nay, boys – who never fail to note that things were much better in their time. Is that true? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Boys in College who read this know better than their parents the trappings and distractions of social media. They also know how useful it can be, and how community, friendship, camaraderie and Thomian grit have virtual connections as strong, and as real, as the physical bonds in College. The current Warden, on Facebook, is a beacon of our essential values, to all those who follow his updates. The Head Prefect of College, who I’ve followed for a long time on Instagram, doesn’t appear to be in the least bit corrupted or distracted by his use of the photo sharing platform. We tend latch on to every single instance and story about the misuse or abuse of social media, but fail to recognise that these are the exceptions. Whether in a classroom and with books, in Chapel arguing with fellow debaters, in the College Hall during Current Affairs, at the library checking out books, in the playing field, swimming pool, scrum or pitch, at kumite or cricket, as fourth man or Number Eight, as Captain or coxswain, buying sweets from Kāti or playing carom at the Cop Shed, we learnt lessons in behaviour, civility, queuing up, sportsmanship, humility in victory, grace in defeat, respect without genuflection, freedom of thought, the courage to uphold our convictions, a fierce independence of spirit, the importance of meritocracy over anything else and the value of a liberal worldview. We were given space to fail, lose and make mistakes. We were told that the greatest lessons College had to impart was not from the syllabi we had to memorise and regurgitate at exams, but in how we treated one another. And all this both predates social media and is also present in them, by virtue of how the platforms of used by those in College. I wouldn’t worry too much about technology corrupting young minds – you know better!

It is customary for an article of this nature, by an old-Thomian and former Editor to boot to offer words of advice to those in College today. I have absolutely nothing of the sort to offer. I know nothing of your lives, and how you live them. Your choices are your own, and you will reap the benefits or suffer the consequences of what you do, in College, outside it, and when you have left it. Sri Lanka today offers one great lesson – that you can cheat, lie, kill, insult, rape, plot and force your way to positions of wealth and power. The very values held sacred at S. Thomas’ are those jettisoned the first in the pursuit of fame and fortune. You can opt to do the same. You may also opt to do something different. All the Thomians who have remained my close friends are those who have taken the less travelled road. There are gifted lawyers who instead of commercial law, focus on human rights or constitutional reform. There are photographers, who are highly paid for their commercial work, but whose heart is in social activism and the capture of injustice or environmental devastation. There are those who have embraced their sexuality, and knowing they are gay, bisexual or transgender, now help others deal with the incredible cruelty meted out by an intolerant society against those who fail to somehow conform. There are award winning thespians, who help others through acting to discover their full potential. There are those who have braved death threats to stay on Sri Lanka and create institutions that have in turn attracted other Thomians to its fold, to strengthen our democracy.

Arguably, other schools also have illustrious alumni. So, what makes an old boy of College any different? There is an apocryphal story of how a Royalist would walk down a road, thinking he owns it, and how a Thomian would walk down one, not caring who did. The essential irreverence in College, which is its own tradition, is what makes you exceptional, and also, well suited to take on challenges across a myriad of disciplines. More than anything else, what would concern me the most about College would be if the careful mix of irreverence and respect was upset by either by annoying progressives who feel there was little need for tradition, or conversely, by mawkish conservatives who feel there is nothing to be gained by embracing modernity. More than the Warden and teachers, you are responsible for maintaining this careful balance. It’s what you do that defines College – how you present yourself and behave at mall or match, just as much as what you write at an exam. It’s about taking pride in being a Thomian, but not allowing that to gloss over what is wrong in College, and with College. It’s about speaking out and stepping up, no matter who or what age you are. Importantly, it is about how we treat others who aren’t Thomians – including girls and women. How we see, talk to and treat them – friend or foe – defines us. And the worst we can be is to be to those who, for whatever reason, hate us, what they are and seek to do to us.

What more can or should I say? It’s easy to romanticise our time in College, and tellingly, this almost often is articulated in a manner that places us in a superior position to other boys schools. Saying we are better than others doesn’t make it so. What we do matters. How we speak matters. What we believe in matters. How we deal with difference and adversity, matters. How and who we choose to love matters. Me telling you this may not matter. But you understanding the value of it for yourself, does matter. And that’s what, for me, College does. It doesn’t care a toss about who you are or where you came from. It treats with equal contempt and love, everyone. Everyone has a fair go at everything. With over fifty extra-curricular activities, societies and clubs, it’s not just cricket, rugger and exams that define College life. It’s a Christian school, but it’s not a Christian faith that defines it. It’s an exclusive, private school many who rant against it secretly wish they went to, but mindless elitism isn’t what is taught inside it. We grew up fighting with, fiercely loyal to, loving or hating our classmates or teammates not because they were Tamil, Muslim, Burgher, rich or poor. We saw them, and they saw us, only as Thomians.

That’s something rare, which you will only more fully realise when you leave both this magazine and College behind. We see the world differently to others, because College is a wonderful, verdant space – in my time, before my time as well as now – that doesn’t differentiate or treat students based on their identity, faith or last name. What results, for those who imbibe the prodigious opportunities for learning and growth in College, is a rare breed – a cosmopolitan, liberal gentleman.

Be proud you are one of them.

Esto Perpetua!


Published in the S. Thomas’ College magazine, Term 1-3, 2017, Vol CXL Nos 1-3

Letter to Ceylon Today on Right to Information interview

Sent the following to Editor and journalist, from Ceylon Today, who interviewed me.


An interview with me conducted by Shaahidah on the Right to Information is published in CT today. I have only read the web version and assume the article is exactly the same in print in terms of substance.

Disappointment, dismay and ultimately, disgust come close to capturing my reaction at reading this article in the morning. I am disappointed because Shaahidah seemed to be, more than most, knowledgeable about the country’s tryst with RTI, leading up to the debate on the 23rd and 24th. I was dismayed by some of what was written around what I said, which was either totally inaccurate or misrepresented me to a degree that is unpardonable. I was disgusted, recognising this article reflects what is really a more endemic problem with mainstream media – which can be distilled to a lack of professionalism and professional standards.

The trouble starts with the bizarre choice of a headline, which doesn’t remotely approximate anything I said and indeed, runs completely counter to what I submitted and ended the interview on. It suggests a very negative outcome of RTI, which is completely opposite to what I believe and have worked towards.

There are sentences like “Thus the fanfare of instilling transparency and democracy in society by way of this Bill has led to significant concerns of many socio-political advocates within the civil society who feel that the government is not prepared to deliver what it promises through the Bill, albeit the Bill is well drafted” which are too numerous to mention, that are grammatically as confused as Gotabaya was around democratic governance back in the day. In sum, they should not have passed muster with any decent Copy or Sub Editor.

Sentences like “”Personally, I would like to see much more discussion of the RTI Bill which is actually a very strong document. In terms of technicality, there are many aspects which can be improved upon. Many of us including Transparency International, Centre for Law and Democracy, Canada, and CPA itself mentioned this to the government. Particularly in the mainstream media, especially in Sinhala, a public discussion of the RTI Bill is important.” place in the middle of one argument, which is around the lack of discussion of RTI, something entirely separate and distinct from it, which is around the technical aspects of the Bill. This ends up confusing the reader, and isn’t reflective of what I noted, or how I noted it.

Sentences like “The whistle-blower protection is weak, but it needs to be in the context of the Bill.” completely and utterly misrepresent what I said. I said that the whistleblower protection needs to be seen in context, and emphatically not that it needs to be weak in the context of the Bill. The two are very different things!

Sentences like “It’s like upgrading your operative system. You retain your data and documents but the whole thing involves significant backing of information.” are utterly meaningless. It bastardises what I said, and there is no such thing as an “operative system”, which means Shaahidah is also guilty of conjuring up terms that have no basis in fact.

Sentences like “It is important to ask questions. Jurisprudence of a country is made not because of a case is successful, but because it’s not successful” again completely misrepresents what I said. I emphatically did not say that jurisprudence is increased through only unsuccessful legal cases, which Shaahidah notes.

What is, to me, totally bizarre is that this interview was recorded. One would imagine this significantly increased the accuracy of sourcing and quoting, though in this case, it seemed to have had the opposite effect. I would have deeply appreciated Shaahidah running by me the quotes she intended to use. This was also not done.

I find it both so very disappointing and disturbing that a mainstream newspaper like CT can get away with such shoddy reporting. Be assured, I will not be speaking to any of your journalists in the future, and if invited, will only ever interact in the future through email in the belief, I hope very much is not entirely unfounded, that the comprehension of the written word at CT may be more than the spoken.