The demographic divide

Aside from enduring popularity with most dogs (cats being entirely inscrutable), I do very well in two demographics – those between 2 and 10 and those over 65.

Children find me, as I often see them, infinitely interesting. I am an adult who in their company becomes a child – making funny noises and faces, tickling, happy to go on all fours in an instant, wholly and utterly oblivious to context or company in our interactions. Those slightly older, as I re-discovered this week hanging out with five from the same family, are entirely surprised to find an adult who is as excited as they are about something they’ve just read, heard or seen. They remind me of what I was like at their age. Some of my earliest memories are of my grandmother reading to me, Muwanpalassa playing softly on the AM radio, something from Wettasinghe or Munidasa. More than anything else from childhood, I remember lovingly reading dozens of Ladybird books passed on from my sister, the Childcraft anthology that took up an entire rack, the vicarious participation in many adventures on Kirrin Island, and Blyton’s other classics including the Folk of the Faraway Tree and Just William. In fact, my love of dogs I can peg to how much I wanted to have a dog like Timmy – loyal, loving and intelligent. Looking back, I recognise this was also a need, satiated only through reading at the time, for a companion. A best friend. I naturally connect with children who are curious, independent and offer an opinion based on something they’ve read or overheard their parents talk about. This week, while a two-year-old grappled with the challenge of eating chips with just six teeth, I engaged his four siblings – two girls and two boys. We talked about the mental acuity of dinosaurs and whether in fact sauropods and stegosaurs had two brains. We talked about the exciting life of sea creatures, including the dissection of a shark that had washed ashore, shown on TV. We spoke about palaeontology, and why one sibling wanted to be an astronaut, while the other wanted to be an astrophysicist. Salient points were debated over an indeterminable drink that would have immediately killed a diabetic. There are things kids hate – condescension, lecturing, hectoring and bluffing. They are smart and value more the admission of ignorance – which gives them the chance to explain what they are referring to or talking about – than an empty claim of knowledge or expertise. They are born storytellers, so no matter how important a point one has, if it isn’t packaged and presented the right way, one simply doesn’t find a receptive audience. This often leads to the entirely erroneous belief that kids aren’t interested in what you have to say, or the lessons one seeks to impart. Children read and engage with an open mind and thus come to conclusions that initially appear naïve, but can be profoundly insightful. As any pre-school or Montessori teacher will attest, they are a tough audience to capture the attention of, but if one wins their confidence, is rewarded with a love and trust that doesn’t dissipate easily. Some aspects here resonate with the dynamics of those much older, and how they interact with each other online.

Those over 65 I also generally get on rather well with. Just this week, I was invited with two other colleagues to speak to the local community on the core tenets of my doctoral research, which deals with social media, data science and peacebuilding, post-war. To put this in context, New Zealand is the second most peaceful country in the world. Conflict, as reported in the Otago Daily Times, the leading provincial newspaper, is generally around the mysterious disappearance of cows, or last week, a duck that had been shot in the back, reportedly leading those in that community to feel unsafe. Given the average age of the audience, and since over supper before our presentations, many lovingly recalled memories of travel in a country called Ceylon, I wondered if my research and the context I was conducting it in would resonate at all.

I knew that with this demographic, it helps to frame things in ways they can empathise with through decades of experience. Recognising the verdant beauty of New Zealand, I projected my research as one not different to gardening, with the study of content and conversations online similar to the bloom or blossoming of flowers, sometimes stunted by weeds and parasites. I likened to the frequent consumption of fast food, and its effect on health and the human body, what is a media diet on social media amongst millennials in Sri Lanka predominantly anchored to gossip. I explained how conversations morphed and merged online by showing an animation of bubbles, noting that their form, shape, texture and ephemeral nature reflected many of the dynamics seen in the study of content generation, spread and engagement online. Going by the engagement after I spoke and an email of appreciation sent to the Faculty the next day, my effort at connecting with this audience seems to have paid off. Many – about as far removed in every imaginable way from the landscape of my research – grasped why I did what I did, and around what. And that’s really all one can hope for.

Strategic and creative communication, as I see it, is what connects my interactions with these two demographics. The ages in between are too often engaged in, entrapped by or enraptured through the hubris of ignorance, paraded and promoted with almost militant fervour – choosing the gluttony of social media banality or niche fiction over more foundational and critical writing on politics and society. Those who are young I connect with over books, stories, ideas and videos I recall once being excited about as well, and now engaged with through interactive means that weren’t even dreamed of, much less invented, when I was their age. Those who are much older I connect with by speaking to what their lives have been – what they have loved to do, want to see more of, are nostalgic over, choose to spend their time on, or want to see their grandchildren become. With the younger demographic, there is a certain give and take – I listen, but also shape and influence, through my responses, how they engage with what we talk about. With those much older, whose minds, opinions and habits are far less malleable, I choose to anchor what I do and like to see, to their self-interest. Sometimes it is by asking them to recall the heady impulses of childhood and youth. At other times, it is by appealing to legacy or succession, and what – in a very personal way – they would like to leave behind, who they would like to take over and how they would like to be remembered.

After a long period of anxiety, I am increasingly at peace with the fact that for the demographic in between these two groups, I find no easy or sustained traction, interest, acceptance or entry. To compete for attention amongst this demographic – the more I study the dynamics, drivers and domains of content and conversations on social media – is a Sisyphean endeavour. A universe of content sparkles with ever greater intensity on newsfeeds, apps and platforms. While I am able to help others package their advocacy, activism and politics in a way that stands the best chance of engagement on or over these social media constellations, I now personally gravitate towards spending more time with those who can reflect back on a full life or those, much younger, who look at life with unbridled optimism, trust and love. This, coupled with slow reading and dogs, is increasingly a safe refuge from a world, the more I study, the less I understand.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 21 October 2018.

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A few good men and women

“Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”- Winston Churchill

I first met Mangala Moonesinghe, who passed away two years ago, in 1997. He was at the time Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in Delhi. The Sri Lankan mission, with its unmistakable wall in the diplomatic enclave of Chanakyapuri, was a haven for students. The Moonesinghe’s had an open door policy. Over twenty years ago, Sri Lanka had the second largest student community in Delhi next to those from Seychelles. We were around 750 at the time, mostly undergraduates at the University of Delhi and a few dozens doing post-graduate studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, or JNU as it was always called. Over the three years, Mangala and Gnana invited me over for lunch to talk about the state of the student body, my studies, Sri Lankan politics (though I was studying English, we established a mutual interest in politics beyond partisan frames very early on) and literature. We often used stories in the Economist as a point of reference for our conversations. He had a subscription. I was very far removed from being able to afford one. He used to give me copies from a month or two ago, with specific instructions to read some pieces. A remarkable memory meant I was asked for my opinion on the pieces he had recommended the next time we met, though admittedly, the bigger draw to their company was the delicious, freshly made food. Suitably satiated, all three of us talked in what was I recall the living room of the High Commission over some of the best tea I had tasted up until then. Clearly, the Foreign Service was at the time able to source a grade of Ceylon tea unavailable for the average Sri Lankan consumer. The late 90s in India was a time of vast, unprecedented economic change. Mangala talked of how he saw the changes at the time, from the vantage of interactions with the Indian government and others in the diplomatic community. I spoke of what I saw as a student, and in my last two years, around a range of varying perspectives cultivated from speaking and interacting with the mass of humanity in the city who only ever conversed in Hindi. Mangala was always patient and attentive, locating my limited experience in what he had lived through, knew and observed.

As a student at S. Thomas’ College in the mid-90s, I used to read Lanka Monthly Digest for one column – ‘The Roving Diplomat’ by Deshamanya Vernon L.B. Mendis. LMD has in recent years taken to the republication of Vernon’s columns, which are as interesting to read today as when they were first penned. My first frames of diplomacy, democracy and a world outside of the very violent Sri Lanka I grew up in were through these columns. Vernon’s insights on Indian diplomacy, the meaning of high-profile visits, the need to restructure SAARC, the place of the US, China and Russia in what at the time was an emergent new world order, ethno-political tension in Africa, prescient critiques of the G77 and importantly, a number of columns on the UN and the importance of processes like the Millennium Declaration were all seminal in an appreciation and awareness of a world beyond the strict confines of personal experience and perspectives.

And then there was a meeting with the late Lakshman Kadirgamar, late 2004. Because it was a relatively menial task no one else was around or willing to do, I was asked to accompany a well-known Canadian academic to meet the then Foreign Minister at his official residence. Kadirgamar – a large, commanding presence, in an immaculate ironed shirt and chinos – talked at length about constitutionalism and aspects of power-sharing. During all of this, I was as invisible as the furniture in the room and less useful. I took notes, but wasn’t looked at, referred to, or asked anything. While I was versed with Kadirgamar’s reputation, writing and his political outlook, I didn’t dare open my mouth. After the meeting was over, Kadirgamar pivoted his chair to face me. I recall giving the sort of silly grin one would expect a child to give Santa Claus spotted crawling out the chimney on Christmas. Calling me ‘young man’ at first, and upon discovering my name, referring to my surname after that, he asked me about school, university and what I thought about what they had discussed. I must have said something asinine about the last thrust of inquiry, because he commanded me more sternly to really say what I thought of what he had talked about, and as a young person, how it resonated. I had never before been asked by someone from the government for my opinion, much less the Foreign Minister. He then proceeded to ignore the Canadian academic completely and for the last five or ten minutes of our time together, engaged me about what at the time were the then government’s policies around peacebuilding and aspects of the ceasefire agreement related to media engagement. He was diplomatic and strategically silent around what were obvious cracks and failings, but told me that if my generation’s imagination wasn’t captured by what government said and did, then all would be lost.   

News today captures our diplomats acting as porters, mired in corruption, nepotism, the worst sort of influence peddling and how since 2005, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Service has seen the insidious, intentional evisceration of professionalism and meritocracy. Who today, amongst our leading diplomats, can pen a masterful essay on diplomats as writers and poets, anchored to the life and work of Pablo Neruda, as Jayantha Dhanapala did in the 90s? One reads about Susantha De Alwis and others at the time adroitly negotiating the intricacies of Sri Lanka’s role in hosting the Non-Aligned Summit. A tribute by Vernon Mendis to Yogendra Duraiswamy, published posthumously after Duraiswamy’s passing in 1999, speaks to a calibre, professionalism, vision and integrity we are hard pressed to identify in our Foreign Service today. I grew up reading what these diplomats wrote, wanting to be like them. The profound importance of these first frames of reference, especially amongst youth today, cannot be under-estimated. In uncertain times locally and globally, the vision, skills and strategic thinking required of diplomats can help steer complex, multi-dimensional discussions and processes, including in domestic theatres, beyond purely parochial and partisan frames.

Amongst others, the writings of and on Mendis, Moonesinghe, Kadirgamar and Dhanapala helped shaped my worldview. The absence of comparable voices today is a measure of the moral, ethical and intellectual fibre of our society and polity. All, however, is not lost. In some of the accounts I am fortunate to follow on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, I see spirited, intelligent, cosmopolitan young Sri Lankans already deeply engaged in various domestic and international institutions & fora. Decades hence, I hope they will be able to withstand pressures of mindless conformity and partisan servility to become far better ambassadors of their country than those we see and hear about in the media today.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 14 October 2018.

Reading and social media

The postgraduate study of social media often dates me. Someone with a proclivity to what I have in recent months learnt is a phenomenon called ‘rage-tweeting’ sent me a letter last week that was at the time circulating amongst a limited number on Facebook. The affordances and nature of the platform, I knew, would result in the creation of outrage that would soon spill over on to Twitter and Instagram. It took less than two days. From alumni to those who wait with baited breath to join a chorus that takes issue with who they see as the elite of Colombo, the rage brigade has expressed shame, shock, disbelief, disappointment, disdain and horror, support for the victim, the condemnation of those in authority, various critiques of Sri Lanka’s education system, the small-mindedness of teachers, regressive social values, the dangers to a child’s self-expression and a whole range of opinion on gender, sexuality and queerness and its place in educational institutions. Many others took a monosyllabic route, of starred or completely spelt out expletives, to capture what I can only imagine is a disappointment so great, it has entirely robbed the power of a more comprehensive critique. Some even took to memes. Social media has made black-American actors the standard torchbearer now, through animated images and short video-clips, for an outrage so profound, it cannot be written down.

Kony 2012 on Youtube, over six years ago, is now a well-studied harbinger of the manufacture of outrage over social media, with an intended aim and outcome. I distinctly recall sharing it on my newsfeed at the time, and how much it went on to be commented on and shared subsequently, at a time when Facebook had not yet been tainted by scandal, breach and distrust. That was then. The banality of outrage today is brilliantly framed by digital anthropologist John Postill as an ‘age of viral reality’, where political reality is increasingly if not entirely framed by rapidly and widely shared digital content, particularly amongst a younger demographic. In an age of triumphant populism, the weaponisation of social media, misinformation, socio-political divides over decades exacerbated by digital echo chambers, poor media literacy, catastrophic breaches of privacy, unprecedented and complex attacks on electoral processes, sophisticated influence operations, disinformation campaigns, partisan media coupled with the myopia of social media users and you have a perfect storm – endlessly interesting and fodder for academic research, yet deeply worrisome, beyond partisan lines, for the health of democracy.

Rather than rant and rave against the evil of it all, or seeking through censorious legislation, overbearing government, panoptic surveillance and most of all, terrible parenting, the reinstitution of an ostensibly more straightforward analogue world, it bears some reflection as to how our better angels can be harnessed through the technologies that govern our comprehension of context, country and citizenship. For starters, and counter-intuitively, it is through encouraging the lost art of reading. And by this, I don’t mean the style, nature and pattern of reading that I recognise I am also now hostage to when dealing with a tsunami of social media. It is a very different pace, focus, engagement and selection of reading that comes from borrowing or buying books. Here too, I care little for the distracting debate on whether Kindle or paper is most effective. It is the substance of what one reads, and the breadth of subjects that matters more to me than the form of how text is consumed. I remain biased to print. The tactile nature of spine, page and jacket, coupled with the olfactory signature of each book, brand new or much thumbed, gives me as much pleasure as reading whatever I’ve picked up. But I have no issue with those who prefer e-books. What matters more is that critical reading is encouraged, as something sorely lacking amongst those who are some of the most ardent consumers and producers of social media. An individual who is one of the most gifted photographers I know of, I discovered, hadn’t read Sontag’s seminal work, to better understand framing, politics and craft. The adoration and adulation generated by fans online serve to boost ego without the necessary often painful realisation through critical review, editing, marking or wider reading, that one is wrong, misguided, ill-informed and unoriginal. The private realisation of all this comes with reading. The more public lessons are learnt in university, but also through the friendship or tutelage of friends, family and colleagues. At its simplest, it is to impart the joy of getting lost in a library amongst rows of books, which is a life experience unmatched by even the most amazing recommendations by Amazon. Many on or over social media are enraged by minutiae, confusing or conflating the episodic with the systemic. Academic literature calls this ‘momentary connectedness’ or ‘digital togetherness’ – the feeling of being part of a larger community who by collectively raising their voice over social media, brings about change.

Critical reading can help harness what is today an unprecedented potential to raise awareness about social injustice, where it matters the most. Around long overdue education reform, the overhaul of pedagogy and the reboot of syllabi, instead of a single school, student or teacher. Around the need to be more open to critical reflection and narratives that are different to and contest core beliefs, instead of the screening or censorship of a particular film. Social media masks the need for systemic reform by the proclivity, anchored to the nature of online networks, to frame specific incidents, individuals and institutions. Critical reading, around a range of subjects, gives pause to the immediate sense of outrage by helping us locate the episodic in a landscape of similar incidents, or a history of injustice, a longer process of discrimination or evolution, or parallel developments that may complement or content.

My first impulse of an acerbic response, share, like, quip or jibe I now increasingly hold in check, realising how quickly the spell of social media blinds me to what is more important – which is the study of the drivers, motives and intent of the most emotive or explosive content online. It is easy to stop at bemoaning at how ill-informed and self-referential these cycles of outrage are. To dismiss everyone on social media and decry how everything today is a fad – what Sontag called being a tourist in one’s own reality as the defining frame of our online cultures. And yet, through the simple yet subversive emphasis on more, wider and deeper reading  – books, journals, long-form, magazines, poetry, prose, fiction – we can expand what is a reductionist and limited frame of reference blindly paraded on online with a sense of time, place, relative merit and scale.

There is today abundant optimism, verdant activism and an innate sense of justice amongst so many on social media, from a young age. Yet, the worst of us and our worst impulses rendered in the most appealing ways online, stunt the potential of this reservoir to fertilise a better, more just society. This must change – not by eschewing the digital, but by leveraging it to prise open minds and eyes enslaved to ephemera.

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Published in The Sunday Island, 7 October 2018.

A harbour of discontent

An article published in the New York Times generates a sobering frame of accountability and corruption in Sri Lanka today. After publication in print and online, the article generated extremely high readership, sharing and other stories, referencing the original. The role, reach and relevance of the New York Times was buttressed considerably since 2016 by domestic pushback in the US from quarters in Washington DC chagrined by the paper’s unwavering and unflattering scrutiny of policy, pronouncement and politics. The manner in which the story spread in Sri Lanka was revealing, though this brief summary doesn’t do justice to the nuance and variance present in the capture and contestation of the original story, especially over social media.

The immediate and expected response from the Rajapaksa camp was to deny and decry vehemently. This initial enfilade was followed by various pronouncements over social media promising a more robust official response, which however didn’t appear for days. In the meanwhile, the former Central Bank Governor released content in response to the article, which was picked up and distributed by the Rajapaksa camp as evidence of the story’s false premises, and bias. The official response, badly formatted and without spell-checking in English, was perhaps first drafted in Sinhala. Stylistically, the English version was clearly the product of many authors. By the time the Rajapaksa’s produced an official response, the original article had gone viral. At the same time and over social media, an unprecedented cacophony of trolls – accounts with fake photos and names, activated after a long period of being dormant, or freshly created – started to attack in particular the journalist from the New York Times and those she had worked with in Sri Lanka. Personal attacks produced by close associates of the Rajapaksa camp over social media helped these trolls, in two ways. One, by the production of content that tried to name and shame the journalists involved in the story as having hidden agendas, partial to or somehow architected by the UNP. Two, by the support they extended to more vicious commentary of trolls by the act of actively liking their content on Twitter – a process which cannot be automated or accidentally occur. These trolls, in a frenzy of activity, let loose a barrage of verbal abuse against those partial to the merits of the story. Many of the worst comments were explicitly liked by prominent, official, personally curated accounts of the Rajapaksa camp, signifying that they were partial to not just the pushback, but the expression used and the violence engineered. On TV, politicians from the Joint Opposition held up photos of those involved in the story and said that the entire article was rehashing content first published in the Daily News newspaper, some years ago. After the official response from Mahinda Rajapaksa’s office, the former President, those close to him and the troll army all noted how they would sue the New York Times. Many, your author included, roundly welcomed this move, as a way in which facts and documents pertinent to the article would be through court proceedings, be made public.

The public and private pressure – not all of which is in the public domain – directed at those who worked on the story was so bad, and happened at such an accelerated pace, the New York Times issued an unprecedented public warning noting that any issue the former President had with the substance of the article should only be taken up with the newspaper, and not by threats of violence or retribution. This warning was echoed by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Foreign Correspondents Association of Sri Lanka, as well as other domestic and international media freedom groups. The shrill threats of suing the newspaper died down. Late last week, Rajapaksa regime acolytes over social media, giving their ‘personal’ opinion, noted that it would be a waste of money and that it was far more useful to go after the conspirators in Sri Lanka who fueled the story. Meanwhile, in response to a complaint lodged by a government MP, the CID was reported to have launched an investigation into the allegations noted in the New York Times article. The only problem here was that the New York Times highlighted in some detail content it claimed was sourced from on-going investigations into the Hambantota Port deal and campaign financing around it. On social media, your author and others flagged the sheer absurdity, truly comedic if not for how tragic a picture it painted of governance in 2018, of the CID investigating an on-going investigation purportedly conducted by the CID itself!

The farce only got worse (or better?) towards the end of the week. The Media Secretary to the former President spun the original article as somehow linked to a statement by John Kerry made in 2016 which had helped the UNP government come to power, and that the New York Times, ideologically partial to or part of Obama-Clinton liberalism, opposed the incumbent US President as well as China, which in turn was why in concert with senior figures in government, who with local collaborators embedded in the mainstream media, conspired to produce the article – all with a view to discrediting Mahinda Rajapaksa!

Your author has lived through and heard a lot of conspiracy theories since 2002. This one though – by sheer force of imagination – was in a different league.

For its part, the UNP – seemingly unaware of any on-going investigation by the CID and dealing with a political nuclear winter after MP Vijayakala’s pro-LTTE statement, distanced itself from allegations in the article that it was forced to hand over the port to the Chinese. In doing so, astute observers noted that the PM was no different to the former President in denying allegations in the article which were politically inconvenient, without any robust material evidence or public debate. Meanwhile, China also unsurprisingly denounced the article as fabrication and fiction. The pro-Rajapaksa troll and tripe army, activated shortly after the article went live, focused their attention more towards those in Sri Lanka, instead of a global media giant that clearly couldn’t be dragged into their snake pit. From at first a frothing Hydra-headed monster, the pushback – online and through more traditional means, morphed into a sharper, more strategic, ominous spear intentionally aimed increasingly at those in Sri Lanka, in tandem with the Rajapaksa camp’s shift in focus to go after – legally or by other means – those they perceived to be behind the article.

It is unlikely the lead author of the New York Times expected any of this. The theatre of the absurd surrounding the publication of the article holds some humbling lessons. Journalists, freelancers and fixers in Sri Lanka tasked with helping international media institutions cover in-depth stories now know the fate that will befall them if and when they cross a line in the sand that raises the ire of those in power or seeking to regain it. It is a chilling effect that will impact quality, probative, investigative journalism. The current government will not deliver on promises to hold the Rajapaksas accountable for corruption. The Rajapaksas have much to hide, going by the raw nerve that was touched and the telling dynamics of the responses to the article. China has much to hide, going by what it has said and importantly, what it has not said. It takes the New York Times to bring to public attention investigations that are so dormant, the CID itself seems to be unaware of them. It takes an international newspaper to focus, however short-lived, public debate on issues our President, our Prime Minister, the government, and domestic media should be leading the scrutiny around.

The New York Times article may have set out to flesh-out Mahinda Rajapaksa’s corruption. What it has inadvertently achieved is to flag the current government’s inability and unwillingness to hold the former President answerable. Clearly, accountability is just a word that features in campaign manifestos.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 8 July 2018.

Apples and oranges

“If Gotabaya Rajapaksa comes to power it’s not due his own merits but due to the great betrayal and incompetence of Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena. My so called influence has no bearing.”

Departing US Ambassador Atul Keshap was in the news last week, associated with comments around Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his bid for Presidency. The substance of whatever this senior diplomat said is not what I am interested in, and in any case, has been unsurprisingly denied by those he met with. It is Gotabaya Rajapaksa as an idea, and Viyathmaga – his political project – as a platform. In recent weeks I have written about my own fears of the man, and the surveillance I was unknowingly subject to for years as a consequence of running afoul of the Rajapaksa regime. Many others have expressed similar sentiments in the media, and some with much greater insight into the man and his militant machinery. It is however his political project I am more interested in, independent of his individual identity and past.

Viyathmaga’s vision and mission, which I’ve read many times, is compelling. In spirit and tone, if not in substance and thrust, it is impossible to be opposed to it because it captures in essence the same vision for the country as the Sirisena manifesto did late 2014. Respecting difference, the value of meritocracy and a democratic credo are all anchored to personal frames of action and spirituality – a slight (calculated) shift from the Sirisena manifesto embracing what animated people in 2015 and plugging it for 2020. It is necessarily silent on everything else, because populism is essentially that – a thin ideology, that in its projection of authenticity opportunistically embraces other cultures, ideas, processes and people in the pursuit of its own goals. Gotabaya Rajapaksa plays an old game, but with some new tricks.

In 2011, Prof. Andrew Wilson coined the term ‘political technologist’, capturing through an examination of Putin’s Russia how through the adroit manipulation of media, including social media, authoritarian power can be strengthened and sustained. The model of containment and control is an interesting one. The use of physical violence ranging from murder and torture to abduction and intimidation is strategic and almost mathematically methodical – aimed at a few, always with plausible deniability. At the same time, the regime gives the public through entertainment unfettered access to a plethora of competing, often confusing content to debate endlessly and be distracted by. The real concerns over governance and democracy are thus limited to a select few, either geographically contained or weakly linked, who cannot gain any real traction for their work amidst an enduring tsunami of likes and shares. Even if episodically able to attract attention, the sheer volume of misinformation and disinformation can very quickly, and relatively easily, drown out critical content.

China’s model – simplistically and often projected as blanket censorship of anything politically inconvenient – we know is anything but. A dissertation by Margaret Earling Roberts called this fascinating framework a mix of fear, friction and flooding. Fear, the most obvious, to control the production and spread of inconvenient truths. Friction, being processes by which through delays in loading times, challenges around access, the requirement to register, or see some unrelated content beforehand (think of all those annoying ads before a YouTube video starts to play, but for much longer and with no real option to skip) critical commentary isn’t censored – it’s just made harder to access. Genius stroke, because human nature is geared to consume the content of least resistance. Finally, flooding, which not unlike Putin’s Russia, gives the public what they want and like the most – entertainment.

Given the relations with Putin and Xi Jinping, and looking at the media output of the JO in general, it would not be unrealistic to think that the some of the advice around regaining power is linked to how technology can be leveraged to channel popular discontent to parochial ends. But while this is conjecture, the data around the JO campaigns and content on social media suggests they are leveraging – consciously or purely by coincidence – dynamics of what Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells calls the ‘network society’. When I made a brief presentation of this to some senior policymakers and politicians late last year, anchored to a paper on technology and referenda, the response was revealing. A few minutes devoted to concern, surprise and praise for new thinking around older challenges. The rest of the discussion was around how the existing, ageing, unrepresentative, illiberal, corrupt, failing, frustrating and futile party political architecture could address the risks outlined around authoritarianism’s propensity to weaponise democratic affordances.

In other words, no one in the room got it. The campaigns of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Namal Rajapaksa get it.

Suffice to say that it is possible to see through data in the public domain, how Viyathmaga and Namal Rajapaksa’s media output fare, in relation to what the government through its leaders or constituent political parties put out. By almost any yardstick, the engagement with content generated by the JO today across all social media is by order of magnitude consistently greater, wider and deeper than anything, anyone from government has produced at any time since 2015.

Quite frankly, the interesting study here is not so much how far ahead of government the JO is, but what the data suggests are strategic differences in the political vision and campaigns of Namal and his Uncle. One, aiming to cultivate adulation, admiration and adoration for harvesting a decade or two hence. The other, networking with high net worth, influential individuals, framing, projecting and producing content with a more immediate, tangible political goal. The two networks are fluid and overlap, but also in demographics, reach and engagement, diverge. The real contest, as other political analysts have hinted at, is not so much what comes after yahapalanaya, but what comes after what will most likely replace it.

Always up-front with what I feel and think around those I like, I wrote a while ago to someone who spoke at one of Gotabaya’s events. Part of the response I received, quoted above, tells its own story. The Rajapaksa’s offer a vision that, ironically, appeals most now to those who voted in this government in 2015. Unmet promises fobbed off by those in power, indignity, insensitivity, enduring economic hardship, existentialist fears around faith, future and identity and more, from all parts of the country, have now metastasised into active, sustained and importantly, entirely organic engagement with criticism of government, framed by the JO, involving millions.

Counter-intuitively perhaps, the response isn’t technological in the main.

Those who feel marginalised, unheard, disappointed, disconnected and anxious need to see, hear and importantly feel they have a way to communicate their grievances. This requires regular, physical contact and consultation. Not Facebook updates about Vision 2025. Photos on social media soon after 10th February revealed that the SLPP had a booklet distributed amongst its elected officials across all the LG bodies around how to work towards 2020. I haven’t seen what is in it, but the intent is clear. It is unclear what if anything the government has by way of a similar, bottom-up, strategic, comprehensive and cohesive vision that connects it with the people.

Instead, we have those in government who can’t even grasp the disconnect, and worse, honestly believe it can be solved by what has been done before.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 17 June 2018.

The question not asked

The collision of the comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 into Jupiter in July 1994 was at a time when there was no social media, broadband or smartphones. The significant of the event to the scientific community, and anyone interested in astronomy or cosmology, was that it was the first extra-terrestrial collision in our solar system to be closely observed and monitored. News of the collision and the resulting scientific observations came to Sri Lanka relatively late, only through the mainstream print media. I followed it with great interest and was subsequently asked to speak about it in school at a session called Current Affairs, held every Wednesday for all A/L students. It was my first public speech, and was the ticket to English debating, writing for and then ending up editing the College magazine. But the reason I spoke about astronomy – a subject that to many in the audience was entirely esoteric and provided an excellent excuse to whisper amongst themselves or at the time, or delve into salacious print produced by and for schoolboys – was the selfish projection of a childhood interest to gaze at the stars, and how they got there. The excitement of explaining trajectory and terrain, of observations through telescope and implications for us, was not shared amongst the audience. And to date, our education system anchored to rote and regurgitation strips away almost all the joy out of scientific knowledge and discovery, requiring students to memorize compound, composition or table over the cultivation of an inquiring mind. I did horribly in all my science classes, scoring poorly, but I read voraciously everything my father bought for me on science, which included a subscription to National Geographic, science and space encyclopedia’s and science fiction novels.

The disconnect at the time between the vividly illustrated books at home, and their engaging style of writing, and the boring, turgid prose plus awful monochromatic illustrations in the government textbooks, coupled with soporific teachers more interested in marks than co-inquiry, could not be starker. It is only now, when I see my son studying what he does, and how, that I am very wistful of my own time in school where more engaging syllabi and pedagogy may have driven me to a life and vocation very different to what I pursue today. But that early love for science hasn’t diminished and is why whenever I go to a new city, one of the first stops are the science and natural history museums.

There is a global and local movement for the strengthening of science, technology, engineering and mathematics in secondary and tertiary education, especially for girls. So-called STEM subjects are the foundation for jobs that are the most sought after and highly paid today, both in Sri Lanka and abroad, ranging from machine learning, predictive analytics, big data harvesting, data visualization, specialized or generalized artificial intelligence and cutting-edge socio-economic analyses. On the other hand, I have always been an ardent proponent of the arts and humanities, noting that all the greatest scientists throughout history have had a deep appreciation for, love of and critical engagement with music, literature and the visual arts. Perhaps a well-rounded individual needs both, for I find too many in Sri Lanka who are clearly very good at scientific inquiry completely uninterested in the arts, and conversely, many actors, writers and activists entirely dismissive of exciting scientific discoveries that while completely removed from the realm of their work and output, locates us as humans amidst our built and natural environment, our visible universe and so much we cannot yet relate to, see or have the language to comprehend.

This year, I started a subscription to New Scientist. For years, whenever I have been thoroughly depressed with partisan politics, parliament and politicians, I have taken refuge in the Scientific American, NASA or National Geographic for two reasons. One, every encounter with this content is a vital reminder of how little I know and understand of anything, of both our insignificance as individuals and profound significance as a species. And linked to this, every visit is a vital reminder of how bigger the world is, when often it seems to be solely framed by the monumental ignorance of those we elect to political office in Sri Lanka. In school, I read Asimov, Clark, Bradbury, Niven and obviously, Frank Herbert (introduced to many later through the superb Dune computer games). Through them I found new worlds, and a taste for mental exploration. This is not something we still teach in school, and the only reason I am this strange way today is because of my father’s indulgence, at a time I know now he could ill afford it, to buy me whatever book I wanted and asked for.

This is why I nearly cried when I first peeked into the library at Parliament, many years ago. It is a wonderful space – vast, well-stocked, carefully curated, brightly lit, climate controlled and, tellingly, completely empty. I have been told only, quite literally, a handful of MPs use it. But we should not blame them. It is our education system, that teaches us to constantly look down and drill into memory, when we should be looking up and learning more about finding answers, that is the root of this proud, publicly paraded nescience. Our schools punish creativity identified only as distraction, and our teachers, tired, underpaid and under-appreciated, have little to give their students by way of kindling their minds, instead of filling their books.

Science, including science fiction, reading far beyond subject matter, day-dreaming, spending time in library in sections entirely unrelated to interests, wandering through a science museum, reading up on the stars or the effects of light on zooplankton, the search for and study of exo-planets, the jaw-dropping beauty of Hubble’s imagery of the farthest regions of space, listening to Hawking (and what was an acerbic humor), or downloading an app to place and pin the constellations above you, looking at a new moon or getting lost in documentaries like ‘The Last Man on the Moon’, recently released by the BBC are pleasures children – and indeed, adults – must be told to be unashamed about, and rewarded for. Some readers may think these are pursuits only upper echelons of society can manage. They are wrong. Science is all around us. Its negotiation constitutes our daily life, the very core of our being and everything we do. To engage with science and indeed, be captivated by science fiction, is just to question our environment, our lives, and our choices.

Fundamentally, I have come through science, reading and inquiry to a question we do not ask, and aren’t taught to ask. A question that is not just at the heart of scientific inquiry, it is the very essence of active citizenship. To ask it – and keep asking it – is deeply frowned upon and violently opposed, because there are no simple, easy answers, no quick soundbites possible in response. The question is powerful because it unravels and unmasks what is held or projected as true, and posits instead a creative uncertainty, viable options or possible alternatives – anathema to politicians interested only in voters who can’t give them a hard time.

The question is a simple one, in fact, a single word.

Why.

Always and forever, ask why.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 27 May 2018.

Fuelling a crisis

Long queues of vehicles snaking around petrol stations was a familiar site last week. Two other developments, with attention on the petrol crisis, went relatively unnoticed. One, an announcement by the Prime Minister that there will be an online opinion poll on the Interim Report of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly. News reports quoting sources from the Prime Minister’s office noted that “opinion of the public would be sought through web comments and postings on Facebook pages”. The other development was the inaccessibility of the Lanka E News website on Wednesday. All major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) seem to have blocked the website, which by Thursday was only accessible by using a proxy.

The petrol crisis seems to be the result of a perfect storm of mishaps and coincidence. A ship from Lanka IOC was turned away due to impurities in the oil. A ship bringing supplies for Ceylon Petroleum Corporation – CEYPETCO – was delayed. The Sapugaskanda refinery developed technical issues. Some computer systems failed. Just-in-time delivery demands that reserves are minimised in order for the tanks to have enough storage for incoming oil shipments, failing which oil tankers would incur heavy demurrage when docked at or moored around Colombo Port. When the recent shipments were either rejected or delayed, relevant government officials had worked out supply chain logistics in order to use the reserve supplies in Sri Lanka to meet projected demand, based on existing data for an average week. However, an SMS and subsequent social media outing of the shortage of supplies led, very quickly, to high demand, putting paid to all the calculations by officials around the supply of fuel until the next shipments arrived and were cleared. Meeting sustained peak demand would have depleted all remaining supplies of oil. Officials were forced to ration the supply of petrol, leading to shortages around the country, queues extending for over one-kilometre, angry, tired drivers, a confused, panicking public and the spread of rumour, further fuelling the crisis.

The insight into the petrol crisis noted above was gleaned from the ‘Saaraprabhaa Gira’ programme broadcast on SLBC’s Commercial Service’s on the morning of the 8th. The programme featured Secretary at CEYPETCO, Upali Marasinghe, who in response to probing questions channelling public fears and anger, responded in a lucid, calm and informative manner. Though commendable for going on air, it was the first clear messaging from government around the petrol shortage and the reasons for it nearly a week into the crisis. Two days prior, Arjuna Ranatunga, the Minister of Petroleum Resources Development, issued a convoluted Press Release in horrible, broken English that explained nothing and blamed everyone else other than CEYPETCO. Neither the President nor the PM saw it fit to directly address the public, or to go meet them as they queued – sometimes for over ten hours – just to get some fuel. There was no SMS from government, no social media outreach, no mainstream media interview or statement. The PM noted on the 7th in Parliament that he and the President had already discussed getting another shipment of Petrol from India with Indian High Commissioner. This was confirmed the next day. However, as flagged by well-known journalist Amantha Perera on Twitter, reaching out in desperation to the Indian PM for help in dealing with the crisis ran counter to Ranatunga’s Press Release, which placed the blame squarely on Lanka IOC. In the meanwhile, Minister of Megapolis and Western Development Champika Ranawaka kept telling the media there was a mafia in Sri Lanka’s power and energy sector which needed to be investigated. This added to public anger and concern around the perceived inability of a government in power to deal with something as basic as adequate fuel supplies.

The chaos surrounding crisis and public communications over just the past week is instructive when attempting to determine how the government will go about an online poll on the Interim Report of the Constitutional Assembly. The analogy that springs to mind is to ask someone who clearly cannot cook, and is a disaster in the kitchen, to make a gourmet meal. The PM first talked about social media in the constitutional reform process as far back as January 2016. Absolutely nothing happened since, until last week’s pronouncement that something – we do not know what or how – will be done to energise the public to give online feedback around a process and report they know little to nothing about. Survey after survey clearly shows the government has done nothing to educate the public on constitutional reform. An ill-informed public will unsurprisingly provide negative, anxious feedback in the main, ironically feeding into the JO’s masterplan of disruption and fear mongering. In other words, this has all the signs of a disastrous attempt at technocratic governance, a tragic hallmark of the UNP, instead of using technology to engage, educate, empathise and energise.

And this brings us to the blocking of the Lanka E News website, a day before the budget was presented in Parliament. The website is well-known as nothing more than a platform for the production and exchange of gossip. That is precisely why it is frequented by so many, and not for the website’s journalistic prowess, integrity or the preponderance of accurate, verified stories. And yet, possibly on account of a series of articles targeting President Sirisena, the government has now blocked access to the site across all major ISPs in the country. There is no court order or judicial process that governed this action. Nearly three years into the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe yahapalanaya government, this action showcases a lot that’s remained unchanged, and indeed, profits those in power. ISPs are fearful of government. The government, as only it sees fit, blocks access to content. The courts are side-stepped and rendered optional at best. There is no oversight of or insight into executive fiat. It embarrasses no one more than the government itself. It gives credence to and fuels even greater interest in what Lanka E News has published. This one censorious action will sadly place Sri Lanka, once again, on the radar of international media and web monitoring frameworks, risking rankings that have steadily improved since January 2015. It is a short-sighted, ill-informed, self-defeating action that reaffirms opposition to any sort of social media governance the government is partial to.

And so here we are. A fuel crisis impacting millions that the government’s arrogance didn’t find necessary to proactively address in a coherent, coordinated, empathetic manner. The vague promise of online engagement over the new constitution that in the manner it is presented, and given the demonstrable (in)competence of government, is bound to fail and worse, strengthen the JO’s machinations to derail everything. A gossip website suddenly blocked without any due process, that highlights, amongst other things, how insecure and thin-skinned the incumbent President is.

All this isn’t the best news heading into a year that for better or worse, will define Sri Lanka’s socio-political contours for decades to come.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 12 November 2017.