Pyrrhic putsch

It is a month after Sri Lanka learnt of a new Prime Minister over SMS. In the catastrophic, chaotic four ensuing weeks, some of us maintain that Mr. Wickremesinghe is the sole, legitimate Prime Minister. This is widely perceived to be a position that is a consequence of either being partial to or voting for the UNP, or a fan of the individual. Both, it is argued, gloss over the significant failure of the individual and the party, as well as the government the PM led, to bring about what they were elected to do. This, in turn, becomes the circular logic that goes on to justify the President’s actions and the support for Mahinda Rajapaksa. The conversation is a difficult one to have forthright, because every single thing the President and the Rajapaksas have done, since the evening of the 26th of October, was intentionally and strategically done to curtail, censor, contain and control the flow of information. Legitimate, constitutional appointments need not fear scrutiny or debate. And yet, the first frames of the coup d’etat was of violent mobs invading and occupying state media. This doesn’t help set a foundation for any reasonable argument around the validity of the appointments by the President. But some continue to support him. It becomes important then to make clear where we stand and in public because it is precisely at times like these that what we say, stand for and do, recorded in history, judge us.

My unequivocal support of Mr Wickremesinghe as the legitimate Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, commanding the majority in Parliament, is becoming easier to justify because the only majority Mahinda Rajapaksa claims he has is by way of empty chairs in Parliament. Having lost not but two No Confidence Motions in Parliament, recorded for posterity in the Hansard, unable to show how he commands a majority, joining the President in governing by press release and statements, Rajapaksa is now ridiculous and risible as a spent politician. He is unable to continue in office and he is too proud to step down. Over 225 statements since the 27th of October by every single government, bilateral, multilateral agency, the UN, Commonwealth, IMF, World Bank included, have sought a restoration of constitutional rule and refused to recognise Rajapaksa as PM. To date, only Pakistan and China, geopolitically joined at the hip since Imran Khan’s election, as well as Burundi, have congratulated Rajapaksa. Never in Sri Lanka’s history has a purported Prime Minister and former President been so roundly snubbed by the international community, for four weeks and counting. It’s actually much worse. So incensed were local diplomats at Namal Rajapaksa’s enfilade of criticism against the international community, the German Ambassador took the extraordinary step of publicly supporting his Canadian colleague, who had issued a sharp response to Namal Rajapaksa previously, in noting that the SLPP had confidentially sought the audience western diplomats. That this request and meeting was placed in the public domain captures the degree to which the diplomatic community in Sri Lanka has entirely lost patience with the Rajapaksas and the President.

But it is before all this and more that some of us registered our support for the constitutional position Mr Wickremesinghe continues to enjoy, and the outrageous illegality of the President’s action to depose him. Our support of Wickremesinghe as PM is anchored to the belief that the constitution matters and that arbitrary fiat, undermining the letter and spirit of the law, takes us back to the dark ages. The President’s actions set a disturbing, distressing and downright dangerous precedent. A few years hence, those rejoicing today may suffer the brunt of another Executive’s wrath, who for equally petty, unprincipled reasons, decides to do the same thing to the sitting PM, or worse. If we cannot respect constitutional rule, we forfeit citizenship and become serfs, subject to the whim and fancy of whoever who claims to hold political authority. It just all falls apart very quickly, no matter who you vote for – because franchise is about democracy, not contending with a degenerate’s fiat. It is also the case that some of us who unequivocally support Mr Wickremesinghe are also amongst his most vocal critics in public – dismayed, disgusted or deeply disappointed at how a government with almost unbridled potential to change our destiny, instead did the minimum necessary to trundle its way through to the next election.

It seems our tribe is growing. The vote base galvanised in early January 2015 was no pro-UNP. It was anti-Rajapaksa. The mandate given to Sirisena was not to him as an individual. It was to a custodian of promises, one of which included the dismantling of the office he held. In the intervening years, this vote base grew angry, anxious and apart from what they voted in. October 26th changed that, and also changed the minds of those who were gravitating towards the known evil of the Rajapaksas. Even those partial to him, and opposed to the UNP, realise the mess we are in.

My doctoral research on social media underscores this is astonishing ways. Tracking close to 1,000 Facebook pages, and about the same about of Twitter accounts, I see conversational trends and patterns at scale. It’s like looking at the Milky Way – you see the way galaxies are shaped, which isn’t obvious to those who look at a smaller scale. And it is here the SLPP has much to worry about. Till late October, the Rajapaksas dominated conversations on Facebook and Twitter. Over November, two things have happened with such a ferocity I have been forced to double and triple check my data. One, the SLPP is losing traction. Possibly because of internal family tussles over succession and resulting problems within the party, the digital propaganda – of a sophistication and volume far beyond anything anyone else in Sri Lanka is even capable of – is failing to take root and grow. Combined with this dramatic decline is an equally astounding increase in the engagement the UNP enjoys. This is emphatically not because they are doing anything dramatically different to the monumental incoherence and incompetence that defines their public and political communications for years. It is because for whatever reason, the content the UNP has put out over November – around the constitution, the economy, the illegitimacy of the President’s actions, the demonstrable majority enjoyed by the PM – has hit a chord. This content is liked, commented on and shared by order of magnitude more than what the SLPP has put out. I have worked with social media since 2006, every day. I have at a very large scale captured data since March this year. Nothing has prepared me for what I’ve seen over November.

Social media is neither inherently pro or anti-democratic. But what over November we see is the clear propensity of Twitter and Facebook users, in their millions, to gravitate towards content that holds the President, Rajapaksas and the SLPP in a very critical light. Extrapolating from this electoral consequences is both premature and frankly, impossible. However, the significance of the unprecedented shift cannot be overstated. Fuelling it is clearly a growing disquiet, that even if it doesn’t result in open expression is manifest in the increasing disconnect with SLPP’s framing of contemporary politics. While some may say the UNP’s increase in engagement is fuelled by opposition to the PM and anger towards the party (which factually isn’t the case) it still doesn’t explain the dramatic decline in the SLPP engagement, around content that has always worked for them and the production of which, unsurprisingly, increased over the month.

A coup, essentially, needs to quickly demonstrate a sense of inevitability – that whatever was done, had to be done and that once done, everything would be fine. Stability is key, and towards this, the Rajapaksas occupied ministries and violently took over the media. But even with all this, it’s all spectacularly fallen apart. As the coup d’etat enters its fifth week, a single man’s hate and inconsistency of moral fibre, latched on to by a former President’s overriding paternal instincts plunges us into a chasm from which there is no easy escape.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 2 December 2018.

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Preparing for the long haul

As the coup closes on a month of chaos, authoritarian entrenchment and expansion have kicked into gear. Constitutionally, the President’s vaulting ambition has been comprehensively thwarted. Thrice. The No Confidence Motion against Mahinda Rajapaksa is recorded in the Hansard. A month in, not a single bilateral, multilateral entity or any country, save for Burundi, China and Pakistan, have recognised Mahinda Rajapaksa as the PM. The snub, making us pariahs in the international community almost overnight, is historically unprecedented. Following from this, there is already evidence of the catastrophic economic consequences of the President’s action. The IMF has delayed discussions on Sri Lanka’s next loan tranche, the rupee has fallen drastically against the dollar, more than 30 billion rupees have been pulled out by foreign investors, and Moody’s have downgraded the country for the first time since 2010. The interim relief by the Supreme Court stunted, temporarily but decisively, the SLPP’s and President’s chutzpah to carry through even greater violence on the constitution. Without anything to anchor the campaign to legitimise and normalise the coup, the considerable might of the Rajapaksa propaganda machinery is listless and floundering, despite the total capture of state media and the shocking capitulation of many private media.

Several trends from the vantage of my on-going doctoral research and related data-gathering of social media are worth placing on record, for wider public awareness and consideration. Around the 13th of this month, just after the interim relief of the Supreme Court, what was at the time celebratory content heralding a new day and dawn with the ascension of Mahinda Rajapaksa as PM, pivoted to a campaign calling for elections. This campaign on Facebook and Twitter is both carefully coordinated as well as viral in nature. There are a few actors within the SLPP driving the production of the key frames, messaging, slogans, posters and memes. Inspired and fuelled by this, others – ranging from pages belonging to extremist Sinhala Buddhist pages to a growing constellation of pages explicitly anchored to Mahinda, Namal or Gotabaya Rajapaksa – produce their own content. The intent is to flood public discourse on social media with their frames, tone, expression and take on politics. A large, civil society protest gathering at Independent Square was audaciously and ingeniously infiltrated by members of the SLPP, whose greatest success by way of propaganda came in the capture of former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge in one of their photos, framing their placards and posters. This naturally led to confusion, which in turn fed into what the SLPP wanted – the dilution of the original protest movement’s intent and messaging. Upon studying this further, I discovered something interesting. While they were very good at what they did physically and soon after, on social media, the output and content were still anchored to one key account and a few others who are card-carrying SLPP members. The reason this is significant is because at scale – or in other words, looking at the resistance to the coup across a couple of hundred thousand posts per week – what’s clear is the dispersion and diversity of voices producing, projecting or promoting resistance. This is a battle of two very different models of capturing the public imagination. One, a centralised one driven by, at the moment, a few individuals who use professionally produced campaign material with a proven track record of viral appeal, traction and engagement. The other, using nothing more than basic posts, photos, animations and videos, registering their anger, dissent and disappointment. Many of them are not part of any civil society organisation or NGO, and most are articulating a political resistance for the first time. It is unclear whether this will continue or grow, but at present, the configuration of these two models at play is as significant as it is unprecedented since 2014 when a similar collective of diverse groups and individuals came together to, ironically, support the common candidate against the then President. 

What then has the President really achieved? Around what was a government in disarray, decline and decay, that as Mano Ganesan publicly noted this week, was at risk of losing any electoral test outright as it did in February this year, the President’s actions have infused a new sense of purpose by those who were entirely apathetic and removed from 2015’s democratic victory and capture. Just as much as the vote in January 2015 was against Mahinda Rajapaksa and not for the UNP or Sirisena, the President has galvanised a movement to support and strengthen democracy that is entirely contra-distinct from what the UNP wants as the resolution to the current chaos. In fact, when the UNP tried to appropriate some of the citizen protests in Colombo, the organisers and protestors didn’t hold back from expressing their anger and disdain on social media. This is not something the SLPP can easily or effectively counter, because there is no central node or set of actors to target, and the network is diverse – meaning that it can organically overwhelm, by the totality of content generated, a more concerted effort to push propaganda. 

The unprecedented violence in Parliament was broadcast and endlessly reproduced on social media. The farcical explanations from the SLPP  on the state of the economy (pegged to, in their estimation, milk subsidies). The moves by the President to remove principal police officers in charge of investigations. The letter by the CID to the IGP noting  The sickening and shocking violence in Parliament, which went on to be justified by the SLPP. The impunity the instigators enjoy. The offensive material attacking the Speaker coming from individuals located within the Presidential Secretariat. The colossal sums of money offered for MPs by individuals who, astonishingly, don’t even seek to deny it. The sickening attacks against the Speaker. And just this week, new posters, promoted openly by the SLPP, suggesting openly the country would have gone to the Tamils and resulted in the establishment of Eelam had Ranil Wickremesinghe continued in government.

What could have been an electoral walk in the park, had the SLPP just waited, has turned into a process that is now eating into itself and increasingly a caricature of what it purports or intends to be. There is no escaping this when the greatest generation of material that ridicules every purported intent and action of the President and the SLPP is risibly undermined by their own membership. 

The President and Mahinda Rajapaksa are caught in a bind. They have to openly and quickly establish their authority, which means the appointment of individuals partial or loyal to them, and the transfer of all those who stand opposed to them. They violently took control of state media. Appointments to ministries and other institutions embrace individuals who are on remand, corrupt, violent, vile and servile. They cannot pace this out, and they cannot, as Rajapaksa did over ten years, disguise this with the veneer of institutions that on paper look good. They have to do this, or they die. But in doing this, they also unmask the violence, racism, nepotism, corruption and scant disregard for the rule of law. With no majority in Parliament, and no hope of cross-overs now that there is so much public revulsion against it, the only hope they have is the entrenchment of violence and the expansion of their fiat. 

In doing this, they are weak and susceptible to institutional, legal and citizen-led pushback. There are signs of this, but much more needs to be done. Published on social media, master strategist and planner Basil Rajapaksa’s appearance heading a meeting last week, framed by a slide calling for a social media campaign around a general election, is an indication of the propaganda blitzkrieg that is around the corner. Citizens need to ask themselves a simple question. Do we believe what they say? Or do we act on, and resist with every fibre of our being, what they have so brazenly done, and with complete impunity, since late October?  

The choice for me, beyond party political loyalty, is clear. I urge you to think deeply about what your response will be. Without an iota of hyperbole, I would venture that our future depends on it.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 25 November 2018.

New beginnings

A significant disadvantage of being in a country several hours ahead in time is that I wake up to news from the final hours of the day in Sri Lanka. On the 26th of October, I woke up to news of the President swearing in Mahinda Rajapaksa as PM. On the 10th of November, I woke up to the news that Parliament had been dissolved. If not already evident for long-time readers of this column, I consider the first and most treacherous act to be a debilitating blow to our democracy, the results of which polity, society and Sri Lanka’s economy have been reeling from over the past fortnight. The second exponentially compounds the problems and extends the chaos. Sri Lanka, based on the actions of the President, no longer holds true to its official name as a Democratic Socialist Republic. We have left democracy behind, and jettisoned it along with our constitution. We are no longer a republic, because the people have been divested of their power and elected representatives denied their opportunity to reflect the people’s will – one way or the other. Given the revelations around the eye-watering sums of money offered to MPs to join the ranks of Mahinda Rajapaksa, neither are we remotely socialist nor are we heading towards communism. These are governance frameworks that love or hate, are defined by established theories of power, politics and economics. There is some order, even in the madness. Sri Lanka today is just pure madness. It is an unmitigated, unprecedented constitutional crisis, unimaginable just three weeks ago.

To be very clear, I consider the present state of the country far worse than the context of 2014’s presidential election. Mahinda Rajapaksa, at his worst, introduced the 18th Amendment through parliament – of course, making a mockery of proceedings and informed debate in the chamber, but still, in retrospect, without doing away with the constitution altogether. Maithripala Sirisena considers the constitution entirely optional to what he wants to do, see or bring about. This makes him, incredibly, more illiberal and undemocratic than the President he replaced. That really takes some doing. At stake is, in fact, more than every single democratic gain and every single law, institution, process, body, commission and structure set up since 2015. At stake is the very democratic fabric of the country,

Not that readers of this newspaper would necessarily know. Brutishly taking over the newsrooms and newspapers of State media was considered action to shape the public imagination, by deforming news, deflecting critical opinion, denying access to alternatives perspectives and decrying political opponents. It was also signalling to private media to stem or stop critical perspectives. Both are working, and very well. We are back to the authoritarian’s rulebook.

A case in point is the coverage, or lack thereof, afforded to the speeches made at Ven. Maduluwe Sobitha’s Memorial last week. Speaker after speaker, including the very architects of the political movement that saw the incumbent President emerge as the common candidate to Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2014, vehemently decried his actions. Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda’s deeply intense, insightful and incisive keynote in Sinhala, lasting around 40 minutes, was widely shared and referred to over social media. And yet, there was almost no coverage in print or electronic media. And even on social media, very influential accounts controlled by mainstream media on Facebook and Twitter simply didn’t give the speech or event the coverage it deserved. Amplify this across a broader spectrum. Well over a hundred statements, messages or updates from the international community – India, the UN, Commonwealth, EU, British, American and Australian governments included – transnational civil society including Nobel laureates, internationally renowned jurists, Sri Lankan constitutional experts including Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne who was entrusted with drafting the new constitution, leading academics from abroad and universities in Sri Lanka, artists, activists, citizens who have gathered every single day in Colombo and many more have since the 26th strongly and on solid principled, legal ground, condemned the President’s actions. Very little, if at all, has made it to print or broadcast. It is clear this almost complete capture of the mainstream media will be further entrenched in the weeks to come.

I need to recalibrate and rethink this column. These are unprecedented times, in a context where the retaining or capturing power has lives at stake. Prof. Uyangoda’s repeated warning around the possibility of violence to emerge as a consequence of the current political instability is real, present and growing. Our winner takes all, zero-sum political culture, evident in all its clawing, repulsive horror since the 26th, joins a hyper-partisan polity and society. Anything can be a spark, whether engineered or inadvertent.  And everyone is on edge. Sirisena cannot turn back. Rajapaksa is caught in a bind, and has no option but go with what Sirisena started. Wickremesinghe is, rightfully and as the legitimate PM, not backing down. And yet, merely saying this is enough to set off an enfilade of comments by those hell-bent to equate those of us interested in constitutional supremacy with those who vote for a political party or politician. It’s truly an awful, toxic time to be a public commentator!

This weekend is too early to opine where this will all go or how it will be resolved. It is, however, a good place to start reflecting on how we all have, and will always have, democratic agency as citizens. To so clearly cede it to those who are clearly unprincipled, untrustworthy politicians, as we have done for so long, at elections, requires a rethink. Entirely independent party political love, loathing or indifference, an overriding interest in retaining Sri Lanka’s democratic credentials must guide our considered engagement, reflection and action. On social media, the urgency and importance of this message is much greater, amongst a key electoral demographic that is rent asunder by partisan opinions and other communal, religious, language, identity and economic fault lines. But elections seen as scorecards around tenure can shift perspectives to reflect on what was really done, instead of what is promised. The course correction even from 2015’s Presidential election is clear and significant. We must not ask voters, anymore, to believe in a saviour. There are none. As Bertolt Brecht warned us, pity the country that needs heroes.

While those in power are battling for survival or supremacy, citizens – as custodians of democracy, invigilators of governance and as an engaged, questioning, informed body – must consider the long-term implications of the present moment. We must and may differ, on who can and should deliver the good life. How economics should be managed. What our foreign policy alignments should be. Whether fuel pricing formulae are sensible or risible. But the negotiation of differences must be pegged to democratic norms. What I hope, though through awful circumstances, is that this pivotal moment brings about a greater, fuller understanding of what it is to be a citizen. And how important it is, flowing from this, that we have an absolute, unwavering commitment to constitutional governance. Our ignorance, partisan loyalty or blind faith in personalities is what politicians count on, seed and harvest to get away with what they do. What is happening in Sri Lanka is a travesty. Pushing back with every sinew is an expression of citizenship. Ceding to it risks its repetition and entrenchment, meaning that anyone, at any time, for any reason, can do anything as Executive President. Clearly, this wretched office needs to go, but the start of a renewed democratic struggle is not by trying to change the world. It must start within, and with ourselves.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 11 November 2018.

Rajapaksa rising

Extraordinary times, these. Aside from everything already published on the President’s actions, my fear – which has grown since 2015 – is that politics in Sri Lanka amongst the largest vote base is negotiated through and predominantly framed by vicious, divisive commentary and content, robbing electoral processes of vitality and validity. Most of what I’ve done in recent years, written on, championed and studied is around the net effects of ever greater division over social media, and how that, in turn, impacts kinetic, real-world interactions.

This is why the President’s actions are so devastating.

He has, single-handedly and overnight, normalized the illegal, unconscionable and unconstitutional. The immediate effect of this was to render constitutional rule optional instead of integral to and inextricably entwined with democratic tradition – one which Sri Lanka has even through the worst violence, never once risked or ridiculed in this way. The legacy will be felt for decades hence, if not reversed through Parliament. It will impact everyone, including everyone who volubly cheers on, or is apathetic towards, Sirisena’s actions. Further, the appointment of Rajapaksa has visibly galvanized physically – as awfully evident in the photos and broadcasts from last week – as well as exponentially over social media, racist, nationalist, xenophobic voices who are amongst the chief architects of and apologists for ethno-religious violence, post-war. Finally, Sirisena has abrogated in spectacular fashion any and all promises around good governance, bringing back into power the very individuals he has publicly and privately, spoken out again, and with good reason. The impact on young voters who supported him and were galvanized by a promise of a different, more decent, democratic political culture, is incalculably devastating.

Revealingly though, the capture and transfer of power, both unprecedented and unconstitutional, hasn’t been met with widespread opposition by the citizenry. My doctoral research affords a unique perspective into these terrible developments. Read the following in light of the brutish takeover of state print and electronic media on Friday night itself, and extending to the weekend, the immediate and complete deletion of all content from the Prime Minister’s official website, the insertion of a photo of Mahinda Rajapaksa on its homepage, pictures of the military and the IGP saluting, exchanging tokens, pleasantries and plans with Rajapaksas, a traditional propaganda machine on overdrive and not a single domestic media channel, paper or platform courageous enough to critically question key individuals involved in the constitutional coup.

Gossip sites, in Sinhala, are the predominant purveyors of political news and opinion. They are by order of magnitude engaged with more than Sinhala mainstream news accounts. English mainstream news sources, quite literally, flatline in comparison. The qualitative nature of content on these sites, this week, fetishized the army, militant Buddhist monks and former members of the armed forces in custody, on trial for murder. Overall, content overtly partial to Mahinda Rajapaksa as an individual, the Rajapaksas as a family and the SLPP as a political party, overwhelmed all other content from political actors over Facebook and Twitter, in Sinhala and English. The total control of state media led to framing and content that openly celebrated Mahinda Rajapaksa and ridiculed the incumbent Prime Minister, and his party. Over social media, private media partial to the Rajapaksa, with massive numbers of followers and engagement, also engaged in the legitimisation of the President’s actions. On social media, several user of Twitter noticed a rapid increase in bots following them, suggesting the activation of investments around what’s called algorithmic propaganda – the use of computational methods to influence public perceptions on social media. On social media, misinformation – the deliberate spread of falsehood – dominated every single Facebook and Twitter account partial to Sirisena or the Rajapaksas. This included a Photoshopped letter purportedly penned by Ranil Wickremesinghe asking UN Peacekeepers to come into the country  – a risible request, but one that even when clearly, officially and repeatedly denied, was engineered to spread virally. Memes generated on Facebook, engaged with and shared by the tens of thousands if not more, celebrated Rajapaksa and often venomously decried Wickremesinghe. I summed it up on 30th October, after the quantitative study of hundreds of thousands of posts and the individual, qualitative study of a lesser number, that the content pro-Rajapaksa, SLPP, JO, Sinhala-Buddhist, racist, communal, violently exclusive, vicious, anti-UNP and anti-Wickremesinghe. The SLPP sported an amazing array of self-styled experts on constitutional matters, offering the most ridiculous interpretations and yet by virtue of airtime, broadcast and publication, managed to galvanise public attention. A rally organized by the UNP, joined by others organized by civil society, barely got any coverage on state media or domestic, private media. The astonishing, anomalous fact that at the end of the week, only China, Burundi and Pakistan had recognized Mahinda Rajapaksa as PM, and every single other bilateral, multilateral entity including the UN, EU and the governments of India, UK, US, Australia, Canada, Norway and others, calling for a restoration of democracy and the reconvening of Parliament, wasn’t reported in domestic media.

The common term ‘echo chambers’ to describe the partisan divides online don’t capture what I observed last week. Pro-UNP or Wickremesinghe supporters or those interested in constitutional rule who were bunched up with this group versus those in favour of Rajapaksa or Sirisena constituted competing frames of contemporary politics at complete, violent odds with each other. Each group is large and growing, but the pro-Rajapaksa group dominates the discourse and framing, by far – supported by algorithms that clearly reward content that the more viciously contentious, is the most visibly viral. The intoxication of engagement hides the toxicity of the exchanges. And very clearly, live video on Facebook now competes with, and very likely far exceeds in a certain demographic, terrestrial TV broadcast. Some of the video streams feature over ten thousand comments.

All this suggests, if nothing else, that the Rajapaksas (greatly aided now by Presidential fiat) have calculated and planned for – with great accuracy and skill – Sirisena’s actions to be judged in the domain of populist politics, and not on the basis of constitutional merit or legality. It is clear from the SLPP’s public rhetoric that they do not want to risk the fragile legitimacy of Mahinda Rajapaksa domestically, and the near-total non-recognition of his appointment internationally, with physical violence. This is why, combined with what has traditionally been an entirely decrepit, elitist and utterly useless communications strategy, at best, from the PM and by the UNP, the Sirisena-Rajapaksa combine has focused so much attention on the media. In what I see today on social media, signature misinformation strategies of certain countries, well-studied elsewhere in recent years, are evident, and clearly used to seed, sow and subsequently reap the benefits of a hyper-polarised polity and society, partial to authoritarianism in the guise of national security, stability, security, safety and economic growth.

Coupled with a purchasing power measured in the millions of dollars, more than equal to the greed of politicians, Basil Rajapaksa’s brilliant political strategizing, Namal Rajapaksa’s rock-star appeal, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s undying charisma, Sirisena’s power and authority extending to the abuse of state resources, the near total control of social media framing and the blanket coverage of misinformation broadly accepted as factual, normal, legally sound or fair, I am not optimistic about a return to or restoration of democracy. We have crossed a Rubicon. I have been repeatedly asked this week as to what the future holds. Frankly, I just do not know, because as of the 26th of October, anything goes. We should all be deeply anxious, apprehensive and angry. Tellingly, only a few of us are.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 4 November 2018.

Monitoring Media Ownership

“A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself”.

Arthur Miller

 

The public launch this week of the Media Ownership Monitor (MOM) website – a collaboration between Reporters Without Borders and the Colombo based Verite Research – gives, for the first time in Sri Lanka, readers and researchers alike the chance to study deep, dark signatures of bias and parochialism that run through our leading print, electronic and internet-based media. The significant and exemplary research that undergirds the presentation of material on the website places in the public domain damning information around – or conversely, the equally revealing absence of data on – the ownership of leading TV and radio stations, newspapers and news websites. This is significant. For the first time, we now have an authoritative platform for independent data and evidence-based critique of mainstream media ecosystems, traditionally utterly resentful of and resistant to scrutiny.

Take the insights the website itself provides. 75% of all print media in the study are under the direct ownership of media organisations by the state or former/current Members of Parliament. The same indicators for Radio and TV are 55% and 50% respectively. 77% of TV viewership is commanded by four owners – Maharaja, Derana, Hiru and state TV, in that order. 75% of the readership of newspapers is also controlled by four owners, with Wijeya Newspapers alone controlling just over 47% through 18 publications. Lake House, Upali and Ceylon Newspapers follow. Though a bit harder to access, the website also provides interesting insights into the owners themselves. Noteworthy is the fact that some of the owners of the largest and most influential TV and radio stations also control leading marketing and advertising agencies. The combination is a potent one, and for obvious reasons. Other newspapers belong to and are controlled by just one family, with long-standing party-political connections and interests. The dominance of government in the control and ownership of state media risibly ridicules any independent, sustained and meaningful critique of governance by these institutions.

What at present the MOM website does not cover are insights into how the nearly 50 media platforms studied command and control the attention of a younger demographic, over social media. This is the domain of my doctoral studies. MOM provides a comprehensive framework to consider how content pushed, promoted and produced by leading media institutions appeal to and are engaged with by a demographic between 18 to 34, in comparison to terrestrial broadcast, print and traditional websites. By way of Sri Lanka’s population, they are the largest segment. By way of those eligible to vote, they constitute the largest demographic, growing to boot. Through this column and for over three years, I’ve explored in some detail key aspects around this demographic engages with and shares information on social media, including political content.

When the cross-media categorisations used in MOM are applied to study the social media domain, things get both very interesting and disturbing. MOM looks at media from the Capital Maharaja Organisation, ABC (i.e. Hiru), Power House (i.e. Derana), government (SLBC, SLRC, ITN), Wijeya Newspapers, EAP Broadcasting Company, Asset Radio Broadcasting (i.e. Neth) and Upali Newspapers. The single most significant difference between media consumption as captured in MOM and what I study on social media is the presence of gossip accounts. More on this later. I gathered all the official Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts associated with the publications, stations, magazines and media flagged in MOM, belonging to these entities.

First off, the reason I write to the Sunday Island is that Upali Newspapers does so horribly on and over social media. It’s primary demographic and enduring appeal is with a much older audience, uninterested in and perhaps profoundly suspicious of the kind of media diet their grandchildren are on. Consequently, Upali Newspapers barely registers as a blip on Facebook. It is entirely absent on Twitter. But this is the exception. Every other entity in MOM has a strong presence on social media, though all aren’t equal. For this column, I focussed on just Facebook and Twitter though Instagram is emerging as a major locus of growth and, consequently, information exchange and political contestation. Finally, I looked at data over the past year, going back to 22 October 2017.

ABC, or the Hiru ecosystem, dominates Facebook engagement with nearly 24 million interactions (e.g. a ‘like’ on a post). Maharaja comes second with around 10.5 million interactions. Government media manages, in comparison, just around 1.6 million interactions. Photos and video dominate over text. A like on a page can be generally interpreted in the same way as a subscription to a newspaper – the user is interested in the content features on the page and wants to see more of it. By this metric, ABC has just over 8.5 million likes, followed by around 3.2 million by Maharaja. What’s important here isn’t just the difference between these two numbers, but the fact that these are two very distinct conversational and information domains. And this goes for all the other accounts as well. A diversity of opinion or the presentation of different, competing perspectives isn’t a feature of any of them. Twitter in Sri Lanka is a shadow of Facebook by way of content production and engagement. Facebook generated 56 million interactions over the accounts studied. Twitter, over the same year, just over 232,000. Wijeya commands the most engagement on Twitter, followed by Maharaja.

Independent of MOM and as part of my research, I monitor 51 leading Sinhala gossip accounts on Facebook. Though hard to believe, when the traffic from these gossip accounts is factored in, all the media accounts captured by MOM pale into insignificance.  The gossip sites have close to 71 million interactions. Nearly 13 million have actively gone and liked one or more gossip account on Facebook. As the first and arguably enduring voice or vector that frames contemporary events, both domestic and international, nothing in Sri Lanka comes even remotely close to these gossip sites in Sinhala. Problematically, Hiru or ABC, captured in MOM, also produce content for their own, branded, gossip sites. There’s a whole set of issues around this phenomenon linked to ethics, journalistic integrity and professionalism. But perhaps most or more damning is how between English, Sinhala and Tamil as well as within the Sinhala media domain, audiences engage with entirely different frames, often invisibly but strategically guided by partisan political interests or objectives. Over the past 12 months, what generates the most engagement in each of the MOM categories on social media are stories that have no remote connection with each other, or a common, overarching, national narrative. Think of each MOM category as a sun, which audiences on social media gravitate towards. What we see are multiple solar systems, each with their sun, entirely distinct from and independent of each other. Belong or relate to one system, and everyone else is alien. It doesn’t take much to imagine how damaging this is, now and over the long-term, to the health of our public debate.

There are a range of other patterns, trends and signatures I observe that support, over social media, what MOM compellingly unpacks around terrestrial broadcast and print. My research dovetails with what is a broader, growing debate, by individuals and institutions across many countries including the private sector, to look at the inadvertent consequences of technologies that promised to bring us closer to each other. The democratisation of media production was supposed to unshackle us from the tyranny of a few media owners. MOM clearly brings out how in Sri Lanka, ironically, the move towards digital media production and consumption has strengthened the power these few individuals have to shape our understanding of society, politics and ultimately, ourselves. Fuelled by some of them, as well as growing exponentially independently, gossip sites have for a younger demographic already replaced anything remotely connected to what readers of this newspaper will consider journalism.

How these fluid dynamics will shape society, politics and ultimately, how we see, talk to and treat one another, isn’t just an academic pursuit. Simply put, engaging with MOM is important because Sri Lanka’s post-war democratic potential is almost entirely dependent on the degree to which the media can capture our better angels. The media is, after all, us. To demand more or better from media is really to ask of each of us to become better, more engaged, citizens.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 27 October 2018.

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.

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.