Easter Sunday

“It doesn’t make sense.” – Naren Hattotuwa

On Monday, my 12 year old son learnt his classmate had passed away at the Intensive Care Unit, a victim of one of the blasts in Colombo. My son’s mother and I grew up in the long shadow of the Black July anti-Tamil pogrom and the UNP-JVP violence in the late 80’s. For many in our generation and older, there is a normalization of violence. This is often confused with getting used to or accepting violence.

After the Christchurch massacre in March, many Kiwis trying to get to grips with the scale of the violence unthinkingly said that since I came from Sri Lanka, I was far more used to dealing with terrorism. I suppose that’s in a way true. Mundane things done every day have their own logic and reason that no one from outside cycles of violence would understand. In Kabul, a city where so much is wrong and getting worse, I feel completely at home amidst the detours, convoys, checkpoints, occasional explosion, news of imminent attacks and sporadic gunfire – or the sound of an engine back-firing shrugged off as gunfire, obviously the lesser evil there. The assumption that the more time one spends with it, the greater the ease in dealing with terrorism is, however, untrue. Terrorism is tragedy as theatre, and it is always terrible. The cataclysmic Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka and its aftermath this week leads to the weaponisation of everything and this fear that anything, anyone, anywhere, and at any time, can cease to exist. In this terrible equation, both familiar to some and entirely new to others, a traffic jam, the queue to pay at the supermarket, a film screening, pumping petrol, attending religious worship or going on pilgrimage, having brunch or going out for a meal, having a coffee in a hotel lobby, living next door to someone one hasn’t spoken with, sharing the lift, going to work in a high-rise building, parking underground, going to the park, using public transport, seeing off a friend at the airport or just wearing an item of clothing one chooses to can set off a violent response, or be a location where violence is unleashed.

The very real, growing anxiety this creates is a marketplace ripe for and often rife with rumour.

It is this aspect that from afar, I’ve studied in some detail this week. The same government that ignored intelligence reports about an imminent terrorist attack, we are asked to believe, blocks social media after hundreds have been killed or maimed out of an abundance of care for the safety and security of its citizens. The deep anger and revulsion against those in government is not what I want this column to reflect. However, it is barely contained. A President who knows nothing by his own admission, then goes on to blame post-war security sector reform for the terrorism, a PM who also knows nothing and worse, is entirely bereft of any empathy and public, crisis or political communication skills, government spokespersons who laugh their way through a press conference organized the day after the attacks, intelligence reports leaking to the public domain, Ministers tweeting their ignorance or calling for their own government to act, no coherent communication and a near complete collapse of moral, political leadership. These are the dominant frames of our government today. I don’t think it will recover, soon or ever. Mid-week on Twitter, I quipped that the remedial measures and accountability called for by the government is not unlike after close to 300 have died from acute food poisoning, the management and chefs of the restaurant responsible decide to fire a few hapless waiters for bad service. Many will cover this debacle out of a genuine search for answers and accountability or out of more partisan, parochial interest, leading up to and woven into the Presidential election campaigns.

I’ve focused on conversations around and coverage of the terrorism social media, as well as the effectiveness of and reasons for the block. It bears repeating that my doctoral research involves the study of Facebook and Twitter at scale – which is to say, I look at records in the aggregate, ranging into the hundreds of thousands and often, tens of millions. At this scale, the data tells its own story, superseding purely anecdotal, episodic and partial takes by individuals proposing or opposing the block. Till Friday, the social media block had done nothing whatsoever to stem the tsunami of content production on Facebook. Twitter, which was never blocked, shows a significant increase in both active users and content production. Gossip, meme and Sinhala mainstream media on Facebook produced content that engaged tens of millions, generating hundreds of thousands of posts. There was misinformation, rumour, hate and calls for violence, variously produced and promoted. This, all the Western journalists who called me and our government as well, put down as the reason for why social media was blocked. The data tells me that on Twitter, the ACJU noting that it will not accept the bodies of the terrorists for burial, the wailing of a Muslim father in a mosque as he laid to rest his 13 year old daughter, a friend’s update from Batticaloa on how the community had come together to deal with the scope and scale of the loss, how an individual at a Coffee Shop in Colombo, in a completely bloodied shirt, was pictured as someone who helped others after the blasts, and messages condemning the violence from the PM and the former President were, by far, the most retweeted and liked. Also, by far, a clear interest in and the sharing of content from reputed journalists. Traditional media on Facebook over the week showed a dramatic increase in the content produced and shared, including well over 20 million video views. On Facebook, posts around lactating mothers offering to breastfeed infants who had lost their own mothers, citizens offering places to stay and meals for those displaced or stranded, Churches noting that they will provide protection for mosques to hold Friday prayers, signs, posters, photos and memes around diversity and a plethora of content on solidarity, shock and sadness are thrived in the marketplace of limited attention.

Sadly, a government that never has and still doesn’t understand or strategically leverage social media is not one capable of acknowledging, on the merits of data science, that they are wrong.

This is not to say misinformation and rumour don’t exist. This week, leading journalists and international correspondents got violent, venomous pushback on social media for what they were reporting from the ground. Without given them the oxygen of more publicity, I have read and reported all manner of other conspiracy theories too on social media that do risk the peace. Yet, these disturbing dynamics post-Sunday reflect what existed on social media well before the terrorist attacks. The government’s well-meaning response to this was to identify the BBC correspondent as a ‘true Sri Lankan’. By extension, this necessarily means that living amongst us, and perhaps in our own families and amongst our friends, are ‘false Sri Lankans’ or inauthentic, unpatriotic ones. In trying to suggest the BBC’s correspondent in the country was a ‘true Sri Lankan’, the MP who tweeted his support inadvertently shone light into and contributed to what remains a deeply divisive, othering, majoritarian perspective of an authentic or acceptable national identity. Further, if international media quoting sources from Sri Lanka’s intelligence community are to be believed, the feeling of never being accepted into or truly part of our national fabric may have contributed to planning and execution of this violence.

On Tuesday, when I spoke to my son, he just said that the violence doesn’t make sense. I didn’t have anything to add. I’ve forgotten the exact amount of Facebook posts, messages, emails and tweets I’ve read this week. They range in the thousands. Through it all, I kept coming back to Naren’s question, which was also an observation. Perhaps it captures our country’s cri de cœur, to figure out what went so wrong and to realise that though incalculable grief convinces us otherwise, it is through democracy that we must seek answers.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 28 April 2019.

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When a law is not the answer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Principles over promises: Responding to the Christchurch terrorism

Almost exactly a year ago, Facebook was in the news in New Zealand over a row with Privacy Commissioner John Edwards. The heated public exchange between Edwards and the company took place in the context of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which the private information of millions of Facebook users was harvested, illicitly, for deeply divisive, partisan and political ends. Edwards accused the company of breaching New Zealand’s Privacy Act. The company responded that it hadn’t and that the Privacy Commissioner had made an overbroad request which could not be serviced. Edwards proceeded to delete his account and warned others in New Zealand that continued use of Facebook could impact their right to privacy under domestic law. Just a few months prior, the COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, was pictured on Facebook’s official country page with New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern. The caption of the photo, which captured the two women in an embrace after a formal meeting, flagged efforts the company was making to keep children safe. It is not surprising that Sandberg also wrote the paean to Ardern in last year’s Time 100 list of the most influential people.

The violence on the 15th of March in Christchurch dramatically changed this relationship. In response to the act of terrorism, Facebook announced, and for the first time, a ban on “peace, support and representation of white nationalism and separatism on Facebook and Instagram”. Two weeks after the killings in Christchurch, a message by Sandberg was featured on top of Instagram feeds in the country and featured in local media. The message noted that Facebook was “exploring restrictions on who can go Live depending on factors such as prior Community Standard violations” and that the company was “also investing in research to build better technology to quickly identify edited versions of violent videos and images and prevent people from re-sharing these versions.” Additionally, the company was removing content from, and all praise or support of several hate groups in the country, as well as Australia. Sandberg’s message called the terrorism in Christchurch “an act of pure evil”, echoing verbatim David Coleman, Australia’s immigration minister, in a statement he made after denying entry to far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos, who after the attack referred to Muslims as “barbaric” and Islam as an “alien religious culture”. Last week, New Zealand’s Chief Censor David Shanks, declared the document released by the killer as ‘objectionable’, which now makes it an offence to share or even possess it. Following up, authorities also made the possession and distribution of the killer’s live stream video an offence. Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft have all been to New Zealand in the past fortnight, issuing statements, making promises and expressing solidarity. Silicon Valley-based technology companies are in the spotlight, but I wonder, why now? What’s changed?

Since its debut in 2015, a report by BuzzFeed News published in June 2017 flagged that at least 45 instances of grisly violence including shootings, rape, murders, child abuse and attempted suicides were broadcast on Facebook Live. That number would be higher now, not including Christchurch. The Founder and CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, in May 2017, promised that 3,000 more moderators, in addition to 4,500 already working, would be added to over live and native video content. Promises to do more or better are what Zuckerberg and Sandberg are very good at making, in the aftermath of increasingly frequent and major privacy, ethics, violence or governance related scandals Facebook is in the middle of. Less apparent and forthcoming, over time, is what really the company does, invests in and builds.

There are also inconsistencies in the company’s responses to platform abuses. In 2017, the live video on Facebook of a man bound, gagged and repeatedly cut with a knife, lasting half an hour, was viewed by 16,000 users. By the time it was taken down, it had spread on YouTube. A company spokesperson at the time was quoted as saying that “in many instances… when people share this type of content, they are doing so to condemn violence or raise awareness about it. In that case, the video would be allowed.” Revealingly, the same claim wasn’t made with the Christchurch killer’s production.

The flipside to this is the use of Facebook’s tools to bear witness to human rights abuse. In 2016, the killing of a young black American Philando Castile by the Police in Minnesota was live-streamed on Facebook by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who was present with him in the car. The video went viral and helped document police brutality. There is also clear documented evidence of how violence captured from a Palestinian perspective, as well as content on potential war crimes, is at greater risk of removal on social media platforms. In fact, more than 70 civil rights groups wrote to Facebook in 2016, flagging this problem of unilateral removals based on orders generated by repressive regimes, giving perpetrators greater impunity and murderers stronger immunity.

It is axiomatic that deleting videos, banning pages, blocking groups, algorithmic tagging and faster human moderation do not erase root causes of violent extremism. The use of WhatsApp in India to seed and spread violence is a cautionary tale in how the deletion of content on Facebook’s public platforms may only drive it further underground. The answer is not to weaken or ban encryption. As New Zealand shows us, it is to investigate ways through which democratic values address, concretely and meaningfully, existential concerns of citizens and communities. This is hard work and beyond the lifespan of any one government. It also cannot be replaced by greater regulation of technology companies and social media. The two go hand in hand, and one is not a substitute for the other. It is here that governments, as well as technology companies, stumble, by responding to violent incidents in ways that don’t fully consider how disparate social media platforms and ideologues corrosively influence and inform each other. Content produced in one region or country, can over time, inspire action and reflection in a very different country or community.

Take an Australian Senator’s response, on Twitter, to the Christchurch terrorism. Though condemned by the Australian PM, the very act of referring to the Senator and what he noted on Twitter promoted the content to different audiences, both nationally and globally. The Twitter account, as well as the Facebook page of the Senator in question, produce and promote an essential ideology indistinguishable from the Christchurch killer’s avowed motivations. It is the normalisation of extremism through the guise of outrage and selective condemnation. What should the response be?

In Myanmar, an independent human rights impact assessment on Facebook, conducted last year, resulted in the company updating policies to “remove misinformation that has the potential to contribute to imminent violence or physical harm”. And yet, it is unclear how what may now be operational in Myanmar is also applied in other contexts, including in First World countries at risk of right-wing extremism.

I wonder, does it take grief and violence on the scale of Christchurch to jolt politicians and technology companies to take action around what was evident, for much longer? And in seeking to capitalise on the international media exposure and attention around an incident in a First World country, are decisions made in or because of New Zealand risking norms around content production, access and archival globally, on social media platforms that are now part of the socio-political, economic and cultural DNA of entire regions? Precisely at a time when any opposition to or critical questioning of decisions taken on behalf of victims and those at risk of violence can generate hostility or pushback, we need to safeguard against good-faith measures that inadvertently risk the very fibre of liberal democracy politicians in New Zealand and technology companies seek to secure. An emphasis on nuance, context, culture and intent must endure.

So is meaningful investment, beyond vacuous promises. In 2016, Zuckerberg called live video “personal and emotional and raw and visceral”. After the Christchurch video’s visceral virality, it is unclear if Sandberg pushed this same line with PM Ardern. In fact, Facebook astonishingly allowed an Islamophobic ad featuring PM Ardern wearing a hijab, which was only taken down after a domestic website’s intervention. Clearly, challenges persist. Social media companies can and must do more, including changing the very business models that have allowed major platforms to grow to a point where they are, essentially, ungovernable.

Grieving, we seek out easy answers. Banning weapons and blocking extremist content helps contain and address immediate concerns. Ideas though are incredibly resilient, and always find a way to new audiences. The longer-term will of the government to address hate groups, violent extremism in all forms and the normalisation of othering, from Maori to Muslim, requires sober reflection and more careful policymaking. What happens in New Zealand is already a template for the world. We must help PM Ardern and technology companies live up to this great responsibility.

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First published on Scoop NZ on 4 April 2019.

Pulse points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The infamy engines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital Blooms | Article for LMD, January 2019

Witnessing a constitutional crisis through social media

Of the many frames of reference readers may employ to help comprehend the extraordinary developments in Sri Lanka after the 26th of October, I doubt images of flowers in bloom or flower beds would immediately spring to mind. And yet, this is how I see Sri Lanka, or more precisely, how I study the debates, conversations, events and processes that shape our polity and society today. My doctoral research is anchored to the study of social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, post-war. There is an entire canon of academic research and literature around the use and abuse of social media around revolutions. Little to nothing is published around the role, reach and relevance of Facebook and Twitter in societies coming out of war. I inhabit the intersection of what’s called data science – the study of very large datasets – politics and peacebuilding. My chief interest is in creating social media ecosystems – think of it like immunisation – resilient to content and actors who incite hate and violence.

Having set up Groundviews in 2006, the country’s first civic media platform that continues to publish content that cannot or will not go up in mainstream media, my research at present is anchored to the dynamics of social media beyond inflammatory and simplistic headlines. I look at Facebook and Twitter at scale – meaning, in the hundreds of thousands of posts – sifting through content in English and Sinhala for patterns and trends that can help explain complex interactions between what is produced, shared and engaged with online, and what this content goes on to inspire in the real world. A causal linkage between online hate and kinetic violence is elusive and not the goal of my research. I am more interested in how Sri Lanka’s 18-34 demographic are introduced to politics, and subsequently, engage with political developments on social media.

The research is hard. A large part of it is visualising upwards of hundreds of thousands of records in ways that can help flesh out conversational dynamics. Facebook and Twitter have different affordances – meaning that you can do things on one you cannot on the other. The most obvious difference is with the length of a post – Twitter allows a far more limited number of characters than Facebook. Looking at how conversations grow, spread and eventually die offers insights into what exactly generates the most traction on social media, and why. Over time, armed with contextual knowledge, the data can also help prefigure a proclivity towards certain responses.

The mushroom around Jana Balaya, the political protest engineered by Namal Rajapaksa in early September captures three key hashtags on Twitter used by the organisers. Even without knowing anything about data science, the singular way the graph is structured – like a hub and spoke, with a few key accounts at the centre every one else links to – is evident. Compare this to the mushroom that captures, around the same time, a campaign by Amnesty International South Asia around enforced disappearances. Using the hashtag the organisers used, the graph very clearly shows several clusters within a larger one. Not unlike a matryoshka doll, each cluster is its own ecosystem, within the larger campaign. The two campaigns are visually distinct. Both visualisations are created using thousands of tweets, computationally arranged in such a way that groups them according to ties to other accounts. This gives researchers the ability to figure out who in the larger network really drives the discussion as well as other influential actors who act as bridges or amplifiers. All this is useless without contextual knowledge, which is why my research is anchored to socio-political dynamics at home, which I know far more than a foreign country.

Since the 26th of October, several key dynamics and trends have emerged, strengthening what I have observed for months. Gossip in Sinhala on Facebook is the primary driver of news and information, including political frames. This is extremely disturbing on many levels, since these pages – which numbers in the hundreds – produce content as such great volume and velocity, they are by order of magnitude engaged with more than mainstream news sites in any language. Ethics are absent and professional optional on these pages. Those who engage believe they are very well-informed, when in fact they are entirely ill or misinformed. On the other hand, memes – or cartoons produced anonymously – are hugely popular as a vehicle for incisive political critique. Often, the assumption is that exposure to this content makes consumers better informed. Sadly, this too is not the case.

Think of followers or fans as different species of flowers, growing side by side. What may look visually quite appealing is in fact a significant, growing problem. Each bloom is distinct, and doesn’t interact with others. Likewise on social media, fans of a politician, party or brand rarely if ever engage with anything that contests their beliefs. Worse, they are hostile towards difference. These are called echo chambers, which are hyper-partisan and rife for the injection of rumour engineered to instigate violence.

Responding to these complex, violent dynamics is made harder by the fact that dissent, advocacy and activism, in a context of authoritarian control of all other media, is also to be found on social media. Vital speeches made at the Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero’s memorial event were censored by mainstream media and only carried over social media. Compelling letters, statements, press releases and short essays opposing the unconstitutional coup are rife on social media, just as much as content seeking to legitimise, justify and normalise it are also strategically produced and promoted.

This is Sri Lanka’s new battleground. Its dynamics are complex and evolving, but the simple fact is this – every single political party, politician and other actors vying for political power, recognise the value of capturing attention, containing negative messaging and controlling the narrative on social media. My research, like a medical doctor would, examines all this as a contagion. The worst we can be, and amongst us, often overwhelm our better angels on social media. The odds are stacked against those of us who seek to strengthen civil discourse, decency, dignity and democracy online. I work to increase those odds and believe the democratic potential of Sri Lanka is anchored to getting this right.

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First published in Lanka Monthly Digest (LMD), January 2019. Download PDF of the article here. Download PDF of the article as it appeared in the magazine here.

Manchurian Candidates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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