The Citizen Archivist

A public lecture on archiving from a few years ago dealt with how I’ve developed an interest in preserving digital content – especially on social media – for posterity. The assumption many hold is that digital content never decays and that once online, on the web or indexed on Google, content never disappears or goes away. This is wrong on many levels. 

For starters, digital content is only good if its accessible. A book or scroll can last hundreds of centuries in the right conditions. Printed text doesn’t require energy to store and regenerate. A book’s format is timeless, requiring only the physical turning of a page to access its contents. A digital file – like this column sent to the Sunday Island’s Editor, a PDF or a spreadsheet – requires energy to be stored, and propriety technology to open. Think of WordPerfect, dBase III Plus or VisiCalc. All of these programmes were – just two or three decades ago – very common and widely used. Today, it’s a technical challenge to access any file created by them for two reasons. One, the magnetic media they were stored on. Old floppy disks, especially in the tropics, would have long given up a fight against fungi, humidity and insects. Two, the file formats are defunct and require significant effort and technical expertise to open in modern day computers and programmes. No digital file format or medium used today is immune from this same decay, decades hence. 

So-called ‘right to be forgotten’ legislation aside, where citizens in certain jurisdictions can order search engines, through judicial review, to delink specific content, social media content is in fact extremely difficult to find as time goes by and for a variety of reasons. Vital content essential for a fuller historical record is sometimes erased. A few years ago, a demeaning comment on the posterior of a well-known actress, published on Namal Rajapaksa’s official Twitter account, is now gone. At the time it was originally posted, the tweet generated a lot of pushback from others, including from your author, disgusted at the comment and appalled that a culture of violence against women was condoned on the account of a prominent personality. As Namal Rajapaksa’s profile expanded and a public, political persona was more carefully crafted, this tweet, obviously  inconvenient to and incompatible with future aspirations, was surreptitiously deleted without any apology. Namal’s father provides another example of deleterious digital deletion. In the first 24 hours of the constitutional coup late last year, the entire contents of the Prime Minister’s official website was wiped out and replaced by a single image of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rarely seeing or treating content on official websites as held in public trust, politicians often completely erase or overwrite content for parochial optics and partisan gain. In yet another example from few years ago, the entire contents of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) website disappeared completely, almost overnight, prompting an unprecedented note of dismay and alarm from the US Foreign Affairs Committee, which correctly flagged that citizen testimony was a vital part of historical record. Sadly, the website was never restored and its content – ranging from invaluable audio recordings to multi-lingual transcripts – is gone forever.

The problem is in fact much larger and more complex. Historically, every time the website of a leading newspaper in Sri Lanka is revamped, access to its archives – if they exist at all – is completely lost. Civil society projects often launch websites, each important and unique for what is captured, showcased and indexed. However, many aren’t engineered to last the unceasing onslaught of attacks against vulnerable web properties. In time, the sites crash or their domains – the web address if you will – expire. The greater the volume of production at a certain time, around a specific topic or on a particular platform, the harder it is to find a specific post. Combined with this, the longer the time after content was initially shared or produced, the less discoverable it becomes. Further, a lot of social media content exist in what are called ‘walled-gardens’. This means that what’s posted on Facebook and Twitter isn’t by default indexed on or discoverable through search engines. Biographies in the near future, anchored to key individuals whose correspondence, output and personalities mostly or only exist on certain social media platforms, will be near impossible to write or capture.

Over a decade ago, disturbed and saddened at the prospect of so much vital content being maliciously wiped out or disastrously degenerating over time, I started to archive key civil society websites and websites launched at the time of, or set up to record vital aspects of the ceasefire agreement. I also archived all the Twitter Q&A sessions conducted under the Rajapaksa regime, including with Mahinda Rajapaksa, Lalith Weeratunga and Nivad Cabraal. Sites set up by the erstwhile LTTE, linked to their ironic Peace Secretariat and Department of International Relations, were also archived. Additionally and over time, I started to archive key government websites linked to key political and developmental events, processes and projects. Dr. Saroja Wettasinghe, the former Director of Sri Lanka’s National Archives, in conversation with me after an interview we recorded for TV in 2014, said that she wished the Archives had the human resources and technical knowhow to scale up what I was doing. 

Unsurprisingly, many of these sites, particularly linked to or from the time of the Ceasefire Agreement as well as the CoI and IIGEP processes, don’t exist anymore. The only existing public copy of vital records – from speeches and statements to declarations, agreements and proposals – are in the archived sites. Sadly though, much more than I could save, is lost. It begs the question as to how we record politics as it is conducted and contested today for posterity. The constitutional coup late last year resulted in the unprecedented growth of social media content, both in favour and staunchly opposed to it. From flood relief to constitutional reform, from the announcement of key policies to vibrant debates around political developments on Facebook, from the live broadcasts of press conferences and rallies on social media, generating millions of views and tens of thousands of comments, to campaign websites and related content, from personal tweets of politicians to the plethora of output from official accounts, from structured social media interactions with the public to more informal and unstructured engagements with those in positions of authority and power, politics is digital. How and to what degree we can capture these conversations, at risk of being subsumed, erased, deleted, lost and forgotten, matters a great deal. It requires, on the lines of UK’s Web Archive initiative, a high-level commitment by government to archive digital records. The UK doesn’t, to my knowledge, have to deal with politicians erasing entire websites just to put up their own image after an unconstitutional transfer of power. Clearly, Sri Lanka’s challenge, in addition to technical issues, is also institutional and cultural. There is no discernible evidence that successive governments value enough the work done by predecessors to save their digital records and output carefully. 

Ultimately, the issue is how we deal with history, including inconvenient truths. To remember is political, and remembrance often is an act of defiance. Successive governments and political leaders want citizens to forget. This essential tension is what places at risk all digital content that are official records. With scant regard for any version of history other than what’s officially sanctioned by whoever is in power, a fuller appreciation of the value of preserving digital content is almost entirely lost. The tragedy is that future generations will never even know how much of the country’s rich conversational, political, social and cultural textures they’ve lost.  

###

First published in The Sunday Island, 17 February 2019.

Advertisements

Media and politics

A presentation of my doctoral research to colleagues at CPA afforded the chance to talk and think about what social media means for those not on and the least aware of it. Conversations and commentary over 2018 posit to social media powers, responsibilities and roles that grossly simplify more complex, dynamic relationships. For the readers of this newspaper, from a demographic who hears more about social media than actually uses it, it is important to understand how the millions using these platforms daily, creating in the aggregate a mind-boggling wealth of content, shape society, polity, governance, institutions and electoral processes.

At scale and at present, occasionally violent but always vigorous social media dynamics anchored to just Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, constitute the warp and woof of how a demographic between 20 to 40 perceives and engages with politics. This is important, because what’s called platform affordances – what a user can and cannot do depending on what social media platform they choose to use – in turn defines how they interact with political frames. Negotiating difference, countering ideas, civil engagement, social currency, proposing alternatives, encouraging others, showing partiality, engineering dissent, showing solidarity, masking or making identity, envisioning a better future, analysing the present, holding others accountable, championing a cause or person, soliciting votes, expressing the love of or opposition to individual or idea, debating difference or celebrating diversity – the many affordances of social media provide frames through which a larger world is perceived, captured or rejected. Social media platforms are both inter-dependent and often self-referential. This is hard to understand, but a gardening metaphor can help. One’s own garden, weeded and well-tended, is a space that others can be invited into and cannot otherwise gain access. A walled-garden is not unlike Facebook, where communities of users congregate around or are invited into specific groups, where the conversations of like-minded individuals reinforce norms, attitudes and practices. One looks around and anchors conversations to what’s around or proximate. You can catch glimpses of other groups, but they often only serve to reinforce the belief, trust in and love for groups one is already part of or party to. And yet, Twitter for example points to content on Facebook, which in turn can also host content off YouTube. Responses to a single piece of content often span multiple platforms. A phenomenon called going viral – when content is spread, promoted and featured widely over a very short-span of time – is now a feature of any political moment or process. All this aside, anecdotal evidence coupled with episodic data collection indicates instant messaging – like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger – are pillars of a myriad of conversations numbering in the millions, entirely hidden from academic study and public scrutiny. How these frames, created, cemented and contested daily, impact or influence young voters is a field of growing, global study. The reason for this is because politics as we love or hate it is changing.

Take the constitutional coup of last year. I have heard very senior journalists claim in public fora that a central reason for the coup’s failure is social media. And they leave it at that, giving the public the impression that social media is somehow inherently democratic and decent. Earlier in 2018, journalists including from the New York Times looked at the violence in Digana and flagged how much social media had contributed to it. The submission here was that if it wasn’t for Facebook and other apps including WhatsApp and Viber, the violence would not have been so bad or even broken out. Elements of truth in each thesis mask an overall ignorance or disinterest around what’s far more complex.

Algorithmically or computationally, social media at scale captures our attention by providing fields of view that feed our bias. So over time, the risk is that communal or prejudiced opinions either tend to get strengthened or go unquestioned by others. Serendipitous encounters with difference or diversity are rare. Conversely, at certain times, this tango of technology works in ways that promote a specific set of ideas, individuals or institutions that in the fullness of time, can be said to have contributed to a net positive, or social gain. Both dynamics co-exist, over each platform and between them. The technology reflects us, and how we respond critically or react emotionally, in turn shapes our use of social media.

Given the overarching dynamics of political communications on social media I study at scale and some depth, much is changing – rapidly and inexorably. The emergence of partisan fluidity means that social media users rally around a specific political party or politician in opportunistic ways, with affiliation pegged to process, event or idea, often time-bound. In other words, the demographic of voters who vote for a specific party no matter what, and also a caste vote, are contested in ecosystems where partisan loyalty changes dynamically. How politicians need to and will engineer electoral gain will shift to hybrid models where the face to face and mass rallies will be supported and occasionally supplanted by sophisticated social media based political communications campaigns, not above the strategic spread of misinformation. Complex media ecologies have emerged, blurring or even erasing neat boundaries and definitions. Data collected just during the constitutional coup indicates clearly the high degree mainstream media was featured, shared and engaged with on social media, in addition to citizen-generated civic media content. Powerful media owners with their political paymasters are learning to shift content strategies to fit this digital first demographic. Politics is seen as digital engagement, which doesn’t necessarily translate into footfall at rallies or the exercise of franchise. Even though in 2015, the very high turnout at the Presidential and Parliamentary Elections can be somewhat attributed to social media campaigns around voter mobilisation, the anxiety, anger and apathy around the political culture since, accentuated by social media, may have resulted a considerable number of those in 1stor 2ndtime vote base to be disenchanted with electoral processes. This is dangerous, because engineering this apathy so as to result in a drop in voter turnout helps authoritarianism’s steady creep. The great lesson of Namal Rajapaksa’s unprecedented digital mobilisation around Jana Balayawas that tens of thousands talking about an event, doesn’t result even a fraction attending it. An equally important lesson from the constitutional coup is that specific individuals command and control more attention than democratic institutions, with social media favouring the episodic over the systemic, and the emotive over the substantive. In other words, the characters and conditions for another debilitating crisis respectively thrive and persist, though social media conversations have moved on. Populism, or the digital evolution of the cult of the individual (which is a defining characteristic of our local political landscape), strongly favours those who exploit their charisma over social media. The meek will risk everything and not inherit anything.

Simplistic captures of social media don’t help society robustly debate or discuss any of these evolutionary trends. Worse, how inextricably entwined social media is with social and polity writ large isn’t communicated. A like is not a vote. But at scale, and in the tens of millions, popular and public sentiment can be nudged and ascertained as a consequence of what is digitally produced and shared. This nexus, no longer new, is fertile ground to harvest the worst of who we are, and the best of what we can be. The choice of which to strengthen isn’t social media’s to make. It is ours to take.

###

First published in The Island newspaper, 10 February 2019.

Independence

The lines snaked their way past and around the calm Buddha, who in Chinese before Tamil, greeted one to Sri Lanka. The visa on arrival counter was clearly marked by a throng of very tired looking foreigners, some with families seated on the floor, because there’s no seating in that area. A man, magically and out of nowhere, appeared behind me, placing himself in front of a foreign couple without so much as a glance or apology. I introduced him to the concept of a line and the virtue of patience, asking him to return to wherever he first came from. The foreign couple expressed their thanks, and I apologised on behalf of the country, expressing the hope the rest of their holiday would be as they had expected it. The airport security I smiled and spoke briefly with guided me in the direction of a line he had observed moved faster than others. I asked him what he thought of the scene that lay before us. At least three hundred people, mostly foreigners, in various stages of fatigue and frustration, lined up like cattle. He shrugged his shoulders, smiled and said in Sinhala that he and I, being small men, had no power to change anything. I wasn’t inclined to disagree.

I eventually encountered an immigration official whose moustache held, as evidence of a large pot belly’s sustenance, a small remnant of dinner or a midnight snack. He was completely disinterested in everything and everyone. My passport was handed back with a barely covered yawn. Looking around, I couldn’t see a single improvement in the Arrivals Hall since the last time I was in it, a year ago. A leading bank’s poster, inviting the Chinese to bank with it because staff spoke fluent Mandarin, was a reminder of how much Sri Lanka was indebted to footfall from one country. Downstairs, the staccato movement of the luggage carousels, unchanged for over a decade, ejected some lighter pieces of luggage on to the floor. The airport staff didn’t seem bothered.   

Outside the airport, complete chaos reigned. Horns, some with short, repetitive tunes and others making up for this lack of musical talent by sheer volume, competed with each other to signal their presence to specific groups of passengers who amidst this cacophony, like drunk or lost bats, tried to navigate to the sound they were most familiar with. Heavy luggage carts kept catching into the ankles of those around and in front. From my vantage, the yelps of pain accompanied by a jump and glare back frequently dotted the throng of people waiting for their vehicle. The transport itself had many logics. The larger vehicles assumed the smaller ones should give way, and were affronted when, often, they did not. The smaller ones, to compensate for this bullying, generally had the louder horns. Vans disregarded the presence of taxis, and taxis disregarded the presence of all other vehicles. Brand-new Range Rover Sport HSE’s, with their signature grace and disdain, glided above this melee. Their drivers and occupants never looked to the side or out the window, and appeared to be a continent away even in same country. A large billboard featuring a well-known casino’s promise of entertainment and rich winnings welcomed everyone to Sri Lanka. I do not know if the Gautama inside was consulted before its erection. Policemen whistled non-stop and at everything, or nothing in particular. Sometimes the whistle went off to even their surprise when they exhaled their exasperation. At times, the simultaneously flashing headlights of dozens of vehicles – all indicating importance and impatience – gave the shabby outside of the airport the appearance of a post-apocalyptic nightclub.

Colombo’s streets, for every kilometre travelled, now feature more high-end European marques that I’ve ever seen in New York over a comparable distance. The very day I landed, my son and I spotted an Aston Martin wasting – with a low and menacing growl of dissatisfaction – a fraction of its power, inching forward in a gigantic traffic jam. Everyone, all the time, is anxious and angry when driving. Everyone is fighting for a time or positional advantage that doesn’t exist, where a car’s length or just an inch ahead is valiantly fought for by violently revving, braking, horning, shouting and gesticulating. Lane divisions seemingly exist to alert drivers, especially in white or black SUVs, as to how far away from them they can drive. Pedestrians are both hapless victims as well as active agents in the chaos. Many cross wherever they please, with a signature grin that gets wider the closer they brush against death. Others wearily wait for ages by a pedestrian crossing, often with no hope passing vehicles caught in their own battles will stop for them. The horning starts the second the lights turn yellow. Images of or quotes from Che, Marley, religious deities, sons, daughters as well as soulful paeans to mothers, excerpts from the Dhammapada, and entirely meaningless combinations of English words adorned on three-wheelers scurry and creep everywhere, like the hurried movement of red corpuscles under a microscope. In just a week, I’ve driven past three serious accidents where it is utterly confusing as to how the vehicles and seriously injured occupants ended up the way they did, if common sense and road rules were adhered to. 

The ostentatious display of wealth has got worse. Hip new coffee shops and swank restaurants help clean black money. It is unclear who can afford to actually buy anything at Colombo City Centre. The throngs of people the evening I ventured into it were far more interested in selfies than sales. A colleague at work extolled the virtues of the new cinemas, which I know I will venture into before I leave the country again. But the complete lack of any arthouse cinemas or film screenings, easily found even in other South Asian cities, indicates a market tellingly only interested in the mindless, mainstream, mundane or mercantile.

These are select snapshots of a country I’m engaging with in person after being absent for a year. Both regressive change and shocking stasis – starkly rendered because I’ve not been part of an invisible incrementalism that has normalised exceptions over time – were violent. The experiences made me wonder what we celebrate tomorrow. 

Recently, politicians publicly fought over the first new railway line laid in the country since Independence. The bone of contention was around who should get the the most or sole credit. Lost in, as usual, the pointless tirades was the fact that it took over 70 years to lay just 26km of new railway track. En route to Colombo from a country that revers nature, I read on Facebook that an access road to Singharaja was being widened. I just couldn’t fathom why. The jingoism and militarism of Independence Day celebrations mask enduring existential challenges for those in the North, a decade after the end of the war as well as relative poverty in the South. Evident even just in Colombo, wealth brings insulation, lower temperatures, higher elevations, better reception, privileged access, easier negotiation and more opportunities. A new wealth is here, along with its attendant mindset and values. From respecting nature to civil nurture, everything else is dispensable. 

Including, evidently, democracy – over 70 years after the Raj receded.  

An analog world

In 1992, my father brought home an Aiwa VCR. We excitedly plugged it into a Sony Trinitron TV and then just sat around, commenting on the aesthetics of the device and its remote control (the first in our home), before settling down to an episode of Doo Daruwo. A few days later, we went to Nastars at Liberty Plaza to get a new membership and borrow two or three movies on VHS. With dire warnings from Amma to watch my fingers as I pushed in the tape before the VCR’s loading mechanism sucked it in, we watched our first movie, marvelling more at the technology that allowed us to see it than the film itself. We paused just for the heck of it, rewound and fast forwarded. Worried that the high-pitched noise of the VCR’s tape mechanism coupled with the scan lines on the TV as one did this was because something was going awry somewhere, we eventually just let the movie play.

But the VCR held more surprises. With a stellar cast of actors and an utterly compelling storyline, Giraya was all the rage at the time. Having recorded an episode of it for parents, I then unknowingly recorded something else on the same tape, overwriting the original. It was only after the traumatic fallout from this debacle that the little plastic notch on the side of every VHS tape was discovered, which when broken, prevented the tape from being over-written. Later on, worried that the VCR’s lifespan would be reduced by all the rewinding of tapes, my father invested in a dedicated VHS tape rewinder. It was a basic, brutal product. While the Aiwa, being Japanese and thus exceedingly polite, monitored the speed of the tape and reduced the speed of rewinding so as to gently ease into the final length of the spool, the rewinding machine had no qualms about going right to the end at full chat, snapping the end of the tape in a Frankensteinian moment that immediately ejected it to a horribly synthesised rendition of Beethoven’s Für Elise played over a tinny speaker. The only way to shut off the cacophony was to immediately unplug it.

The more recent, popular films were often unavailable at Nastars, despite stocking, we were often told, around a dozen copies of these titles. When we did get them eventually, there was no guarantee the film could be enjoyed. In Sri Lanka’s hot, humid conditions, VHS tapes degraded rapidly and with each play. This resulted in a picture quality – almost always at the most crucial parts of the film – that was horrible and audio that sounded more like whales or dolphins communicating with each other. Sometimes Nastars gave us another copy of the tape. Other times they just said we could have a film for free, in addition to what I recall was a rent three, get one free offer.

As the years passed, the Aiwa became less mysterious and part of the family. Relatives from Australia, using camcorders just released in their markets, brought back banal videos of their lives along with the VHS-C to VHS adapters to enable the smaller tapes to fit into and play back on the VCRs. The VCR head – a large, well-polished, silver rotating disk deep within the VCR, became next to a plaster of paris mini Buddha, the most cared for item in our house. Every weekend, a special head cleaning tape – with a run time of precisely one minute – and an aerosol spray, both from Japan, were employed to keep this critical part of the VCR in pristine condition.

The Aiwa remained with us, working flawlessly, for well over a decade. Some features were rarely used. Setting it up to record a TV programme in advance required the day, hour and minute to be set sequentially, using irascibly small black buttons. VHS tracking – a way to reduce the visual artefacts on old or well used tapes – was discouraged by my father whose argument was that such tapes had no place going into the VCR in the first place. He had a point. After laboriously programming the VCR and going out, we often returned home only to find merrily a blinking, blank green LED as our reward. Even a small power outage – and there were so many at the time, almost every day – resulted in the resetting of the VCR.

At first under strict parental supervision and control, and then as the years passed, aided by a complete disinterest in what I chose to rent and watch, that Aiwa introduced me to a wide and varied world of video – from French cinema to Hitchcock, the music videos on Australian MTV and Channel V to The Mask, Heat, Pretty Woman, Goodfellas and Home Alone. The most treasured tapes were kept behind Amma’s saris, in the coolest, darkest recess of her almirah, surrounded by packets of Silica gel to keep the wretched fungus at bay.

The very kinetic, tactile, physical nature of consuming video was the same with cassettes and LPs. Our Sony Triniton TV, built in the late 70s, had six channels you tuned with a special plastic screwdriver. When the first private TV UHF broadcasts were introduced, we had to get a completely new terrestrial antenna, a UHF tuner and a coaxial cable splitter. All this was required because the original analog, frequency and spectrum locked technology was never designed to work with what came thereafter. Listening to LPs on the turntable first required the cleaning of the vinyl using a special velvet brush and, if particularly under-played, a good rinse and a thorough wipe down. You really had to invest the time and effort to play something – because one selected, vinyl allowed only the most wonderfully imperfect of fast forwarding and rewinding – you had to physically lift the needle off the turntable and then gently place it back on spinning record, at 33 ⅓ or 45 RPM. Static to sonorous sound took about a second to find its groove. Cassettes, in comparison, were almost digital in their analog simplicity. You just popped them in, and played. I recall the 90 minute TDKs were a bit temperamental, but the standard 60 minute tape worked flawlessly. The only way Akka and I, growing up, listened to the pop songs we loved the most on demand, was to hold a Sony tape recorder against the speaker of the TV and record the songs as they were played on Bevil Palihawadana’s music show on ITN. The resulting recordings often featured the VJ’s signature interjections and short ads in the middle of the song. We mentally tuned them out during playback – there was no other option.

A lot of this came flooding back to me as I read an article in The Guardian newspaper this week anchored to the twentieth anniversary of ‘The Matrix’, a film I saw as a third year undergraduate in Delhi, India. However, seeing it again this week on my iPad – at a resolution much greater than perhaps the original projection in the cinema – just wasn’t the same. Every imaginable measure of production, projection and delivery of content has improved. And yet, we’ve also lost so much.

My most treasured collection of music still resides on CDs, along with Thaththa’s LPs. I’ve lost all my VHS tapes to the tropics. Even if they were around, I don’t have a VCR to play them on. All my cassettes are gone. And yet, one reason I still enjoy going out to the movies is because it reminds me of the time, family and Sri Lanka I grew up in – when music, video or film required the physical effort to engage with, over devices that each had their foibles you learnt to work around, live with and even love. Being wistful over mercurial skip, crackle and pop of vinyl, the visual artefacts of VHS, the flat stereo imaging of tape and the appeal of a cathode ray tube may sound completely mad to even my son, who knows only a world of high-definition, digital sound and video reproduction. So be it.

A love of that analog world will not recede, even though, as more years go by, I know I will find it increasingly difficult to explain to others.

###

First published in The Sunday Island, 27 January 2019.

Puppets, Pawns and Presidents

Sirisena, Wickremesinghe, Gotabaya Rajapakasa, his brother Chamal and Karu Jayasuriya. The last week saw media frame prospective candidates for an office that the incumbent said, nay, swore on 9th January 2015, he would never seek re-election to and would be the last to occupy. Evidence of Sri Lanka’s sickeningly bankrupt political culture is again to be found in how, leaving aside unequivocal promises four years ago, even the catastrophic events of late 2018 and its entrenchment have not resulted in any meaningful measures to abolish the Executive Presidency. While the government continues bizarrely, blindly and blithely with business as usual, the names paraded as Presidential aspirants offer some interesting insights.

Early last week and soon after Chamal Rajapaksa noted he too was open to throwing his hat into the circus, I noted flippantly on Twitter, with two images that juxtaposed him and his brother Gotabaya, that this was classic A/B testing. A technique used in marketing, A/B testing at its simplest is the projection, production or promotion of two or more alternatives, with reactions or responses to each acting as signals around what is an intended or desired outcome. Websites do this all the time, invisibly. From search results to changes in the design and layout, leading websites are in constant A/B testing mode – refining rendering based on context and a multitude of other factors with the aim of retaining audiences, increasing consumption or converting visits to purchases.

In the political domain, what we are seeing is a parallel process – quite brilliant I may add – of first proposing the most heinous and horrendous of candidates so as to engineer a public mood swing away from them, and on to those who would if first proposed, be roundly dismissed. In other words, the very real fear of the worst and most murderous candidate being elected as Executive President, and the clear license that office affords for madness to mutate, may guide the public towards alternatives who are in fact no more decent, democratic or liberal, but aren’t overtly tainted as architects of extra-judicial murder, abductions, war crimes and violence. Proposing some of these names ensures, thus, the mere illusion of choice and is designed the ensure the validation and continuation of the status quo.

That said, there is genuine reason to fear a serious Gotabaya Rajapaksa bid for the Presidency. Viyath Maga is already a platform that connects many, from a range of disciplines and backgrounds, who can be transformed into central nodes of a political campaign. The problem though, is evident in a close study of social media engagement. Soon after a leading Prelate’s recommendation last year that Gotabaya needed to become Hitler to sort out Sri Lanka’s issues – one that, important to record, the individual concerned embraced and never once decried or denounced – social media engagement pegged to around eighty pages I track on Facebook unsurprisingly showed a brief period of heightened production and engagement. However, compared to Namal and Mahinda Rajapaksa respectively, over time, Gotabaya failed to maintain anything close to that sudden peak in popularity. As this column has previously noted, the most rabidly racist and communal content – by order of magnitude – is to be found in the constellation of pages around Gotabaya Rajapaksa. This ranges from imagery and photography, to content and commentary. The degree of frothing, fear-mongering, fascist nationalism promoted and prevalent on these pages does not mirror any other cluster I monitor, save for around one hundred extremist Sinhala-Buddhist sites I keep tabs on. The projection to a larger constituency the interactions I monitor at scale and over time on these and other pages isn’t simple or easy. As an indication however of dynamics that can, at the very least, be proxy indicators for public sentiment and support, the patterns and trends within and amongst these clusters can be extremely revealing. And what it suggests is that, quite apart and aside from external concern and anxiety, the resistance to a Gotabaya candidacy clearly comes from within the SLPP, and in fact, from within the family.

The arc of succession clearly bends towards the paternal instincts of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Tellingly, neither Gotabaya nor Chamal’s announcements have, to date, got any recognition from Mahinda, much less endorsement. Recall the widely-shared telegenics and photography around the opening of the SLPP headquarters in May last year. Gotabaya, Chamal and Mahinda made it a point to be photographed together – smiling, holding hands, standing shoulder to shoulder. Mahinda made it a point to note that Viyath Maga was only a name, and was essentially a vehicle to carry forward his populist chinthanaya. And yet, all that public posturing died down quickly. Unexpected events several months thereafter didn’t benefit Gotabaya or Chamal. Gotabaya wasn’t part of, or featured heavily in Jana Balaya.  And in the middle of all this, Basil Rajapaksa – by many accounts a brilliant political strategist yet without any social media footprint – is also silent. Tainted by violence, scandal and under active investigation for the misappropriation of funds, three of the four brothers are bound together in an unholy alliance that secures their freedom, immunity and impunity only if one or more of them have access to or regain political power. Chamal Rajapaksa’s announcement is interesting in this regard. However, like Basil, with a near zero social media footprint, his appeal to and traction with the SLPP’s core constituency is a great unknown. His allegiances towards and relationship with each brother are also unknown.

Quantitative analysis aside, the qualitative nature of content produced and promoted by social media clusters anchored to Namal, Mahinda and Gotabaya are, counter-intuitively, only rarely in harmony. Further, even when they do in concert promote an idea, message or mission, it is in opposition to the UNP or an external party. There is very little evidence, in other words, of a unified, pan-Rajapaksa campaign or strategy that endures beyond the purely episodic. And if all this wasn’t complex enough, add to the mix what was noted by Dilith Jayaweera in an interview published four years ago, around his relationship with the Rajapaksas. Jayaweera, who leads the country’s premier political communications outfit by far, handles the official accounts of Mahinda, Gotabaya and Namal. Dark yet well-defined signatures of collaboration and coordination abound in many other unofficial pages and accounts pegged to these three individuals. Jayaweera knows full well the challenges noted here, and a whole lot more besides. And that is precisely why the study of what’s not present in, framed by or promoted on each respective social media cluster or official account is so fascinating to study, as probable, prescient indicators of political intent.

The elephant in the room, no pun intended, is the UNP. Much if not all of the political dynamics noted above inhabits or grows in and because of a vacuum created by Mr Wickremesinghe. Nothing – absolutely (insert expletive of your choice) nothing – seems to wake the party up from its somnambulism. Not electoral defeat. Not constitutional crises. Not a hostile, manic President. Not friendly advice. Not data. Not evidence. Not experience. Not electoral signals. Not civil society. Not well-known enemies of democracy entrenched in state institutions.

Four years ago the government’s central challenge around this time was around the delivery of a 100-day programme that was overly ambitious and bound to disappoint. This year, citizens should completely give up any vestigial hope in good governance. At the same time, we need to ask ourselves how best to sustain the kind of government that allows us all to best realise our democratic potential.

All bets are off around the configuration, late 2019, that emerges as the custodian of that shared dream.

###

First published in The Sunday Island, 20 January 2019.

Musical chairs

The appointment of a new Army Chief of Staff. A fresh denial around the use of chemical weapons. The denunciation of a civil society protest against mainstream media supportive of the constitutional coup, not by members of the SLPP, but by those in the UNP and government. A photograph of a former President, the incumbent and the Prime Minister, comfortably seated next to each other, enjoying or at least at a musical show. Newspaper headlines and reports framing dire warnings by the former President, who true to form, relies on the capture of emotions over fact or principle. In just the second week of January, we are presented with the template for what the year ahead holds. It is not looking good, but despite the obvious anxiety, I continue to maintain, is counter-intuitively rather beneficial. The greatest contribution of the constitutional coup to conversations around the grasp of Sri Lanka’s democratic potential was to place in the open and very clearly, who stood for what and where. This endures.

The closest I’ve personally got to Shavendra Silva was on a journey back to Sri Lanka from New York, where as dratted luck would have it, I sat next to him on both legs of the journey. Both disgusted and disturbed by the coincidental placement, I made it a point to not engage in any conversation. Still, I had the luxury of ignoring Silva’s obnoxious proximity. Hundreds of Tamils did not. They suffered, in their hundreds if not thousands, because of who he was and what he did during the fag end of the war. A man barred from attending a UN committee on peacekeeping while serving as the Deputy Permanent Representative of the Sri Lankan Mission in New York, tainted by allegations of war crimes which continue to stick and stain, was nevertheless found entirely fit by the President to be appointed as the new Army Chief of Staff. For a while now, the proclivity of the President to pander to populism was evident, manifest in statements that held the Army beyond reproach. Surprising of late is the degree to which those in the UNP, in a race to the depths of impunity, also express sentiments aimed at a constituency they never got the votes from, or secured any popularity in. A case in point was UNP MP and the State Minister for Defence Ruwan Wijewardene’s tweets on the Army’s use of chemical weapons last week. “I denounce the accusations of using chemical weapons by Sri Lankan Armed Forces during the civil war” went the first tweet. Three minutes after, that was deleted and instead “I strongly denounce the use of chemical weapons by Sri Lankan Armed Forces during the civil war”. Perhaps realizing for himself or being sternly told exactly what the implications of this new formulation were, this too was deleted ten minutes after publication and replaced with “I strongly state that the Sri Lankan Armed Forces have not used chemical weapons during the civil war”. Clearly, an unprincipled vacillation around principle and oscillation between promises of accountability and the furtherance of impunity colour not just President, but all of government.

It was not so much what Mahinda Rajapaksa said that caught my attention, but how he framed it. Marketing’s rule of three is well-known and applied in advertising, but here we have Rajapaksa embracing it to produce and project abject fear, in a way guaranteed to maximise reaction, retention and recall. This statement prepped for release at the start of this year and lapped up by electronic, print and social media was clearly part of a larger, post-constitutional coup media strategy by those well-versed in political communications, geared towards the electoral realisation of an outcome attempted through different means late last year. But the substance also matters. Rajapaksa’s signature sensationalism isn’t ignorance or stupidity. It is informed, calculating and strategic dog-whistling. And while the currency and appeal of his brand, along with that of the SLPP, significantly diminished in statistically measurable terms and unprecedented ways from October to December, it would be folly to think it will remain as unpopular as the year progresses. Recalling what was noted last week in this column, the coup’s entrenchment already shows – through primary data gathering and topline analysis related to on-going research – signs of angering and re-casting as overwhelmingly apathetic those who supported the restoration of constitutionalism. Both truly ironic and telling then that last week, the one voice who in Parliament noted that there was a distinct lack of political will around accountability and investigations into violence against journalists – TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran – is on the overwhelmingly racist social media constellations partial to or featuring content from the SLPP and Rajapaksas, promoted and projected as a terrorist. So in what may be the defining frames of 2019, it is terrorism to be partial to constitutionalism, seek accountability and justice, and somehow democratic to be partial to condoning war crimes, entertaining alleged war criminals and stoking up fear based on thinly veiled racism and violent communalism.

These are hard things to explain, and the fatigue around it is real. One recognises that agonising over these statements and their import is a privileged conversation, at certain strata. The existential realities of life and loss in the North are less well captured, but more concerning for residents, survivors, victims and citizens in the former war zones. And it is here that the photo of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena enjoyed a music concert together hurts the most. Change voted for by most in the North in 2015 was not to have the incumbent collude with the former President. Change that most stood up for, at a time when the denouement of the constitutional crisis wasn’t anywhere close to what ultimately transpired, wasn’t to have the incumbent Prime Minister sit both current and former President at music concerts. While some public, political events and circumstances render close physical proximity inevitable despite significant political differences and personal distaste, this was a concert – one that any one of the three could have easily declined participation in knowing full well who they would be seen and seated together with. That they did not reveal much more than the public pronouncements from any of them denouncing each other. Add to this the fact that the greatest defenders of the worst and most unprincipled, partisan media come from within government, and you have a situation where hope and faith in democratic governance and the delivery of justice, amongst other things, fades into risible insignificance. Save that for mothers of the disappeared, victims of the Rajapaksa regime’s violence, survivors of war now living under military surveillance and independent journalists, this is no laughing matter. The sceptre of violent pushback is now a new dawn away, if not through Executive fiat, then in what yet again seems entirely probable, through electoral outcomes.

It is this significant loss of choice and meaningful alternatives to those in power which defines our political landscape. The photo at the musical concert was in an unintended way, extremely apt. Musical chairs and the Sinhala adage around the band playing while the ship sinks are two metaphors that may define how history records what’s to come, and soon.

###

Published in The Sunday Island, 13 January 2019.

The continuing coup

New Year. Old problems. Those who have have taken a medium or long haul flight in recent years know the feeling. You are promised hundreds of channels of the best entertainment, more than enough to last the length of the flight. In reality, the films and shows are those you have seen before, the music isn’t to your taste and the quality of either isn’t very good. It is the illusion of choice, forcing you to watch reruns because there’s no other option, or switch off and sleep. Sri Lanka’s mainstream politics also, periodically, offers the promise of meaningful change and renewal, but in fact only ever offers dramatic re-enactments of a tired script with the same actors, made up badly to look differently. Some in fact, just play themselves. One is reminded of a quote from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s classic novel ‘The Leopard’, where a character – an Italian aristocrat – notes that “If we want things to stay the way they are, things will have to change”.  

Weeks after Mr. Wickremesinghe was sworn in as Prime Minister again, despite evidence in the public domain, those responsible for the coup – from President downwards – go about their lies and lives with impunity. Individuals appointed during the coup to key positions at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Information Department and other Ministries, continue in their service. Ambassadors who supported the coup, actively and openly, continue to hold their posting. Members of Parliament responsible for unprecedented, wanton violence on the floor of the house and the destruction of public property, have not yet been held accountable. Individuals who convinced the President that his actions were constitutional, as noted by the President himself, haven’t been identified and dealt with. The President is on record requesting that those appointed to state media during the coup, including ITN, Rupavahini and Lake House, aren’t removed from their positions. The Minister has complied. 

2019 starts with the constitutional coup’s enduring success, which is to place in positions of commanding authority – around both domestic policy and foreign relations – individuals who are deeply illiberal, undemocratic, and loyal to President above principle, professionalism, constitution or country. They will undermine, actively work against, stall and reverse progressive measures brought about by the government and work towards political anchors and goals partial to the former administration,  including its domestic and international allies. But what does the Prime Minister have to say about all this? One doesn’t know, because he hasn’t said anything. And therein lies the rub. Many, who were spontaneously animated and agitated to strengthen democracy in October, find the ominously silent yet definite entrenchment of the coup’s dynamics disturbing. I am one of them. 

There is another reason for my disquiet, after what is more widely recognised as the end of the constitutional coup mid-December. What was anecdotally shared and intuitively grasped by those on Twitter during the coup was the fact that the content sounded and looked markedly different to what it was usually, before the coup. Twitter in Sri Lanka plays a vital role in the now well-established  media ecosystem through its ability to shape conversations, accentuate attention and drive traffic towards certain place, product, pole, person or party. And as with all social media, its influence extends beyond just those connected to it and engaging on it. From May to December last year, I collected around 332,000 tweets in the public domain, anchored to two of the most used hashtags in the country. Likewise, I collected just over 181,000 tweets from last week of October to the beginning of December, covering the timespan of the coup and as a historic moment. Keeping in mind the theory of six degrees of separation, I was surprised to learn that over the months I had data for in 2018, those using Twitter captured by my research net were separated by just under four degrees. During the coup however, there is statistical evidence to prove that the use of and users on Twitter grew. In the collection anchored to the coup, the average connection between users was just over five degrees. This indicates an increase of those on Twitter – numerically as well as by way of diversity – in a very short span of time. This significant growth was the result of dormant users coming back on to the platform, as well as new users using the platform to produce and distribute content, including personal frames of anxiety, resistance and hope. Research over November alone indicated clearly that Twitter, as well as Facebook, were dominated not by content supporting the coup and the President’s actions, but by pushback. In other words, those most volubly against the President and Rajapaksa, were those who were not card-carrying supporters of the UNP or Mr. Wickremesinghe.

The data-driven evidence for this over Twitter alone is significant, because the rapid expansion in those active is a proxy indicator for the support and goodwill that the UNP and Mr. Wickremesinghe organically attracted. Though users didn’t increase in much the same way, on Facebook, there was an exponential increase in the production of content and engagement with it. Given the entrenchment of the coup’s destructive and disturbing dynamics, it is unclear how as this year progresses, those who came out to the streets in November and December 2018 – many for the first time in their lives – and produced content over social media, will react to what is already evident as another lost opportunity for meaningful democratic reform and change. 

This is more significant than the slow erosion of support for the January 2015 configuration. There is a constituency that is clearly anti-Rajapaksa but not pro-Wickremesinghe, that is opposed to authoritarianism as much as it is opposed to the UNP’s nepotism and corruption. This new constituency doesn’t act according to established norms of a party cadre, because they are fluid and flexible in partisan affiliation – assured in what they don’t want to see, and guided more by what they would like to bring about no matter who is in power. This is not something traditional political parties know how to deal with, much less even recognise. While not an exact science, the anger this constituency will feel toward a government they fought hard to protect because of democratic and constitutional principles, acting now against this very spirit, will invariably have an electoral consequence. The degree and depth of this initially virtual discontent and its subsequent expression through franchise runs the spectrum of non-participation (believing nothing changes) through to voting in the known evil, given that multiple chances given to hope and change went to waste.

Post-coup, the most significant difference between Sirisena and Rajapaksa is the spelling of their surnames. Everything else is interchangeable. It goes to show that democracy in Sri Lanka this year faces a challenge unseen even prior to 2015’s Presidential preference and mandate. A President who acts in concert with a former President he was once a sworn enemy of. A Prime Minister who does not act to safeguard and strengthen the overwhelming democratic mandate he received just over a month ago. A constituency that clearly cares more about democracy and constitutionalism than those in government. And the prospect of elections where the greatest distinction projected by competing voices is really the smallest of difference. 

It is customary to begin a new year with hope. But if holding on to hope requires the jettison of stark realities, I will choose to brace myself around what is to come, instead of being surprised later this year around dynamics evident just after the coup. The only constant in our politics, evidently, is change that changes nothing. 

###

First published in The Sunday Island, 6 January 2019.