The demographic divide

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

First published in The Sunday Island, 21 October 2018.

Advertisements

Identity and belonging

Sixteen years ago, I met a child soldier. He had a T-56 and was cocky. The A9 had opened up a few months ago, and taking it to Jaffna with a group of journalists, we encountered a checkpoint manned by the LTTE, past Omanthai. The children at the checkpoint, with guns strung around their torso loosely, were in the LTTE’s signature fatigue. Hostile and demanding, they curtly instructed our driver to provide the documentation to enter the area, which at the time the LTTE provided. One clambered into the driver’s seat as I sat in the passenger seat, knowing that if they wanted to be difficult, we would be stuck here for a while. I smiled. He didn’t. He looked around slowly, T-56 placed on the dashboard. Our Toyota Hiace van had at the time a rarity – an in-dash CD player. Looking at it quizzically, he gestured to me authoritatively to explain what it was. I forget what I ended up playing, but I remember the soldier immediately giving way to the child beneath, as he smiled broadly at the music and still beaming, gestured excitedly to his smaller and probably even younger comrades to come listen. They assembled outside the driver’s door, all smiling ear to ear and pushing each other to see how the music was being generated. He played around with the controls, skipping tracks, replaying songs after a few seconds, ejecting the CD, looking at it as if it was an alien creation and then inserting it again into the player, gasping and recoiling a bit as it was sucked in automatically. This was repeated. Clearly, it was the first time he had encountered a CD and CD player in his life. And like any kid with a new toy, the player interested him far more than the sound it produced. I can’t remember his face anymore. But I remember his eyes, his smile and of all things, his gun – the scratches, marks and dents on it and the ammunition clip. I can’t remember what we did on that particular trip, but still vividly recall him and his friends, at a checkpoint in the middle of nowhere. I also recall the complete silence in the van as we drove away. We were all lost for words.

There is so much of what I saw, heard and experienced during the ceasefire agreement from 2002 to 2005 worth writing about someday. But the memory of a child soldier in the middle of the Vanni sprang to mind reading Francis Fukuyama’s latest, titled Identity. Fukuyama’s tome is at times unwieldy and unfocused, but in the main, is a fascinating exploration around the dynamics of identity and dignity in political systems, and the challenge of their accommodation and expression in a liberal democracy in particular. Fukuyama’s central thesis is that populism’s rise and appeal at present is because of the indignity suffered by those in society who are rendered invisible by the dominant narratives undergirding the politics, practices and policies of the government. Akin to the points made by JD Vance in ‘Hillbilly Elegy’, Fukuyama suggests that the politics of the left has lost its way, focussing on ever smaller issues anchored to specific communities, giving way to right-wing politics that uses identity politics, including by appropriating the language of marginalisation and outrage, to appeal to ever greater numbers. Fukuyama focussed on the deterioration of liberal democracies in the West, but his critique of polarisation in political dialogue, lack of robust critique, the rise of emotion over reason, short-term fixes instead of long-term reform holds true even in Sri Lanka. Refreshingly, Fukuyama doesn’t posit any of this to social media. Towards the end of the book, he says that as much as social media is clearly responsible for exacerbating existing social, political and communal divides and thus contributing to violence, it also holds the key to greater cohesion, stronger democracy and better governance.

How to link this to the memory of a child soldier? I recall, to this day, driving away from that checkpoint looking at those children with guns disappear in the dust. I wondered then, as I do now, the conditions of a lived experience which contributed to, over time, a violent, armed movement to secure identity and dignity – constructs that a majoritarian, exclusive, and deeply discriminatory state had never afforded Tamils and other communities. 2015’s shift from authoritarianism to a government more open to criticism and less inclined to resort to violence against detractors hasn’t resulted in a stronger democracy. We are often told by the current government that we do not have to fear white vans, that the PM is subject to vicious and often unfair criticism, that the President considers he is the subject of awful media reportage, and that the inchoate nature of government is actually a feature of a more democratic form of governance. All of this is in the absence of constitutional reform to address issues around identity and dignity that were drivers of violent conflict. More concretely, mothers of the disappeared are callously ignored by the President, who last week in the UN went on to deliver a speech that was as supremely misguided as it was detrimental to any meaningful reconciliation. But it is not just about the North and East, or Tamils. Fukuyama makes the point that poverty-stricken whites from the Rust Belt feel particularly marginalised, because they have no one to champion the lived experience they endure, and risk being called petty or privileged for flagging issues around economic injustice, disenfranchisement, debilitating debt, poor education, health issues, the lack of any social safety net, hopelessness and marginalisation they too face acutely, daily and without respite or relief. The electoral outcome, as Fukuyama notes in countries without a firm sense of an overarching national identity, is the rise of populism that fine-tunes into discontent across geography, uniting disparate groups who suffer the indignity of poverty and the discrimination of an insensitive government.

I remembered a child soldier from over sixteen years ago, unlikely to be alive today, because that single, brief encounter encapsulated beyond anything I can pen the sheer horror of war, and why its meaningful resolution can never be achieved by military, political or communal dominance. If belonging and dignity are, as Fukuyama strongly suggests, central to a stable democracy, Sri Lanka is very far from it. If fear or anxiety is what continues to unite the greatest number amongst us, and if pride in a supra-national identity eludes us, I do not believe we are very far from renewed violence. A child with a gun manning a checkpoint in Sri Lanka is not something I want ever to see or encounter again.

I just fear I might.

First published in The Sunday Island, 30 September 2018.

Silicon Valley

My first trip to San Francisco many years ago, for an academic conference held at Stanford University, offered the chance to imbibe the culture and context that had given rise to so much of the technology that we now take for granted in our daily lives. I cannot remember much of what we talked about at the conference, but remember every detail of the campus and environs. At every possible opportunity, skipping even the customary official dinner, I skipped out of the venue and hotel to take a cab and go to the city. Some lessons were learnt quickly. Distance, mirroring what we know in Colombo, means nothing in relation to how fast you will get from point A to B. Traffic jams are epic, and bumper to bumper traffic more the norm than the exception. I once left the venue well in time for what I thought would be a quick sortie to an Apple Store, that mecca of glass, wood, aluminium and consumerism. I arrived in time for a solitary dinner at a nearby restaurant.

In the times I’ve been to the West coast of the US since I’ve been progressively less excited about the allure of the destination as the North Pole of entrepreneurship and venture capital. I’ve been more interested in individual meetings with some brilliant minds, and far less enamoured by the surroundings, which now resemble, South of SFO – the only airport I know of with a yoga room – slices of towering concrete and gleaming glass cakes, cut in various sizes and shapes, stacked upon and close to each other. The copacetic weather remains a wonderful feature of the region. The increasingly anaemic imagination and experience of those who reside and work here for leading technology companies tempers, however, any optimism or belief that they alone can understand the world’s problems, much less attempt to solve them. A report published in the media suggests that the area is losing its appeal because of sky-rocketing rent and living expenses, evident on even the most cursory visit to the city. The wealth gap is violently obvious. The homeless are everywhere, drugged out, passed out or walking the streets in an opiate haze. In the evening, store fronts for designer clothes, niche electronics, high-end furniture, designer labels and other magnets for easy credit purchases become shelters for men and women with nothing – no future, no money, no credit, no job and no hope. A block gentrified by the renovation or repurposing of an old warehouse, factory, printing press or building, suddenly becomes unaffordable for low-income residents around it, in turn leading to a ring of poverty that embraces a centre of affluence and wealth-generation of a select few.

In the Valley again last week, I had a moment where the normalisation of the sheer excess in corporate, consumer and civic culture was brought home. Thirsty, I went to a sprawling fridge in search of a bottle water. I was immediately paralysed by choice. There were about a dozen flavours of water, with someone within earshot complaining that everyone always took the watermelon flavour and that management should do something about that. There were carbonated drinks, sugar-free and vegan beverages. Every possible variety and brand of fizzy drinks was on offer. Freshly squeezed juice was also there, seemingly arranged by colour. The green section, which had kale in its list of ingredients and visually the most unappealing, was also the emptiest. There was ionised water, spring water, and bottles of various sizes. All for free, of course. I think I stood there, unable to move, for a while, confronted by how one fridge provided a window into how cocooned lives here were from a world beyond their climate controlled, automated offices, in San Francisco alone, leave aside sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia.

I can also see why all this is so appealing. Speaking to employees of a company, I learnt that stock, health and employee fringe benefits were extremely generous, in return for slaving away for hours fixing the mistakes of others. The ubiquity of Teslas, including the new Model 3, provides insight into the altruism of the wealthy, where being environmentally friendly involves an electric car and disposable straws in a world of rampant consumerism. It’s easy to donate to and be passionately driven by a cause far away through iTunes, and not be too concerned with or even see the awful poverty next door or just outside. Suburban life is comfortable and importantly, without any dramatic change brought about by disruptions to supply chains, politics, unions, logistics or weather. There is a comfortable, even luxurious routine, and with Lyft and Uber, the out-sourcing of a commute to a personal chauffeur, allowing even more time to engage with and lament about the rest of the world, ignoring what’s just outside the window. The appeal and allure will endure. I walked in a park – replete with large trees, bush, decks, terraces, jogging tracks and the odd juice bar – that was built entirely on the roofs of buildings that were all part of just one tech company. The urban architecture that serves the staff of all the companies extends from the appealing brick and mortar structures, which are architectural masterpieces in the main, to the invisible yet ubiquitous mesh of apps, services and platforms that through flick, swipe or click, brings the world to you. Anything can be delivered. Everything can be ordered. Anything can be booked. Nothing needs to be truly recalled, because everyone is reminded about everything through a concert of pings, pop-ups, vibrations or alerts. It’s at best a symphony of silicon, a marvel of human engineering. At its worst, it is an artificial intelligence – meant pejoratively – where deep, even purportedly spiritual connections with the world, justice, ethics and rights is very quickly revealed as, at best, passing fad, boredom with work, or attributes to take on in order to appear to be more interesting in a sea of quotidian banality.  

So much of how we see, learn about and engage with the world around us, is through the technology Silicon Valley provides us, so ubiquitous, it is invisible and unquestioned. They control the secret sauce that tweaks our sense of well-being. Their algorithms power what is prioritised. The platforms capture and curate the content we create and choose to share. They provide the plumbing for our information landscape and are responsible for the filtration of what we consume, over what, when, how and to what degree. They frame our engagement and restrict the flows of information. Much of this stems from a genuine interest in leaving a legacy of having done something right, good or just. Especially in recent years, I’ve met many in this region who haven’t yet found the language, to express to themselves or to others, a growing guilt that is the consequence of purely pursuing profit over principles. Personal intent, however, glosses corporate responsibility and accountability. There is a patina of violence, and now, genocide, that covers everyone and everything in the Valley. I do not know how and to what degree it will change corporate culture, but hope it eventually results in a course-correction long overdue.

Written first for The Sunday Island, 23 September 2018.

Flying Nuts

The President expressing his disdain over the quality of nuts offered on Sri Lankan airlines this week brought back memories of my first flight. I was 20 years old, and it was 21 years ago.

Undergraduate study in Delhi beckoned, but I was more excited about something else. Listening to my parents and my elder sister speak of flying growing up, and reading copiously on the dynamics and science of flight ever since I can remember, I was far more excited about the passage to Delhi by, than what I would be doing there as a student. My father, upon leaving the house, retreated mostly to silent prayer and meditations. Mom said she wanted an aisle seat, a preference arising from easy access to the loo. I chose to sit next to the window, and couldn’t care less for profound prayer or painless passage. A window seat remains to this day my preferred choice. All I did on the flight to Delhi was look out the window, disappointed that the seat parallel to the wing offered little by way of a line of sight to the ground. However, I saw for the first time the sky from 40,000 feet the air. A gradual gradation of fiery hues, an almost cloud sky and an indistinguishable horizon marked only by the rays of the setting sun escaping, giving way to the blackest of black, dotted occasionally by stars. It was magical. I craned and contorted to see, hear and take in everything – the various hydraulic noises, the whine of the engines as they powered up, the waving ailerons as the pilot did pre-flight checks, the blinking cabin lights before it went dark, the pressurisation, the sound of the air-conditioning kicking in, the unintelligible announcements over a tinny loudspeaker heralding the progression on to runway, and finally, take-off. I loved the sensation of being pushed back into the seat and the slight turbulence as the plane took off, which in hindsight would have been terrifying for my father.

Air travel over twenty years ago was glamorous if you sat near the cockpit. Further behind, in Economy Class, it was far worse than a long-distance bus. The legroom was terrible. The food was awful. The service was terrible. There was no TV at the back of the seats. No charging ports. Meals were vegetarian or non-vegetarian but tasted so bad, it may have been the same food with just different labelling. All  this was before smartphones, wi-fi and social media, when the now quaint habit of reading something printed on paper was the preferred means of spending time on board. The flight took over three hours. The story upon landing and the trip into Delhi – involving a steering wheel that came off in the hand of the driver, a van in a ditch, luggage of others with us that had dropped somewhere on the road and spending a sweltering night on the terrace of a house, would require a separate column or perhaps several. But the afterglow of the passage to Delhi, and its sheer magic for someone who had never experienced flight before lingered on. I used to look forward so much to my annual return home for the holidays, not so much for what I knew awaited me back home, but the experience of flight.

Before the devastating attack by the LTTE in 2001, and the resulting security that added to the hassle and theatre of getting into the airport, Katunayake resembled a village market. Easy to get into, poorly marked displays and signage, congregations of people for no discernible reason in various locations, mountains of suitcases, a pervasive and general state of confusion, idle officials who were also the most vociferous, an embryonic at best concept of lines to check in and all manner of arguments. In short, it was a confusing, surreal place, that operated on the unique and indescribable tropical logic of movement – the endless flow of people towards the general direction of counters, immigration and boarding gates. My father’s meticulous preparation spared us from the chaos around the area where the embarkation cards had to be filled. I cannot recall what we did in the airport once the formalities of checking in were over, but distinctly remember wandering around with my mother in search of a functioning toilet for women. There was nothing to do – no lounge we could pay and get access into. The airport itself was much smaller than what it is today – no air-bridges, no coffee shops or Pizza Hut, and a duty-free I recall recoiling from because of horrible lacquered wooden elephants, puppets, demon faces and of all things, brass lamps on display. The passage to the aeroplane, perhaps to give Sri Lankans one last experience of home, was on a crowded, derelict bus, where the operating principle around safety seemed to be that the more people you packed in, the more they would all be protected in case of an accident. I remember holding on to my mother because she couldn’t find anything to hold on to as we lurched our way to the plane.

I still have my tickets from that first flight. This was before the age of stubs. The original ticket had multiple copies of travel details, much like a chequebook. What the passenger was left with was the last page. The carbon copy is all in red, with relevant information meticulously handwritten. What appears to be blue and red coloured hieroglyphs mark seat number and the passage through various checkpoints. There was no automation anywhere – no e-tickets, no online check-in, no mobile passes. Ink, rubber stamp and paper marked one’s passage, from the counter, checkpoint and country.

Much obviously has changed. Much, however, remains the same. Our airport remains a terrible place for anyone not travelling in Business Class. I have resorted to tweeting to MPs responsible for tourism and aviation, capturing photos of what in 2017 deplorable conditions were like in the waiting areas of the airport. Immigration officials are most often absent. When present, they are morose, rude and inefficient. Luggage services are from the 80’s, and on one occasion, part of the carousel came off and lodged itself in between the suitcases. There is no convenient, comfortable and coherent public transport infrastructure that connects our international airport with the city, or beyond. The single highway to and from the airport has a chokepoint in Kelaniya so bad that one often spends more time in traffic to go home, than a short-flight from any neighbouring country. Staff at the airport are uniformly rude or vary their helpfulness based on how one is dressed. The announcements are often only in Sinhala and English. Migrant workers are treated horribly. Chinese comes before Tamil in some displays. The waiting areas are chaotic. The public toilets are hellish. People are still packed into buses to go to aircraft. The waiting areas on the ground floor are unchanged from the time I took my first flight two decades ago. And besides all this, our national carrier is an egregious embarrassment – with eye-watering losses, mismanagement, corruption, nepotism, inefficiency and every imaginable managerial incompetence rewarded by ever greater misuse of public money.

The President’s concern over the quality of nuts served on board is misplaced. There are more significant problems that would be far more obvious to him and those in power if they used the airport as millions of others do – instead of being whisked to and from it as VIPs. I absolutely love flying to this day, but with equal passion, hate flying into or out of Sri Lanka. The best part of coming back or flying out, if during the day, is seeing our country’s wonderful, verdant beauty from the air. Everything else is diabolical. There are more important things than nuts those in government can turn their attention to if they really wanted to improve our national airline and international airport, as the first and last impressions of Sri Lanka.

The best part about home shouldn’t be the joy that comes from leaving it behind.

First published in The Sunday Island, 16 September 2018.

Jana Balaya

It’s a fair comment to make that the people who cut short work and desperately tried to get out of Colombo early on 5th September by far exceeded those who came in as part of Namal Rajapaksa’s Jana Balaya campaign. Social media posted photos of hapless commuters hanging precariously on trains leaving Fort Railway Station, as the city braced itself for what was called by some involved in the protest, an ‘invasion’ of Colombo. But it is evident that not ‘all the sons of Apachchi’ (which some in the campaign used to refer to those in it), were interested enough in Jana Balaya to come out and join what at the end turned out to be a string of street parties, street entertainment and drunken revelry. The question is why.

On social media, Jana Balaya arguably created the most amount of engagement around any event of its kind on Facebook and Twitter. During the day, around live video feeds on Facebook alone, close to 2 million watched the political theatre of Jana Balaya as it unfolded. This included close to 400,000 on Namal Rajapaksa’s Facebook page alone. A staggering 600,000 watched live feeds over the Facebook page of a private TV station. It is clear that amongst a specific demographic, television is no longer the primary vector through which live news broadcasts are consumed. Each of these live feeds generated tens of thousands of comments and reactions. I haven’t yet looked at the engagement driven by photos, which is usually high. On Twitter, there were over 5,000 tweets with one or all of the three official hashtags used by the protest. There may have been many more that tweeted on the protest without using one or more of these hashtags. Each of these accounts acts as an amplifier, showing to their friends and followers what was posted or republished. The likely digital footprint of content around Jana Balaya potentially, if not demonstrably, runs into the millions over just two of Sri Lanka’s most used social media platforms. Preliminary metrics around the scale and spread of content on Instagram – a photo sharing network that is also very popular – suggest Jana Balaya generated tens of thousands of likes. Overall then, the campaign was digitally unprecedented in Sri Lanka, generated the kind of engagement organically, that campaigns which boost content through paid advertising, can’t often reach. Millions were interested, engaged, watched, commented, shared and reacted. Namal Rajapaksa as an individual, and Namal Rajapaksa as a vehicle or platform to communicate the JO’s discontent is unassailable, with an active, devoted fan base by order of magnitude larger than anyone else, even in his own family.

And yet, few turned out to join the protest in Colombo. Independently and easily verifiable estimates done by me using a web platform designed to calculate crowd density, in turn based on photography put out by the organisers themselves as well as two leading journalists reporting for international wire news services. The analysis indicates the number partying on the streets, passing out or occasionally clinging on to the top of lamp-posts was at most around 50,000. At my most charitable reading – giving Jana Balaya tens of thousands of protestors more than were actually present – the numbers still fell far short of the crowd that gathered at the massive JO May Day rally at Galle Face, in 2017 as well as the massive crowds in Nugegoda, in January 2017, around a rally that Mahinda Rajapaksa spoke at. Given the silly, amateurish pronouncements by the government before 5th September around the possible use of rubber bullets and attempts to use legal means to shut down venues, it is clear they too believed that engagement online would translate into feet on the ground. My interest in ascertaining the number that turned out, in the end, was piqued by what the organisers themselves said. Milinda Rajapaksha, the spokesperson of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, claimed thousands of buses were coming into Colombo. News reports on the 5th claimed 700 buses had left from Kurunegala alone. Namal Rajapaksa, towards evening, tweeted that crowds were still pouring in, even though, ironically, an accompanying photo indicated the opposite. These figures simply didn’t match with those present around a single junction in Colombo, which had shut down not because of Jana Balaya’s crowd, but in anticipation of a much larger, more geographically spread protest.

If this was Namal Rajapaksa’s show of strength in a non-digital domain – an attempt to demonstrate to family and beyond, that he could rally the troops as it were, it is unclear how it can be termed a success by measures the campaign itself had set for itself in the weeks before 5th September. From framing to focus, from ideas to intent, the content and commentary during the day, tellingly, were anchored to Namal and his father, not Gotabaya or anyone else in the JO. Gotabaya appears, then just disappears. A tired Mahinda Rajapaksa, even with a faulty sound system, generated ripples of enthusiasm in the crowd by the sheer force of his charisma and amongst friends who clearly yearn for him to be back in the office he once held. Yet, content online doesn’t capture any discernible, strong political message the campaign was ostensibly anchored to. There was no lead up to anything politically significant or anchored to the core tenets of the Jana Balaya campaign. The banners, placards, posters, and chants of the crowd simply dissipate into pockets of revelry or aimless wandering. The skill of coordination and organisation behind the campaign seems to have planned for a much larger turnout. The organisers then took to the promotion of falsehood – the closure of shops, and the supposed growing number of attacks on buses bringing in protestors, perhaps as a measure to explain the low turnout. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, not to be outdone or outshone, went further and tweeted a photo of the massive crowd for his brother’s rally in Nugegoda, in January last year, as one that was taken in Colombo on the 5th of September. Several retweeted this before, only upon naming and shaming, the content was deleted with no apology or clarification. It isn’t even clear whether Namal, Mahinda, Gotabaya or a single leader of the JO stayed the night with a dwindling crowd of supporters who staged a satyagraha of sorts by sleeping out or sitting on the road.

The failure of Jana Balaya to live up to its hype is even more strange given the SLPP’s electoral fortunes in February. One reading is that Namal Rajapaksa’s digital footprint may only be that. The significant inability to get his fans and followers to come out and join a protest could be entirely independent of his enduring ability to influence or inform their political frames, in the lead up to an election or referendum. Another reading could be that the politics of rallies and protests have given way to a politics of digital dissent and witnessing, where the preferred mode of participation or engagement is primarily through smartphone or browser. This is concerning when juxtaposed with what Mahinda Deshapriya, the head of the Elections Commission, has already flagged as very low voter registration. Namal Rajapaksa must be commended for trying his best to get fans and followers out on to the streets. His inability to do so is something we should seriously reflect on more, beyond partisan frames. On and after the event, cracks within the Rajapaksa family are evident too, and more broadly, within the JO, with websites linked or deeply partial to Wimal Weerawamsa, dismissing Jana Balaya soon after its conclusion. Just a few months ago, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was primus inter pares as a Presidential candidate. There’s already a complete shift, or reversion to type with Mahinda as godfather and Namal as the scion. Fluid, flammable, familial configurations and reconfigurations are afoot, not unlike what Mario Puzo conjured.

At its most democratic, Namal Rajapaksa’s idea is laudatory and not something his father’s authoritarianism provided any space for – a non-violent platform for people to freely express dissent. What however Jana Balaya became, revealed and failed to achieve, on 5th September, was more illuminating, resulting in a political message far removed from what the organisers intended.

We live in interesting times.

###

First published in The Sunday Island, 9 September 2018.

Digital flowers

My love of nature, and by extension, the nature of things, comes in large part from my grandparents. Archchi and Seeya were often in and tended to our garden at home. Archchi had her routine, and I occasionally followed her around, doing nothing at all to help, but listening to what she said as she swept, weeded and watered. After they died, the challenge of tending to the various vegetable patches, plants, shrubs and trees became more apparent, and what they did daily, more valued.

Delivering a lecture recently on social media and path dependence post-war – the framing or critique of the world today as, to varying degrees, dependent on past decisions – I recalled what my grand-parents did and likened my current research to how a botanist would study a flower. From stem to petal, bud to bloom, the growth of something aesthetically beautiful sheds light into the nature of the plant, where it is located and how it pollinates. In some cases, like with Daphne or the Lily of the Valley, a flower pleasing to look at can be quite harmful and injurious to health. Some flowers, like the Daffodil, are mildly harmful only if one comes into contact with a certain part. The same flower bed can give life to a large variety of flowers, or vast quantities of the same kind. The botanist may choose to cross-pollinate, choosing to accentuate certain features of one variety, say resilience to strong sunlight, with the qualities of another, like colour or the shape of a petal.

Social media, when graphed or visualised, is remarkably like flowers in bloom. When plotted in a way that tracks its genesis, temporal spread and growth, the data almost magically gathers in clusters determined by fidelity to an idea or sentiment, approximate geographic location, affinity with a campaign or slogan, use of a particular app, content production at a certain time, or connections with certain other key individuals in the network. You can then do what a gardener does – look for aberrations like a certain colour appearing within what is predominantly an area of a different hue. Or why blooms that dominate a certain area don’t feature in other section. You might dig deeper into the roots of the blooms, to understand what gives it colour, shape or form. You might follow its branches, to understand how they grow outwards, and sometimes fight with other growth for dominance. Archchi liked her flower beds in an orderly fashion. Prefaced by a ‘me balanna putha’ she used to point at weeds, and with great vengeance and vigour, root them out. My research into social media differs in this respect, for I have no power or control over what I observe, based on content already published, produced and promoted. There is, however, one similarity. Like Archchi used to with uncanny accuracy and with almost muscle memory, hone in on the areas prone to and often featured weed growth, social media analysis also allows for the study of factors injurious to a network. By learning how they grow, attract, spread and infiltrate, content harmful or puts at risk the health of the network can with some accuracy be identified and tracked.

The effort taken to explain the nature of my research is in the service of more broadly promoting the importance of it, beyond academia. Last week, I conducted two studies based on available data. One, a comparison between a campaign around enforced disappearances led by Amnesty International and another campaign, spearheaded by Namal Rajapaksa, around a protest march into Colombo. Two, a study into what the official Facebook pages of Mahinda, Gotabaya, Namal, Yoshitha, Rohitha and Shiranthi Rajapaksa, the President, PM, Mangala Samaraweera, UNP, SLFP and SLPP had each liked – an affordance on the platform that allows the administrator of one page to like another page. Both, through data, confirmed what many have suspected, variously claimed or intuitively known for a while – that post-war Sri Lanka is a deeply divided country, especially along partisan political lines.

The comparison between the Amnesty and Namal Rajapaksa campaign was interesting because it is the first time I could study two campaigns, deeply pegged to social media for promotion and engagement, but also with activities pegged to the real world. Put simply, those who engaged with, were part of or chose to be affiliated with one campaign, weren’t part of the other. Think of it as a small flower bed (those on or using social media) giving bloom to two very different kinds of flowers, near but entirely distinct to each other. The lack of cross-pollination, and the purity of each variety suggests a disconnect between disappearances and the timbre of governance, and reciprocally, the issues raised by a protest march pegged to development, economy, socio-political and economic rights, and the concerns highlighted by a campaign on human rights violations.

A similar disconnect was discovered in the study of Facebook pages. Here, pages belonging to the government formed an echo chamber that was completely distinct from pages belonging to the Rajapaksas and the Joint Opposition. A fan or follower of one would be almost completely masked from what a competing political and partisan group liked. Of course, this is exactly how fans and followers of government or the JO like it. And this is also precisely why it is a big, and disturbingly, growing problem. Without a basic foundation of civic values, a cosmopolitan nationalism, and a progressive patriotism that is informed by but isn’t hostage to tradition and culture, the worldview of many who will vote for the first time, or are young voters, is predominantly framed by the parochial and partisan networks they belong to. Activism in one domain – around human rights violations – is seen as motivated by actors, or factors, entirely distinct from (and for some, perhaps even hostile to) what is projected as more ‘patriotic forces’ gathering to decry the decay of governance. Simple logic suggests that interest in one would lead to at the very least, an inquiry into related domains. This doesn’t happen. The Sinhala phrase ‘lin madiyo’ – or frogs in a well, springs to mind as the aptest way of describing what our youngest citizens are growing into and have already normalised.

Archchi’s and Seeya’s passing is a personal loss, felt keenly in the most unexpected ways – like when I walk in my garden back home in Ratmalana, noticing a weed or disarray growth that one or both of them wouldn’t have permitted. As a researcher now, I see blossoms, blooms and buds of a different nature, but pegged to the same principles of a vibrant, healthy garden I was introduced to growing up. My flower bed, as it were, is Sri Lanka’s young citizenry. The flowers I see bloom are political discussions and the contest of ideas. What I observe is disturbing. The completely false is taking root, and the outrageously partisan is growing. The health of the network is in decline, even as its growth is exponentially increasing. Those engaging with or connecting through social media, instead of nurturing a cross-pollination of ideas that makes us consider debate or difference as a key element of democracy, consider instead that what matters far more is to be surrounded by those who are like-minded.

My columns are attempts to caution against what just a few of us, at most, are studying, but impacts everyone beyond who they want to see in power and vote for. These studies are far more mature in the United States and elsewhere in Europe, where the dramatic democratic decay – so evident political life and expression – has been exploited by foreign actors to seed division and distrust. It is not too late for us, but time is running out.

###

Published in The Island newspaper, 2 Septemeber 2018.

A Q&A and a radio production

Two public events framed this week, at least from the perspective of doctoral study into the dynamics of social media. I am away from Sri Lanka, but not apart from the country. The geographic distance is necessary isolation which allows the time and space to study, at greater scale, patterns and trends that go on to define the country’s political landscape. To varying degrees, much of what is noted somehow in Sinhala over social media is reflective of or goes on to inform individual and communal political frames. The footprint of what’s digital is wider and deeper than just those connected. Think of it like you would a newspaper, bought once, but shared with family, friends and colleagues. The whole newspaper is sometimes handed over. On occasions, a page is taken out and passed on, with something of interest to the recipient, giver or both. Sometimes, maybe towards the end of the day, a small section is torn and kept, or shared, again because it merits the attention of someone else who didn’t get the news, or to aid recollection weeks or years down the line. Social media similarly has what is called a long-tail, where content produced today can re-surface and be re-shared, with renewed vitality and vigour, years down the line. To study social media, while academic, is also to understand how contemporary society essentially grapples with politics. This is especially pertinent in light of what the head of the Elections Commission tells us is a dramatic decline in the number of new voter registrations, citing apathy. What drives this disengagement and disenchantment, after the record voter turnouts at the Presidential and Parliamentary Elections in 2015, is fundamental to understanding how politics, at every election or plebiscite henceforth, will be captured, ceded, conducted and contested.

The first event was a Facebook Q&A with Member of Parliament Namal Rajapaksa. Readers will I hope trust me enough to believe, without the sharing of more precise statistics, that Mr Rajapaksa’s father, the former President, and his Uncles, the former Secretary of Defence and former Minister of Economic Development respectively, dominate – amongst all the official Facebook pages I monitor belonging to politicians including the current President and Prime Minister – conversations anchored explicitly to party politics. The Rajapaksas know their audience. They speak their vernacular. They are on the devices their audience use to exchange political framing. They are on the apps their target audiences already on, or are migrating to. They put out content in a way that makes engagement and sharing easy. In the same week that saw Mr Rajapaksa take to Facebook for a Q&A session, some from the UNP also shared on social media achievements of the government over three years. I do not doubt there is much to say or promote. Sharing an infographic that one couldn’t read on a smartphone, with tiny letters and a layout perfect for A4, but disastrous for mobile, ran counter with the more organic, strategic and ultimately appealing adoption and adaptation of social media by the Rajapaksas. This isn’t new. Since coming to power, neither the President nor the Prime Minister has had any formal engagement through social media with a constituency that will determine whether they remain in power or not. Post-war, the then President, his Secretary, the Governor of the Bank of Ceylon and others had Twitter and Facebook interactions, which were the first of their kind in the country and set the baseline for what politicians should be doing with social media. The issue was not that they were sincere in answering, honest in their responses, necessarily articulate in their vision or circumspect around their actions. They set the agenda and frame around which the discussions took place, ensuring that leading up to, at the time and in the afterglow of these interactions, their political frame dominated everything else. This is what they continue to do even out of power. Mr. Rajapaksa’s Facebook Q&A was interesting for the numbers it attracted as much as the terrain covered. He targeted a specific constituency, used a platform popular with them, chose a good time, promoted the event, generated organic virality, countenanced a wide variety of questions and gave decent answers to many.

Compare and contrast this with high drama on social media between various arms of government. A week or so after the Prime Minister noted that great strides had been made around reconciliation since the government came into power, the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation, led by former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge, produced a radio series on reconciliation that the Cultural Affairs Ministry ostensibly banned or blocked, leading the Media and Finance Minister, on social as well as mainstream media, urging the ban to be lifted. The social media accounts of ONUR as well as the Media Minister tried to explain the production and pushed back on the ban. The reasons for the ban aren’t clear, but it seems like someone, somewhere, thought it insulted Buddhism – which in our country is the one thing when brandished in public invariably guaranteed to win over any other logic, fact or verifiable merit around anything. The few who remain interested in what this government has to say were thus, over the past couple of days, entreated not to a programme on reconciliation – which the Prime Minister may still think is perfectly peachy – but a very public spat between three government agencies that made no sense whatsoever. The incompetence, incoherence and indecisiveness of and within government stood in stark contrast to the more strategic and well-executed social media engagement of Mr Rajapaksa. If I was in this demographic, and not a fan of Mr Rajapaksa already, I would be partial to seeing what he said more than I would be attracted by or interested in what government had to say. This speaks to and resonates with the apathy flagged by the Elections Commission. Nothing that the government is doing, saying or framing captures the interest of those whose votes will matter around the passing of a new constitution or at the next presidential and general elections.

All this, of course, is merely 2018’s version of a long-held malaise around the UNP writ large, and the Hon. Prime Minister in particular. Public communications aren’t what they are interested in, or good at. The cancer is now growing, where along with a sunset coalition’s friction getting worse and spilling over into the public gaze, the tensions within government – entirely independent of what the JO does and says – now acts as its own censorious agent.

Ultimately, this is not just about what is done or said on Facebook or Twitter. What is on social provides insight into the workings of producers, processes and parties, whether by design or accident. There is one family, and a larger political movement, who can capture the attention of a young demographic. Retention, veracity, impact and translation to votes aside, the fact is that they dominate political frames. There is a government which not just bungles output on social media, they cannot even agree amongst themselves the broadcast of what they themselves produced. No good drama will go unpunished.

###

First published in The Sunday Island, 26 August 2018.