Growing online challenges for activists in Sri Lanka

Excerpt from a much longer piece I wrote for Groundviews (The Sri Lankan President’s Twitter archive and Propaganda 2.0: New challenges for online dissent), dealing with growing challenges for online activism in Sri Lanka.

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Aiding the regime’s increasingly competency and strategic use of new media is (domestic) civil society’s ignorance of its potential and reach. New media knowledge is poor, at best, especially at senior management levels in almost every single NGO working on human rights and media freedom issues. Many senior activists – those at the forefront of street demonstrations – remain new media illiterate. Many NGOs are seriously behind government in leveraging new media for advocacy and activism. At best, web platforms are merely used to promote and feature the tired real world activism amongst and by the usual suspects, which really is to miss the point about the reach, virality, creativity and potential of web based media and campaigns.

Though there is no way whatsoever of accurately foretelling how and to what ends the government will leverage its increasingly sophisticated use of new media, several obvious challenge arise as a consequence for dissent groups and individuals, including independent web based media and journalists.

Pro-Govt content creation: Silencing through volume
A group of say around 15 distinct voices (on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Flickr, YouTube) can, for example, effectively and efficiently subsume vital updates from civil society (e.g. from @vikalpasl, @groundviews on Twitter) by just putting up content with greater frequency. All web based social media is irascibly ephemeral – relentlessly bombard each platform with sophisticated, believable propaganda and the real stories are lost in the melee. The government has plausible deniability, and the chilling effect of being perennially subject to vicious attacks by anonymous as well as openly pro-regime identities online can serve as significant barriers to civil society collaboration and output.

Shaming, and the threat of shaming
Coupled with hacking, detailed below, personal, institutional and family secrets can be used to blackmail prominent voices to retract earlier stories or cower into silence. The culture of over-sharing online – including location data, travel, meeting and other personal updates – lends itself to authoritarian regimes which can take advantage of civil society’s poor understanding of privacy and security settings to listen in, monitor, build up personality, financial, activist, meeting and movement profiles.

Another new threat vector is to infiltrate personal (web based) social networks through the less protected accounts of friends and children. An example could be a politically apathetic yet good friend of a civil society activist or a teenage family member, who is relatively careless about good Internet and web security. It is fairly easy to hack into this person’s account, which then provides easy backdoor access to most activities and updates of the intended target even if they are accounts closed to the larger public. The primary objective here is to listen in rather than to disrupt. Again, information gathered can be used in any number of ways – from identity theft to the threat of hate, hurt or harm to close members of family with a view to silencing dissent.

Hacking and Denial of Service attacks
The websites of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (serving as the institutional anchor of Groundviews), Groundviews itself and Vikalpa (our sister site) have since December 2012 faced unprecedented levels of hacking attempts, numbering in the dozens each day, from technically savvy individuals or groups, whose geographic point of origin cannot be easily traced. While it is emphatically not the case that, at least to date, Anuradha Herath or the President’s office of Sri Lanka are assembling group of hackers against local and international dissident groups, it would be logical to invest in such capacities – following the likes of the former Tunisian and Egyptian regimes, and the current Syrian regime – if the government wanted to thwart growing civil society output online. It may also be the case that whatever group that is assembled under the blessings of Temple Trees, out of greater patriotism or ambition (or just too much arrack on any given evening), takes it upon themselves – without any directive from a higher authority – to engage in hacking attempts on sites they see fit to silence, deface or delete.

Existing surveillance architectures covering voice and data across multiple channels and platforms can also be leveraged to silence dissent, an easy enough task with State and private telcos unwilling and unable to stand up robustly for the privacy of customers in the face of extra-legal governmental edicts and Ministry of Defence demands.

Coupled with outright blocks of websites and physical threats to content creators / journalists / civil society activists and the hate speech they already endure through more traditional media channels, the landscape for online output of critical dissent is going to get more challenging than it has ever been in Sri Lanka.

Meeting this challenge is not impossible, but will require every single individual and institution working on Sri Lanka’s democracy, governance, rights and accountability frameworks (in the country and outside) to emphasise – more than ever before – new media safety, security and innovative content generation strategies for online fora.

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