Namal Rajapaksa, bots and trolls: New contours of digital propaganda and online discourse in Sri Lanka

In the last quarter of 2017, pushback over Twitter to content Groundviews pushed out over the same platform came from sources not encountered or interacted with before. This piqued the interest of the site’s founding editor, Sanjana Hattotuwa, for one key reason. All the accounts publishing content against Groundviews were overwhelmingly promoting and partial to Namal Rajapaksa, a Member of Parliament and the extremely (social) media savvy son of the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The troll army retweeting and promoting Namal Rajapaksa’s Twitter account was overwhelmingly anchored to profile photos that were fake, and registered to names that deviously sounded like they were from the Muslim, Tamil and Sinhala communities, but were also fake.

In any case, the data clearly suggests Namal Rajapaksa drawing a highly predictable number of followers on to Twitter every day.

What’s interesting for social media research is the manner in which the @RajapaksaNamal account on Twitter is used, or arguably, abused. It reflects a new appetite for social media strategies specifically engineered for electoral gain amongst all politicians, and not just the Rajapaksas and Joint Opposition, involving human trolls as well as automated bots. The intent it clear – to influence voter perceptions and public discourse, over and beyond social media.

…the danger around the weaponisation of social media around electoral processes is that neither government nor civil society is prepared to deal with it.

…what is now a danger is that the followers (in the form of bots and trolls) can also be strategically leveraged to quell dissent, shape narratives, highlight propaganda, spread misinformation, drown out critical voices, bully, act as echo chambers and shape social media discourse.

Without sounding alarmist, Sri Lanka has already entered a new online political dynamic, in which the discursive landscape is governed agents of censorship, manipulation and control outside the parameters of traditional observation and analysis. This isn’t just a technocratic concern.

Co-authored with the amazing Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, read the article in full on Groundviews here.

Social media, viral news and the future of peace negotiations: Panel at Build Peace 2017

I was invited to take part, over Skype video, in a panel on social media, viral news and the future of peace negotiations at Build Peace 2017, held early December in Bogota, Colombia. My great disappointment at not being able to attend in person was somewhat offset by what was a great conversation with Juanita León, Director, La Silla Vacía moderated by the inspiring Helena Puig Laurri, co-founder and co-director of Build Up.

I don’t think there was a video recording of our session, which was in itself no mean technical achievement, since I was connecting was Sri Lanka, Juanita from elsewhere in Bogota and Helena at the conference venue, patching us all in. Skype, when it works, is quite incredible.

In brief introductory comments, I flagged my work in 2002 with the Sri Lankan Ceasefire Process and the One-Text process for which I designed technical solutions for asynchronous, confidential, encrypted Track 1 and Track 2.5 negotiations and communications using, what was at the time, commercially available off the shelf software (called Groove).

A lot of this work, and subsequent research, pre-dated and prefaced, by many years, the current praxis and increasing academic research on the use of technology for peacebuilding.

Referencing my keynote address at the first Build Peace conference three years ago, I spoke about radical transparency and how combined with now ubiquitous computing devices that recorded passively, or actively through user intervention, their surroundings, what it meant for negotiations processes where an element of timing, founded on secrecy, remains essential. I flagged how we needed to re-evaluate the meaning and effectiveness of the Chatham House Rule, for example, and how to engineer today a process that retains confidentiality in a manner that doesn’t also infringe on the rights of participants in a process to speak aloud and freely about what they are doing, and involved in.

I noted that with radical transparency also came radical inclusion – the idea that everyone today was a stakeholders in a negotiations process, with what happens in society and polity deeply and almost immediately impacting high-level discussions, as well as vice-versa. My challenge was around how to create processes that included stakeholders who had the power to bring about change and exclude spoilers and spoiler dynamics, which isn’t as easy as it was even just a few years ago – and certainly at the time I engineered the platforms for the One-Text process in Sri Lanka. The management of expectations and optics has I argued a substantive bearing on the negotiations.

I spoke about how difficult it is, ironically, to ascertain the interests of negotiating partners because despite the tsunami of content created, it was increasingly difficult to tune out the noise and focus on the signal. Given filter bubbles inhabited by those at the table, the challenges around misinformation, disinformation and sophisticated, web based propaganda campaigns, it is no longer possible to understand and respond to stakeholder positions, even as the manipulated of public opinion is easily possible with social media.

I flagged the importance of information and media literacy in this regard, noting that for example in Sri Lanka, while adult literacy was very high, people actually believed what they consumed over social media, leading to a disturbing situation where rumour and misinformation online and over instant messaging apps stood to derail fragile negotiations processes more than help secure them. I also flagged how power, patriarchy, social, cultural and political norms were ingrained into what is increasingly algorithmic bias – meaning that the social media platforms we use daily to help understand the world outside are themselves hostage to algorithmic filtering that only promotes what one is already partial to – increasing over time, and not bridging, differences between communities and regions.

In light of what I’ve noted elsewhere publicly, I also wondered how psychometric profiling, sentiment manufacture, trolls and the use of bots, the public mood could today be influenced in subtle (or not so subtle) ways that had a direct and lasting bearing on complex negotiations.

I wondered how the constant chatter – often without the art of the long view, vision, reflection, context or calm contemplation – impacted the reception and perception of what was publicly known of negotiations, putting those in the process under intense pressure to not just negotiate across the table, but also almost in real time, with their own constituencies as well.

I quoted Dannah Boyd, a well-known researcher from Microsoft ,

“[W]e have a cultural problem, one that is shaped by disconnects in values, relationships, and social fabric. Our media, our tools, and our politics are being leveraged to help breed polarization by countless actors who can leverage these systems for personal, economic, and ideological gain.”

Our conversation focussed a lot on the role and relevance of technology in (peace) negotiations spanning social media networks, how first interpretations of official processes are now made, remade, contested, contrasted, accepted and rejected, in close to real time, online, how instant messaging conversations go totally under the radar of the usual media monitoring (that informs an official process), the role of corporate entities and how 18-34 year olds, in various countries, engage with news and information.

Build Peace has a useful collection of tweets from the session here.

Frontier Issues: Some thoughts from 2012, still relevant

In early 2012, Patrick Meier emailed me (and I think a few others) asking the following questions: If you had some of the most cutting edge software developers at your disposal and funding were not an issue, what major software/computing innovations would have the greatest impact on disaster affected communities and humanitarian response? What are the most important gaps in humanitarian technology? What software challenges, if any, do you face in your own humanitarian work?

I rediscovered my email to him today, in light of some discussion I had in New York with the United Nations. Enough time has passed to publish what at the time was a bilateral exchange. I wonder, how many of these issues remain valid today, as those that will impact how we work in the years to come?


Machine translation and semantics and demonstrate how far even in a few years machine translation’s come. This is especially pertinent when non-English (script + language) data flows during most disasters (political or natural) eclipse the English you and I would be familiar with. During Strong Angel III we were shown a a real time translation of a TV broadcast – – but the technology still has a way to go before it can pick up nuances so vital for aid coordination during a crisis. I strongly feel however that NLP will play an increasing role in aid systems, and it appears the US govt (for parochial reasons) is getting into the act in a big way too –, along with the phenomenal work (which I believe you’ve covered in your own blog) of Recorded Future ( not so much for their platform, but their underlying analysis engine. And in the field of semantics, platforms like Cognition to Wolfram Alpha (powering Siri) are changing the way we interact with the web using strict Boolean logic. Can these new interfaces be applied to humanitarian platforms?

Not enough conversation is around the ethics of data generation, sharing, use and archival. and the more detailed (with my post tsunami experience) are early cracks, and along with more recent and in-depth writing on the use of Big Data (A brief exploration of Open and Big Data: From investigative journalism to humanitarian aid and peacebuilding), deals with this issue which I feel is often underplayed. Intertwined with issues of privacy, safety and security, the ethics governing the use of crowd-sourced information is put on hold for what are often called more immediate needs, but if unaddressed, can increase the risk of communities that were vulnerable. Lives saved during a disaster, ironically through the appropriation of information generated by them, could leave to lives lost to civil strife within repressive regimes.

Mapping are hugely interesting experiments, though field utility is suspect for at least 5 – 10 years. The whole gamut of physical sensors interacting with virtual design elements that influence data representation is a model of thinking that can however deeply inform humanitarian aid dashboard design and deployment. Obviously, Google’s Project Glass also holds promise at the field level for aid workers unfamiliar with the terrain. It is the most compelling vision to date of many other augmented reality platforms and apps already preset and working for Android and iOS. I actually started to talk about the use of augmented reality for humanitarian aid 6 years ago! See which I followed up in 2009 when Layar came to my notice I don’t know where Nokia’s at, my Layar has gone through many iterations.

Grassroots / citizen mapping
It may not be the case in every place and context, but essentially the technologies and tools for citizen mapping will grow. Products like will increasingly become hobbyist kits, complementing the kind of work done by grassroots mappers around the Gulf Oil Spill. Essentially, our view of the world is going to be increasingly plural – no one view will dominate another easily, with technology and tools to complement, confirm and contradict ground realities not just in the hands of govt’s, but in the hands of ordinary people too. The perceptions of Kibera to New York will change as a result, and this neo-geography will also inform identity – the sense of location within a society and community. From crisis to governance, these tools will play an increasing role.

Citizen journalism
In a blog post of yours from a while ago, you wanted a red button application for citizen journalism ( Now there’s one Of course, the Gulf Oil Spill resulted in a similar app – Along with the likes of Google + for iOS, FB Timeline, platforms like, and the really interesting, we are looking at the, interestingly, the fracturing of a key need – personal information curation. There are really complex algorithms behind each of these platforms and apps, and their potential to be deployed in and adopted for dealing with the peaks of information generation during a crisis are as yet untested.

Visualisation and mobiles
Can we do what does for books and music to missing persons registries and conflict drivers? Can we build remote field intelligence to mobiles so that what is shown on thin client apps in the field is geo-fenced, information rich, bandwidth frugal, contextual, updated, interactive and accountable? The combination of NFC, geo-positioning, data transmission via SMS, smart devices, multiplatform apps all exist – no one is really putting them together in the same eco-system, to create a HQ to remote aid worker ERM system of sorts. It can be done technically, but needs political vision and drive?

GAP: Archival, both the thinking and the tools
I first wrote about the problems of digital archiving in 2006 – The problem is growing. And fast. We’ve already lost, irrevocably, so much of the data produced during disaster even over the past 3 – 4 years. Given the pace at which information generation during and immediate after a disaster is increasing, the sheer technical challenges involved in archiving this information for posterity are significant, never mind the challenges over data governance, use and archival standards and media.

In 2006 I came up with six mantras – They remain valid today, and will I submit also be valuable into the future. And please, more Failfares – The marketing around specific platforms, apps and tools is already just to nauseating, because so much of it is disconnected from the more humbling ground realities. If we want a better future, let us start with our failures today.

Social media and government

Was invited by out-going Director General of the Government Information Department Ranga Kalansooriya late Sunday night to give a presentation the next day on social media and its importance for government officials, at a workshop organised by him with representatives from Facebook (coming in from India) present. Incoming / acting DG of the Government Information Department Sudharshana Gunawardene was also present for most of the workshop.

I used a few hastily created slides (download the deck here) to showcase why it was important government (officials) used social media, and Facebook in particular, to communicate to and if they so wished to do so, engage citizens. Noting the youth bulge in Sri Lanka’s demographic coupled with the rise of broadband and mobile phones, I flagged the sea-change in the way citizens got information and news, and indeed, went on to share this content with others. Knowing that Facebook representatives from India would go into it in more details, I briefly flagged the 5 million monthly active users on Facebook as reported on my ad-dashboard (which is actually much less than what Facebook itself said were Sri Lanka’s MAU at the time of writing this, which is 5.8 million). I also noted the overwhelming majority of these users connected through their mobile phones.

I then flagged to what degree Facebook played a role in Sri Lanka’s elections, just over 2015. I just showed three key slides, which suggested citizens were keen to know more about what their elected representatives did over social media, and also went on to inform those not on social media with news and information they had first learnt about online.

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Highlighting the substantial, in-depth research and polling on Facebook content and use in Sri Lanka done by the Centre for Policy Alternatives, I focussed on the ‘Consumption and Perceptions of Mainstream and Social Media in the Western Province‘ report, published early 2016 with fieldwork done late 2015. CPA’s website has more details about this report and key findings.

Showcasing a number of instances where the current President and Prime Minister were surrounded by youth posing for selfies, I noted that selfies were 2017’s autograph, and communicated a powerful political idea that the way to influence their minds was through the devices they owned and wanted to be framed through.

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Flagged a very interesting data-driven research paper on the use of social media by government official and public sector workers, I noted that it was not so much fear of social media that prevented better and more strategic use, but fear of reprimand, and the Establishment Code as it stands today, which is anathema to proactive disclosure and meaningful engagement with citizens.

The academic paper’s findings seemed to be borne out by those present at the workshop!


I also flagged the Information and Communication Technology Agency’s 2015 attempt to come up with a Social Media Policy for Government, under the then head Muhunthan Canagey. After two or three meetings at ICTA, and a process of eliciting input and ideas by placing the draft in the public domain, ICTA just forgot about the process completely.

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I suggested it’s revival, under or led by the Government Information Department, along with the recently released social media guidelines for New York Times staff, as foundations that could be adapted and adopted for the creation of a suitable framework for social media use in Sri Lanka’s public sector.

I ended by showing just how many from government were already on Twitter, and the hard road to social media’s meaningful use, from just a passive publication mode to active engagement.

Was also really good to engage with Facebook at the workshop, and learn what plans they had for the region and Sri Lanka. As noted on Twitter,

Rohan Samarajiva, who also spoke at the event, has a great post on what he said. Many important points there. The end  is particularly revealing. I was the 32nd to read the post on the official government news portal, in Sinhala. A day after the event was held.

By way of comparison, just the first of a chain of tweets I published on the event, late yesterday, had at the time of writing this generated 939 impressions and 45 engagements.

That’s social media’s power.


Hacking the referendum

This level of demographic targeting, increasingly possible even in a small country like Sri Lanka along with more conventional means of propaganda, circumnavigates the labour intensive electoral system and the problems therein of mass scale vote rigging. What could in the past be achieved by more traditional means of violence and intimidation can now, on a daily basis, be engineered by carefully crafting media content that spreads over social media, shifting, over time, entire groups against or for ideas, exploiting what endures as an information and media literacy deficit. Put another way, the explosive growth of social media is in fact a risk for progressive, democratic forces, because it provides easy, cost effective vectors through which spoilers can now influence and reach key demographic groups, who don’t go to political rallies, have multiple, liquid affiliations with mainstream politics, aren’t card carrying party political members and don’t engage with mainstream media through broadcast and newsprint. However, what is a risk is also an opportunity.

The government, despite strong opposition led by senior monk Anamaduwe Dhammadassi Thero, said last week that it will nevertheless continue to pursue the constitutional reform process, which will be put to a referendum. This comes after PM Wickremesinghe was reported in the media the week before saying the task of the Constitutional Assembly Steering Committee (CASC) will be to draft the new constitution in such a manner that will not require a public referendum. Adding to this confusion, data in the public domain over two years from Social Indicator, the social polling arm of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, suggests quite simply that if a referendum is held in the near future, the socio-political context is such that it is very difficult to see how a Yes vote would win. Given that a referendum is really an electoral litmus test of governance, entirely independent of the questions asked, the government…

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Social media and peace: Presentation at ZIF’s 15th year celebrations in Berlin

The Zentrum für Internationale Friedenseinsätze gGmbH (Centre for International Peace Operations) based in Berlin, Germany, invited me to talk on social media and peace as part of an event to celebrate 15 years since its inception.

I’ve worked with ZIF for a number of years, starting with pioneering training programs on leveraging open source intelligence and social media to strengthen situational awareness in complex peacekeeping missions. These specialized training programs were subsequently vetted by ENTRi and conducted in Europe and Africa.

Other speakers present or featured at the event included Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Lamberto Zannier, OSCE Secretary General. Henrietta Mensa-Bonsu, Professor of Law at the University of Ghana, former Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Rule of Law in the UN Mission in Liberia, along with myself, delivered presentations intended to generate an interest amongst those assembled – around 300 – on how the work of ZIF writ large could be contextualized in the complex socio-economic, political and technological landscape of political emergencies and violent conflict today.

My presentation, embedded below, was anchored to the role and relevance of technology and social media in all aspects of peacekeeping and peacebuilding. The presentation was coincidentally made on the same day as a massive, global ransomware attack was taking place, and when Facebook announced two billion active users were on its social media platform.

Short notes around each of the slides follow,

  • My father was never around when I was schooling for prize givings and other things I was part of or had done well in. I grew up with this anger against him. Only years after I left school and well into my adult life, that when just speaking with him about this pent up anger, did I realize that it was a conscious choice to stay away because of the high prevalence of suicide bombings in the country at the time my sister and I were growing up. Had my mom or father being killed, their logic was that there would be one parent to take care of us and that we would not be orphaned.
  • The huge turbo prop airfare transport planes that landed and took off from Ratmalana airbase, so close to my home, in the early 80s used to result in an endless stream of ambulances at night. Their wails were in stark contrast to the newspaper headlines the morning after suggesting some incredible victory over the Liberation of Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE). Then the wails stopped and the lights too, but ghostlike ambulances we could hear on the road in convoys after a plane landed. We knew, even as children, to disbelieve what we read in the mainstream media.
  • The physical world is important even as we focus mostly on the digital. To focus on physical discrimination and barriers around access, gender and other issues is just as much important as a focus on social media and peacebuilding in cyberspace.
  • You cannot talk about justice, peace or democracy without focussing on how the world of cyberspace is inextricably entwined with dynamics generated in the real world. For many, especially amongst a younger demographic, the Internet and indeed, sometimes even just one social media platform (e.g. Facebook or Instagram), is the real world.
  • The four principles of democracy that are most relevant to a younger demographic. No country that bucks this trend can avoid violent conflict.
  • The greatest threat to peace, and democracy itself, is oneself. Cyberattacks that lead to large catastrophes now don’t go after large, relatively impenetrable systems, but after the humans who are responsible for the maintenance, upkeep and access to these systems (see a really short film starring Christian Slater produced by HP, which stripped of the product placement and marketing, offers very real scenarios around cyberattacks and cybercrime today.)
  • Combined with above, the Internet of Things (IoT) will be the defining feature of our lives in the West and Global South in the years to come. We haven’t thought this through. Our fridges can launch sustained attacks on network infrastructure – and this is not science fiction. Last year one of the largest DDoS attacks was in large part the result of badly configured CCTV cameras.
  • Artificial Intelligence, like IoT, will define our lives in the years ahead – and will increasingly become, as it is even today, invisible. There are dangers as well as opportunities around this, but importantly – what are the ethics governing those who create AI algorithms that govern our news, perceptions, politics, banking, markets and lives? How can we channel AI to development?
  • A word play on just as in ordinary and just as in justice. Continuing the last point about the algorithmic nature of our politics and society in particular and the need to ensure that we make algorithms that govern us transparent. They can be the new colonialism.
  • Sifting the signal from the noise – or in other words, figuring out what is imp, when, to whom and why. Figuring out what’s actionable is critical for decision making and policy making during and after crises in particular. Technology and social media can help, but more needs to be done in this regard.
  • And to this end, governments and civil society need to invest – more than technology and money – human resources around all this. Often the technology is seen as something the IT Department or an ICT Ministry can handle, when today it is something woven into each and every part of the corporate, social, economic and governance fabric.
  • A quote to suggest that what is taken for granted in the West and in Berlin, Germany isn’t what can be taken as a given in the Global South. And vice versa, since the Global South generally leads with innovation in the use of mobile phones. A level playing field is needed.
  • Three final thoughts governing my approach to tech and social media, and why I do what I do: to create dignity, where there is little or none, for people forgotten by the mainstream. To give people choice, of their own bodies, their own lives. And to create hope, where there is little or none.

ZIF has promised a video recording of the presentation, which when available, will be posted here.

Communication projects, campaigns & websites on peace, constitutionalism, rights, governance & democracy

Compiled for the Centre for Policy Alternatives a list of websites around communications campaigns, advertisements, projects, websites and various other initiatives I’ve designed, developed or gave input into over the past couple of years. The sites feature award-winning and critically acclaimed content, and the voices of dear friends and renowned activists, who are no longer with us.

Presented in alphabetical order. Many of these sites also have corresponding social media accounts and updates, including on Facebook and Twitter. A lot of them are tri-lingual. All of them are hosted on GoDaddy, and some are also protected by CloudFlare. All of them are running on WordPress.

The one website I couldn’t archive before it came under attack and had to be shut down was one I created for ‘Mediated’, an art exhibition I curated in 2012 in collaboration with Saskia Fernando Gallery.  Details of that remain of Groundviews.

To remember Black July, Groundviews brought together leading documentary filmmakers, photographers, activists, theorists and designers, in Sri Lanka and abroad, to focus on just how deeply the anti-Tamil pogrom in 1983 shaped our imagination, lives, society and polity.
The Presidential polls of 8th January 2015 inspired the largest number of voters in Sri Lanka’s history to turn out to elect a president. As we all know, the work to shape Sri Lanka’s future doesn’t stop with electing a new president or a new government. Change will need to involve all of us as citizens in our various positions and roles in society. There is now a vibrant public and private debate of citizens across the country (and beyond its borders) about the hopes and vision for Sri Lanka’s future. This is currently taking place on social media, traditional media and also in homes and workplaces. The campaign encourages us all to focus on what we can do in our individual capacities, as well as what other citizens in government, opposition politics, public services, business or our own neighbourhoods can do, to bring about change for good.
Books & other material related to constitutional reform in Sri Lanka

what is a constitution? What place and relevance, if any, does it have in the popular imagination? Do citizens really care about an abstract document most would never have seen or read, when more pressing existential concerns continue to bedevil their lives and livelihoods, even post-war?

Internet Media Action (IMA) was set up in the belief that there is scope to openly debate and discuss challenges and opportunities regarding the production, publication, dissemination and archival of content online, under the broad rubric of the Freedom of Expression. In particular, we are interested in engaging and addressing bloggers, web media personnel including civic media producers and citizen journalists, citizens and civil society in discussions that are anchored to the Right to Information, democratic governance and human rights. Accordingly, IMA will press and advocate for greater freedoms online, the development of an open, free web and Internet, including over mobiles, and the protection of those who engage in online fora.
All the multimedia content on this website was commissioned by Groundviews, a critically acclaimed citizen journalism based in Sri Lanka. They are the country’s first high-definition video productions and the first to document their respective subject matter. The production of this content was supported by small grants from Groundviews which supported, in line with the raison d’etre of the site, content that furthers civil, progressive and inclusive discussions on the future of democracy, peace, reconciliation, social justice, fundamental rights and equality in Sri Lanka. The small grants were made possible by Ford Foundation.
These videos were broadcast on MTV (a terrestrial TV channel in Sri Lanka) from 23 to 30 July 2008, to commemorate the anti-Tamil pogrom in July 1983.

We have a choice, but time is running out. Speak up. Put your name in a comment below, in English, Sinhala or Tamil. Say that last week’s violence was not in your name. Renounce a fringe lunacy and resist extremism. By putting your name below, oppose mob violence and bigotry as ways to resolve disputes.
A collection of scholarly essays marking the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Sri Lankan Republic in 1972. Edited by Asanga Welikala.
Sir Ivor Jennings and the Constitutional Development of Ceylon: Selected Writings. Edited by H. Kumarasingham.
Reforming Sri Lankan Presidentialism – Provenance, Problems and Prospects is a collection of scholarly essays edited by Asanga Welikala.
In its most recent initiative, CPA commissioned Kannan Arunasalam to direct a documentary on Sampur and to visually capture the narratives of the communities who have returned and continuing to return to their homes.