Digital transformation and the role of civil society in Sri Lanka


The Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit Regional office South Asia organized a regional seminar on “Promoting Liberty Digitally” in Sri Lanka from 15th to 17th October 2016. I was asked to speak on “Digital transformation and the role of Civil Society in Sri Lanka” and to be present at a group discussion on “Civil rights and the Internet”.

My presentation covered how technology in general, and social media in particular, had been leveraged by civil society around a range of issues related to elections, democracy, rights and governance in Sri Lanka. Looking at Facebook statistics in Sri Lanka, and also CPA’s own social polling data around Consumption and Perceptions of Mainstream and Social Media in the Western Province, I noted how designing and developing for mobiles first was essential if CSOs and NGOs wanted to engage with digital natives, who in Sri Lanka are also the most politically active and fall within the 18 – 34 demographic / 1st, 2nd or at most, 3rd time voters.

Noting the results of CPA’s social polling, I flagged that,

  • Not everyone needs to be connected to web to be influenced by it.
  • The influence of content on social media in particular, and online content in general, extends to groups well beyond those who are directly connected to, and participating in these online networks.
  • This also puts to rest the often quoted myth that since Internet penetration is relatively low in the country, content shared online has little to no footprint in the larger public consciousness.

I also flagged key changes, as I saw them, brought about by the ever increasing adaptation and adoption of technology by civil society (and indeed, government),

  • Ubiquity of two way communications
  • Addressable peoples, even those who IDPs or refugees
  • Disintermediated models vs. traditional media model
  • People as producers
  • Low resolution, hyperlocal helps focus and granularity
  • Aggregation of low resolution helps macro analysis and strategy

I then looked at specific apps and technologies and how they had been used in Sri Lanka (e.g. Abdul Halik-Azziz on Instagram, or Groundviews on WhatsApp).

I then looked at how technology helped remember the inconvenient, harking back to my more detailed presentation on this topic at Colomboscope 2016 (‘Remembering is Resisting‘).

Groundviews has pioneered long-form and responsive web based storytelling on platforms like Adobe Spark, Atavist and Shorthand – I flagged these as important to embrace in light of the fact that so many consumed content over mobiles and smartphones.

Flagging the path-breaking Change Sri Lanka campaign leading up to the General Election in 2015, I also noted how infographics, the web and mainstream media were leveraged to capture opinion from a broad section of the public in English, Sinhala and Tamil.

I also flagged drone journalism, immersive VR content (360 degree videos for use with the likes of Google Cardboard) and the many aspects of Facebook, ranging from Notes to Facebook Live video, as ways to communicate and engage with more effectively target audiences.

Finally I flagged some questions around identity, safety, security, information overload and ‘slacktivism’ – noting that increasing digital advocacy and activism also meant opening oneself, and institutions, to greater more pervasive surveillance, especially in South Asia which remains colored by a democratic deficit.


I also said that the biggest challenge facing the greater adoption and adaptation of technology for advocacy was not a paucity of apps, platforms, tools or services, but a crisis of imagination in civil society itself – noting that civil society is usually unable and unwilling to think outside the box.

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