Trolls, bots and digital propaganda: What it all means, and how it will impact citizenship

This blog post should have come up much earlier than this, but Digana got in the way and in a way, resonating with what was discussed, esp. through a weaponisation of Twitter hitherto unseen in the kind of violence that gripped Sri Lanka in general, and Kandy in particular, that week.

After Namal Rajapaksa, bots and trolls: New contours of digital propaganda and online discourse in Sri Lanka, first published on Groundviews went viral, I was inundated with emails seeking more information on what we had written on and warned against. The requests for clarification, more information on and ways to safeguard against what we had noted came from civil society, and perhaps unsurprisingly, also from sections of government.

Instead of responding to each and every one, I decided to have an open forum to discuss the article and key issues arising from it.

Invited Yudhanjaya and Sabrina Esufally, from Verite Research, to join a panel that was moderated by the Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA). Yudha and Sabrina gave excellent presentations, looking respectively at the technical aspects (the data told a compelling story) as well as the long-term impact and potential solutions to the challenges we had outlined.

All of our presentations and related material are online here.

My presentation captured in brief an almost total reversal in the perception of social media as democratic, emancipatory platforms that helped citizens overthrow illiberal, dictatorial and authoritarian regimes to over the past year alone, its unprecedented weaponisation by non-state and government actors. This is in addition to disturbing practices by the social media companies themselves. I flagged individuals like Brad Parscale in the US and Davide Casaleggio in Italy as individuals, with supremely capable minds adept at political communication over social media, now as powerful as, if not more so, than the politicians and political parties they worked for or with.

Flagging the weaponisation of Facebook and how countries like Sweden were taking measure to safeguard critical infrastructure elections from foreign interference (read Russian psy-ops and hacking), I gave an overview of what Yudhanjaya and I discovered around Namal Rajapaksa’s Twitter account. I went into some detail to explain what a troll and bot were and how they polluted discourse online, as well as how cheap they were to deploy.

Providing frames of entry for both Yudha and Sabrina who spoke after me, I flagged some of the topline data and a meeting with Sri Lanka’s Elections Commissioner, Mahinda Deshapriya, late last year, around some of the issues other countries in the West were preparing for, safeguarding against, dealing with and as I submitted, Sri Lanka also needed to take very seriously.

I warned against a troll or bot arms race, where others seeing what Namal Rajapaksa had done and how, also would try to do the same and better. This I said would lead to a situation, backed by Yudhanjaya in his presentation, where public discourse would be completely overrun by narratives, ideas, frames and perceptions determined by parties who were adept at manipulation, subterfuge and deception. I flagged regulation as way forward, but with many pitfalls too, if championed and overseen by a government with poor democratic principles.

The threat to the timbre of public discourse and democratic institutions is real, as the growing partisanship in the US clearly shows. Given the violence in Ampara that had just occurred (our conversation pre-dated the catastrophic violence in Digana by just a day or two) I noted how an attention economy can and will be gamed, clearly brought out by the viral appeal of a video first shared on Facebook around the sterilisation pill myth that fuelled the violence.

I also flagged how Namal Rajapaksa deleted inconvenient tweets from the past that painted him in a light incompatible with the reinvention of self and branding he was undertaking at present. This I submitted was more generally applicable to social media, and strategies employed to whip up unrest, and then delete all traces of the material that fuelled the violence, or was the cause of it.

I quoted George Marshall’s speech from 1947, launching the Marshall Plan, twice, because of how resonant it is in our contemporary information landscape, and the challenges arising from it. My penultimate slide called for a much greater emphasis to be placed on media and information literacy, from the time children entered school. Sabrina’s presentation built on this considerably and is well worth taking a look. The entire panel was in agreement that critical media appreciation was vital as a means through which to really address the problems around rumour and misinformation taking seed and growing over social media. But we also agreed more urgent measures needed to be taken in order to address the immediate challenges posed by the weaponisation of social media in Sri Lanka.

And then, Digana happened.

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