Seeds to blossoms: Social media post-war (in Sri Lanka)

I was invited with colleagues from the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (NCPACS) to deliver a presentation on our research and motivations to a group of locals this week, assembled at the Mornington Methodist Church in Dunedin.

The central challenge around presenting my doctoral research for many who are fearful or anxious about social media in the main, don’t know the Sri Lankan context, particularly post-war, and aren’t remotely familiar with data science, is on how to best communicate, in a way that sparks interest and curiosity, what I do and why I do it.

As an early slide of mine showcased, half-jokingly, this endeavour is ironically more difficult in a community, context and country that is the second most peaceful in the world, and where local media’s reportage of violent conflict is around ducks being shot in the back (yes, seriously).

I have used fire, water and nature as a way to help explain the genesis, growth, spread and engagement of content over social media. For this presentation, I used the bloom and blossoming of cacti and a rose.

Going through snapshots of what Facebook usage is like in both Sri Lanka and New Zealand (biggest difference really is that in New Zealand, iOS users are much more than in Sri Lanka) I noted that I specifically will not be showing any photos of violence, war and trauma from Sri Lanka because not only are they a Google search away, my endeavour was to frame solutions, not sell the worst of what we are and have been.

A brief introduction to social media frames my research was partial to prefaced, for me, the key slide of the entire deck, which had looped videos of nine flowers in bloom.

Most of the flowers (Echinopsis Cacti to be precise) were taken from this Vimeo video, to illustrate how on and over social media, content and conversations evolved.  I likened conversations online – their genesis, spread, key proponents, timbre, form, reach and contours – to the bloom of flowers. Each flower (or conversation) distinct, yet in key ways, similar or connected. I also noted that with cacti and roses, what looks immediately appealing can hide thorns and sharp shards, unseen at first, but present and alive within, under or as part of the blossoming. Some conversations, like flowers, I said stayed alive more than others. The life of other conversations, I said, also like the environment or flower bed a plant grew in, was entirely dependent on context, climate and culture.

I followed this slide with my own data visualisation of the Jana Balaya Rally and #stillnoanswers, Amnesty International’s campaign on the disappeared, both of which happened around the same time in Sri Lanka. Without going into too much detail, I noted how research into conversational dynamics over social media, accounting for identity frames, language, geography, platform affordances, device limitations, network effects, education and economics, was not too different from how a gardener would tend, lovingly and with great care, to a flower bed.

Just a glance, I noted, was enough to reveal that one movement or campaign was very different to the other. As a researcher, I noted, my motivation was to ascertain why.

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I then showed snapshots of Twitter based on my preliminary observations and data collection. I flagged how around the violence in Digana in March, there was a discernible increase or spike in the content generation on Twitter alone – leading up to the kinetic violence on the ground, and during it. I flagged that causal linkage between the volume of content and a violent context, if any, was undetermined as yet.

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I then gave two snapshots of Facebook, again from data pulled from my research from just 1st January 2018. Noting that the dominant drivers and primary frames on politics, country, context and the world were gossip sites in Sinhala, I noted that the media diet of a young demographic, post-war, was akin to always or only eating fast-food. I then flagged how much greater engagement the extreme nationalist Sinhala-Buddhist pages and accounts I monitored gathered over accounts pegged to civil society.

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I ended up with frames I would employ in my doctoral research around social media analysis. Using a video of bubbles, I noted how many seemingly disparate conversations online were, based on language, locale, issue or proponent, connected, with these connections morphing over time. Using the awful hate directed against Sandya Eknaliyagoda as an example, I noted that the conversational domains I often looked at (and am sometimes an actant in or inadvertently thrust into) were very far removed from decency and civility. I noted that my interest was in ascertaining the drivers of hate and violence, that after finding expression online, could exacerbate, render more intractable, lead or contribute to violence in the real world.

I ended with a quote from Voltaire, discovered by reading (the absolutely wonderful) War Gardens: A Journey Through Conflict in Search of Calm by Lalage Snow. The quote I said captured the primary motivation for my doctoral research – to look at home and my work since 2002, as fertile terrain to help unpack why and how conversations online are the way they are today, and how, if at all, their thrust, timbre and topics can be changed.

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My hope, I said, was that one could eventually extrapolate from my work on and in the post-war context in Sri Lanka ways of looking at and dealing with hate online in fragile democracies, applicable or resonant elsewhere.

Download the full presentation as a PPT here.

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