Why not a Kindle?

The green beans were wrapped in Time. The magazine, not the passage. The lentils usually in a Newsweek. Any purchase of over a kilo of manioc was rewarded by indeterminable foreign newsprint on international affairs as its wrapping. Perhaps my love and insatiable consumption of manioc was linked to the possibility of a reward by way of more crushed, stained newsprint to read. I remember Seeya’s inexhaustible beedis – moist, pungent and I am convinced, which contributed significantly to climate change – came in bundles wrapped in Subasetha, a newspaper devoted to astrology. I suppose it’s not without some irony that chain-smoking would be wrapped in the dark arts of planetary shifts impacting health, wealth and well-being.

Many Ladybird books and all of Blyton I inherited in pristine condition from my sister. The editions of Folk of the Faraway Tree and Famous Five, as well as Just William published in the ’50s and ’60s,  are bound and printed so well, they are, to date, in about the same condition as when they were bought around five decades ago. Through them, I wasn’t just repeatedly transported to a Kirrin Island I could feel and littoral England I could smell but yearn to this day to visit some of the lands that the Faraway Tree touched. My sister, I compared with Ethel in William’s fictional travails, but I would like to believe I was a kinder brother. Equally compelling was the entire Brer Rabbit series, by Joel Chandler Harris, of which I inherited again editions from the 1960s, with these amazing illustrations that captured dramatic moments from a singular rabbit’s life, which till you read the books, would never imagine was as compelling. From my grandmother’s immediate family, I inherited a carefully used 15 volume 1973 edition of the Childcraft children’s encyclopaedia. Along with Arkady Leokum’s ‘Tell Me Why’ series, these were my first windows into palaeontology, archaeology, astronomy, science, chemistry, biology and zoology, all of which fascinated me equally.

My grandfather had around 40-50 copies of the Reader’s Digest from the 1940s and 1950s. Their spines had long since given up a battle with humidity, but the pages were largely intact, and read with wonderment. Sputnik, which is best described as the USSR’s answer to Reader’s Digest, I picked up with my father from the People’s Publishing House located decades ago in front of Hotel Nippon. Because in those days a journey to Colombo was a special treat, and an expense my parents could ill-afford more regularly than once a month, we also went to Caves in Fort. Subject and form prizes at S. Thomas’ were given as gift certificates from Lake House. I was somewhat of an eager student, and distinctly remember my father paying much more than the combined value of the gift certificates to buy me the books I chose. He never complained about price or quantity, though even as a child, I was conscious that my purchases had be considered. A subscription in the early to mid-’90s to the British edition of PC Magazine was treasured because of the CD-ROM’s that accompanied every issue, at a time I assembled PCs and was more interested in how things worked instead of just being happy they worked. This meant that I often took apart things for no other reason than the fact they could be taken apart. The hardware was text, and I loved its deconstruction.

As an office-bearer of the Library Society at S. Thomas’ College, I had unrivalled access to the least frequented space in school by the students, next to the Warden’s office. The library in school was well-stocked and my first introduction to Forsyth, le Carré, Forbes, Asimov, Clarke, Pratchett’s Discworld and more current issues of magazines. Incidentally, many moons later, the first visit to the Parliament library reminded me of College, because of how it was entirely bereft of anyone perusing books and with a flustered librarian entirely unprepared for a major crisis involving a few individuals walking in suddenly.

New Delhi during my undergrad days was rich in at least two things. Lead in the air. And books, including second-hand book markets. The first quickly drove me to smoking. It didn’t make any sense being slowly poisoned by lead, instead of enjoying more the inhalation of nicotine, and the exhalation of which resulted in purer air than the city provided for. Of all the South Asian cities I’ve travelled to, Colombo is the worst for books and literature. Delhi in the late 90s sold books by the kilo, because the seller’s were illiterate and didn’t realise the value of first or rare editions. This resulted in at the end of three years a volume of purchases that had to be shipped back. It also started a tradition of frequenting iconic bookstores in cities I visit. Bahrisons in Khan Market, People Tree in Connaught Place (still relatively unknown), the Daryaganj Book Market on Sundays, Greenlight Bookstore in Brookyln, the Strand in New York but also the Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue, the iconic City Lights in San Francisco, Kinokuniya in Singapore which is so vast, I have never once found the cashier without guidance, Shakespeare & Company in Paris, the multitude of booksellers along the Seine, the Harvard Book Store in Boston, Orell Füssli in Zurich, or back at home, Maradana’s second hand booksellers, who are today a shadow of what they were growing up. The Sri Lankan High Commissioner to India at the time, Mangala Moonesinghe, gave me the High Commission’s old copies of the Economist, to read and returned. His advice? No student must go without reading it, in order to gain a more complete understanding of the world. I was decades away from being able to remotely afford a subscription, but Bagehot, Buttonwood, Banyan, Lexington and Charlemagne columns, with wit and a generosity of spirit even when scathingly critical provided insights into contemporary American and Asian affairs, politics and economics.

All this and more came to mind as I read, this week, an ad for a new Kindle device. I get all the reasons why people buy one, including avid readers who are also frequent travellers. I did too, only to gift it very soon thereafter. I just cannot read on an electronic device. My first encounters with Time magazine smelt of bonchi. I read the Economist in Delhi seated by side-street, eating chapati and egg curry, chatting with a trishaw-wallah in Hindi about the life he escaped from Bihar. There are Edna chocolate stains on my Blyton. Seeya’s Reader’s Digests smelt of his exhalations, long after he had passed away. All Sputniks had a spine so rigid it was as if the Soviets were scared of their propaganda being openly read. The pages of my oldest books are now beautifully discoloured, which brings to sharper relief the old typefaces. Those old books from Lake House still have my grandmother’s meticulously pasted prize certificate pasted on inner page or cover. I still read and love Blyton. Walking into, around and to any bookstore is its own meditation, adventure and experience. Getting lost in a library cannot be digitally recreated on Amazon. No algorithm can ever compare to a librarian’s recommendation engine anchored to a life spent reading, or for those of us fortunate enough to have known him before his passing three years ago, the inimitable Balraj Bahri Malhotra at Bahrisons – refugee, raconteur and living encyclopaedia. At least for me, reading is an olfactory, tactile love affair – with jacket and cover holding more than the sum of a book’s pages. Each book is an invitation to memory, recalled to varying degree, happy to wistful. Anything longer than two pages, I must print out in order to fully engage with. Though I’m perfectly fine with my 12-year-old son reading on tablet as much as in book form, stain, crease, fold, tear, smudge, smell, feel and the unique memories of purchase, first reading and re-reading will always colour my love of books, as books bought from brick and mortar bookshops. And from kadala gotu to bath-packet wrappers, there’s something about the printed word’s reincarnation that is its own story.

As a child, I used to wonder how those pages from magazines came to my corner store. A world without that wonder would surely be a poorer one.


First published in The Sunday Island, 4 August 2019.

Fighting misinformation

Upon a Sleepless Isle’, the astonishingly good new book by Andrew Fidel Fernando has a vital lesson for new and generally excitable students of misinformation in Sri Lanka. Countering the spread of rumour, from the risible to the inflammable, is all the rage. The focus and framing are largely on Facebook as well as WhatsApp, but the general debate is fuelled by vague concepts like social media, which covers all manner of political, partisan and personal agendas. The net result is misinformation framing debates on misinformation, which the reader will agree isn’t entirely helpful. Fernando’s book, better than most, captures the essence of the problem in our country. Early on, there is a hilarious but deeply incisive description of a corner shop in Dehiwela the author grew up with and hasn’t changed over the years. I know of and still frequent its equivalent in Ratmalana. We all have this corner shop, wherever in the country we live. As Fernando notes,

“What the shop genuinely does a booming trade in is gossip… News spreads at incredible speeds through this network. If an affair has been discovered anywhere within a 50-kilometre radius, the tantalising details, within hours, will have been served up, digested, and regurgitated at the store.”

The village well. The Sunday pola. Temple grounds on a Poya day, under shade of Bo tree or in shadow of stupa. Galle Face grounds. From bath-kade to buffet, bus to Benz, Cargills to Church, mendicant to millionaire, Sri Lanka’s great glue is gossip. The marketplace of gossip, filled with imagined scandal and salacious, is on the front page of daily newspapers, in the Hansard, often defines a politician’s dais and increasingly, reflected in saffron sermon. Gossip transcends class, caste, community and city. Fernando’s corner shop and all similar corner shops dotted across the country are key nodes in what some call ‘hyper-local news’ – the stuff that’s important to a neighbourhood. The news is highly decentralised, but on occasion – if the scandal is sufficiently gory, deviant or high-profile – binding across geography. Fernando finely details the great theatre of partaking in gossip without actively acknowledging that it was the central reason to visit corner shop. And this is precisely gossip’s enduring lure, for which the German’s have a word – schadenfreude. The pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune. Is this not why so many visits to the corner shop are required, and why even as we decry its publication, the gossip on front page is read and then with nudge, wink or prefaced by a conspiratorial ‘here?’, passed on to others?

To focus on Facebook and social media alone as sources of misinformation is bound to fail. Since March 2018, when Digana was still burning, I have studied close to 400 of Sri Lanka’s most popular gossip pages on Facebook. There are hundreds more – too much to keep track of and an overkill for my doctoral research, which is anchored to understanding how this tsunami of truly terrible content finds ready reception. One obvious reason is that the country has a high adult literacy, without a comparably high media literacy, which is measured by the degree to which the media consumed is questioned or engaged with critically. Very often, what one reads online – whether from known or unknown, trusted or new, individual or institutional, domestic or foreign source – is immediately liked and shared, as a reflex reaction. This is the digital equivalent of the corner shop’s capture of customer imagination by tall tale, told with enough lunu and miris to make it entirely fascinating to engage with. Readers will know exactly what I mean because we have all heard it. I confess that I love it – there is nothing quite like a good gossip session when buying something entirely unnecessary. And herein lies the rub researchers in the West are only now discovering the complexity of – gossip is inherently interesting. It sticks. It is engaging in ways facts often are – in the way they are captured and told – not. The digital dynamics of gossip, from the benign to malevolent by design – are founded on centuries of rumour-mongering in society. Modern neuroscience attests to how much we are conditioned, unconsciously and from womb, to stimuli and society around us. The weaponisation of misinformation – by mainstream media in Sri Lanka to political campaigns – feeds off this, and pervasive vectors of content dissemination unavailable a few years ago.

Which brings me to why I’m deeply sceptical about the purely technocratic approaches to fighting the worst misinformation, intended to inflame or exacerbate violence, promote hate or slowly, but methodically, undermine trust in institutions and democratic processes. All this is already present in Sri Lanka and will get worse. The burden of pushing back however, relies on the producers of this content, as well as those who engorge it. There is no data, from anywhere in the world, which suggests that by the numbers, misinformation when corrected, or debunked, is even remotely as successful at spreading or seeding the imagination. The data I have from Sri Lanka over the past 7 days alone – a relatively slow news week where President Sirisena didn’t say or do something uncharacteristically democratic, intelligent or progressive to fuel gossip above normal levels – 400 odd gossip pages on Facebook had close to 4.3 million interactions. In comparison, 27 pages of major political party pages managed 29,000 interactions and the cluster of 177 politicians I track, around 452,000 interactions. An interaction on Facebook is a like, share or comment. The way so many on Facebook see and engage with society or politics is defined by what gossip they consume, and I suspect, believe in. No amount of poster, infographic or purely digital fact-checking and debunking stands a chance in denting this market of imagined event and fiction, framed as fact.

Fundamentally, we now ask those who have not grown up with learning to question what they hear in the corner shop, to now become invested in ascertaining veracity online. We expect them to do reverse image searches, consult multiple sources, look into the provenance of news and look at metadata. If you don’t know what any of this even means, much less how to do it, you’re not alone. The burden of editorial framing has shifted, and now lies in part with the agenda and interests of producer and also with consumer, and their points of reference, technical competence, and interest in facts. Gossip to date operates on the basis of story-telling, with the story-teller’s prowess in large part responsible for how much something sticks in memory and mind. Consumers and readers used to this and a news landscape where TV, radio or newspaper – in tactile or broadcast formats – were trusted to deliver the news, are now asked to actively act as agents of truth-seeking. The change is akin to asking someone who doesn’t cook, and has only ever eaten pre-prepared meals, to go into the kitchen and make lunch or dinner. One is used to savouring what another has prepared. It isn’t easy to suddenly become a chef.

Misinformation isn’t about the data one has, which is relatively easy to horde and crow about. The data will tell you things about dynamics and drivers, but nothing about why themes and topics are originally viral. Who the producers are. How stories that start offline in a corner shop find their way to front page, prime time broadcast, or spread across hundreds of pages on Facebook, dozens of videos on YouTube, hundreds of tweets and invisible to everyone save for those in them, innumerable private groups on Viber. Academics call this complex media eco-systems. Complex, because they are dynamics impossible to grasp fully. Eco-systems because disparate apps and platforms, within and between language groups, fertilise each other’s rumours.

As we head into the campaigns anchored to the Presidential elections, corner shops of Fernando’s description will sell more gossip and rumour than toothpaste or Milo packets. Understanding gossip’s revered role and relevance in our society can help better engineer ways that misinformation online can be, at the very least, stemmed, in ways that don’t rely on the interest of or investments in time and effort by consumers to discover fact. Gossip works because there’s little to no friction in accessing and sharing it. Countering misinformation is, as a transaction, too much of an effort for most. Until that changes, what I see on social media will grow, and married with rich cultures of rumour offline, define how Sri Lanka’s see their country.

But here? You won’t believe the data I’m seeing around a particular politician in the UNP ah.


First published in The Sunday Island, 21 July 2019.

United Nations – Welcoming the United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech

Excerpt from a letter penned to the UN Secretary-General penned by me on behalf of the ICT4Peace Foundation. Originally posted on the Foundation’s website on 19 June 2019.


Image courtesy Vice

The ICT4Peace Foundation congratulates the Secretary-General of the UN on the launch of the UN strategy and plan of action on hate speech. The Foundation’s research into and work on the complex, fluid dynamics of hate speech, over a decade and across five continents, strongly complements the capture and submission of the problem space by the Secretary-General in his remarks at the launch of the strategy.

As far back as 2010, after meetings with the Office of the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Mr. Francis Deng and the Special Adviser on the responsibility to protect, Mr. Edward Luck, the Foundation published ‘ICTs for the prevention of mass atrocity crimes‘. Some sections of the report, dealing with the challenges and opportunities of communications technology to prevent genocide, resonate deeply with the new plan of action against hate speech.

The Foundation’s interest in and commitment to this work, for well over a decade, spans work with many UN agencies including the Office for the High Commissioner on Human Rights, substantive input into the ‘Christchurch Call’ and diplomatic briefings in Switzerland. From Sri Lanka – which is twice mentioned in the Secretary-General’s remarks – to Myanmar, New Zealand to the Balkans, the Foundation’s research, training, workshops, output and reports have tackled head on the challenges around countering violence extremism online, and the rise of hate speech in online fora. The Foundation also fed into the High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, the framework of which as noted dovetails with what’s required to combat hate speech in both physical and virtual domains.

We recognize that the institutional mandate of the focal point of the action plan, Mr Adama Dieng, Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, is well-placed to embrace the challenges around increasing hate speech generation and dissemination. The Foundation’s experience in this domain is anchored to lived experience and close to two decades of activism by colleagues from Sri Lanka, as well as a long history of diplomatic, institutional, systemic and substantive interventions to and within the UN system, in New York, Geneva and country-offices, including specific peacekeeping missions.

The Foundation, along with colleagues who are well-regarded experts in this domain, looks forward to – in person or electronically – supporting endeavors to widen and deepen this timely, important initiative, which undergirds the UN’s core values and mission.

For related tweets, see tweet thread here.

Full video & slidedeck of lecture: From Christchurch to Sri Lanka – The curious case of social media

First posted on the ICT4Peace Foundation’s website on 17 June 2019.


On 20 May 2019, Sanjana Hattotuwa, a Special Advisor at the ICT4Peace Foundation since 2006, gave a well-attended public lecture at the University of Zurich on the role, reach and relevance of social media in responding to kinetic and digital violence, including the potential as well as existing challenges around artificial intelligence, machine learning and algorithmic curation. The lecture was anchored to on-going doctoral research, data-collection and writing on the terrorist attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand in March and the Easter Sunday suicide bombings in Sri Lanka – Sanjana’s home.

A video of the full lecture, also requested by those who couldn’t attend the lecture in person, is now available on YouTube and embedded below.

The full slide deck used in the lecture can be downloaded as a PDF here. It’s also embedded below.

Sanjana’s presentation started with an overview of his doctoral research and scope of data-collection, anchored to Facebook and Twitter in particular. The daily capture and study of this data gives him perspectives at both a macro-level (quantitative) and with more precise granular detail (qualitative) which help in unpacking drivers of violence, key voices, leitmotifs and other key strains of conversations on social media after a violent incident. Comparing the terrorist incidents in Christchurch and Sri Lanka, Sanjana contextualised the global media coverage around both incidents and in particular, the criticism against social media following the live-streaming of the Christchurch incident. Calling social media an ‘accelerant for infamy’, Sanjana proposed an original thesis around how the science of murmuration and the study of mob mentality (based on the three key principles of adhesion, cohesion and repulsion), when applied to conversational and content related dynamics online, could provide insights into how violence spread and generated new audiences.

Sanjana then spoke about artificial intelligence (AI), and despite the more common framing by mainstream media, significant challenges around AI-based content curation faced by leading social media companies at present. Aside from Facebook and Twitter, Sanjana flagged the extremely problematic recommendation engines of YouTube, including the recent misrepresentation of the Notre Dame fire. Using two images, he also flagged how even the simplest of manipulation still baffled the most sophisticated of AI, looking at image classification (which is central to the identification of violent or hateful content online).

Using Sinhala – a language spoken only in Sri Lanka – Sanjana highlighted the challenges of natural language processing (NLP), which akin to AI, was central to content curation at scale. In one slide, he typed Sinhalese characters and in another, showed an image with characters embedded into it, noting something different to what was typed. Sanjana noted that the first, by itself, presented a number of challenges for companies that had for too long ignored the likes of Sinhalese or Burmese content generated on their platforms, while the second compounded those issues, by presenting to AI and ML architectures nuance, context and script training datasets at present aren’t based around or on.

Sanjana then went on to explain the dangerous consequences of ‘context conflation’ in a country or context with very high adult literacy and very poor media literacy. While some or all of this is known, Sanjana went on to then frame and focus, through hard data, the manner in which Twitter provided a global platform after the violence in Christchurch for people to discuss solidarity, express sadness and generate strength. A conversation far removed from hateful right-wing ideology or the promotion of violence took place, rapidly and vibrantly, on the same social media platforms that the global mainstream media chastised for having played a central role in the promotion of violence. Noting the unprecedented constitutional crisis in Sri Lanka late-2018 as well as the content produced after the Easter Sunday attacks, Sanjana again highlighted how social media in general, and Facebook and Twitter in particular – played a central role in democracy promotion, dissent, activism, pushback against authoritarian creep and the promotion of non-violent frames after a heinous terrorist attack.

Sanjana ended the lecture by looking at inflexion points – noting that social media companies, civil society and governments needed to recognise a historic opportunity to change the status quo, including core profit models and business practices, in order to ensure to extent possible social media didn’t provide ready platforms for fermenting or fomenting fear, hate, violence and terrorism.

Sanjana underscored why the #deletefacebook movement in the West would never take root in countries like Myanmar or Sri Lanka, and was a risible suggestion to hundreds of millions using Facebook’s spectrum of apps and services. He noted the dangers around the emulation, adaptation or adoption of regulation from the West in countries with a democratic deficit, while at the same time noting the importance of regulation’s introduction to govern companies that needed oversight to a greater degree than is present today. Linked to this, he noted that Silicon Valley’s business models were anchored to quantity over quality, and the generation of content irrespective of the timbre or tenor of that material – leading to the obvious weaponisation of platforms never meant to be Petrie dishes for terrorism and violent ideologies. Facebook’s recent pivot to privacy, announced by Mark Zuckerberg, Sanjana welcomed with cautious optimism, noting that while there was much to celebrate and welcome, it could also mean that academics would find it much harder or downright impossible, in the future, to study the generation and spread of violent extremism on social media. Sanjana spoke about social media as being central to the DNA of politics, political communication and social interactions in countries like Sri Lanka, noting that as a consequence, there is no alternative to the development of AI, ML and NLP techniques to deal with the tsunami of content generation growing apace, every day, already far beyond the ability of a few hundred humans to oversee and respond to. In both the penultimate and final slides, Sanjana spoke to the need to problematise the discussion of media and social media, noting how complex a landscape it really was, defying easy capture or explanation.

The lively and interesting Q&A session, which exceeded the allotted time, went into a number of aspects Sanjana touched on. The video above captures the Q&A segment as well.

Also read:
ICT4Peace input to Christchurch Call meeting in Paris
ICT4Peace was invited by RT Hon Jacinda Ardern to discuss “Christchurch Call to Action to Eliminate Terrorist and Violent Extremist Content Online“

National Dialogue limits in the age of digital media: ‘New dialogic processes’

Cross-posted from the ICT4Peace Foundation website. Originally published on 13 June 2019.


Special Advisor at the ICT4Peace Foundation, Sanjana Hattotuwa, joined the 2019 National Dialogues Conference via Skype video on 12 June to both present a short overview of the state-of-play and as a panellist discussing the interplay between politics, social media, conflict, peace and dialogue. As noted on the NDC’s website,

The National Dialogue Conferences are a continuation of conferences held in Helsinki, Finland since April 2014 onwards enjoying wide participation while deepening the understanding of dialogue processes among attendees. The Conference enables both a broad range of stakeholders from multiple countries and practitioners in the field internationally to take these collaborative lessons forward. These gatherings, familiarly known as NDCs, provide a space for joint reflection and in-depth discussion between practitioners, stakeholders and experts working with dialogue processes in different contexts. The Conference is organised by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland in cooperation with a consortium of NGOs consisting of Crisis Management Initiative, Felm and Finn Church Aid.

The panel consisted of,

  1. Ahmed Hadji, Team Leader and Co-Founder, Uganda Muslim Youth Development Forum
  2. Sanjana Hattotuwa, Special Advisor, ICT4Peace Foundation (video link)
  3. Achol Jok Mach, Specialist, PeaceTech Lab Africa
  4. Jukka Niva, Head of Yle News Lab, Finnish Broadcasting Company

The moderator was Matthias Wevelsiep, Development Manager – Digital Transition, FCA.

Sanjana’s presentation, titled ‘New dialogic processes‘ was a rapid capture of developments in a field he has researched on and worked in for over 15 years, which as was noted in his presentation, was long before what is now a global interest in both the underlying issues thwarted effective dialogue and new technologies, that both strengthen and erode support democratic exchanges.

Download a copy of his presentation as a PDF here.

With a title slide showcasing what at the time of the presentation were unprecedented public demonstrations in Hong Kong, Sanjana flagged well over a decade of work on strategic communications and dialogue processes anchored to conflict transformation that started in Sri Lanka in 2002, and the One-Text negotiations process that at the time, was in part anchored to software architectures that Sanjana designed and managed. Sanjana referenced a paper written 15 years ago to the month (Untying the Gordian Knot: ICT for Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding), that as part of his Masters research anchored to the One-Text process in Sri Lanka, looked at how technology could play a more meaningful role in conflict transformation and peace negotiations processes.

Looking at how unceasing waves of content influenced and informed public conversations, Sanjana briefly highlighted the many inter-related fields of study around dialogue processes and communications, or ‘complex media ecologies’. He then offered a way for non-experts to visualise the dynamics of (social media) dialogues in contemporary societies, through murmuration or the swarm effect seen in nature, akin to mob-mentality (sans the violence). Anchored to his doctoral research, Sanjana then looked at the Christchurch terrorist attack in March, and how at scale – involving hundreds of thousands of tweets around key hashtags – Twitter had in the 7 days after the violence, captured events and conversations around it. More central to his doctoral work, Sanjana then focussed on the media landscape in Sri Lanka, looking at both Twitter and Facebook.

Covering the general state of conversation, an unprecedented constitutional crisis, the commemoration of the end of war a decade ago and the Easter Sunday terrorist attack, Sanjana proposed that it didn’t make any sense – in Sri Lanka and arguably in other countries and contexts too – to distinguish social media as a category entirely distinct from or somehow different to mainstream or traditional media. Offering in-depth data-captures around the volume of content production, the deep biases present in the content and key dynamics of sharing and engagement, Sanjana showcased the ’emotional contagion’ effect of how content online impacted how people felt.

Ending with the 90-9-1 principle, Sanjana cautioned against the simplistic study and reading of content online as markers of the health or effectiveness of national dialogues. Far more than the technology, Sanjana focussed on the operational logic(s) of dialogues in complex media ecosystems that were pegged to language, manner of expression, context, media literacy and a range of other factors.

In the ensuing discussion, Sanjana expanded some of these points and highlighted Finland’s emphasis on media literacy with children as a template that other countries could follow, to deal with the threat of misinformation over the long-term. In the short-term, Sanjana underscored the importance of bringing into the room technology companies – who he said were now entrenched gatekeepers of news and information far more than they chose to disclose publicly – as well as cognitive neuroscience, to study more and better the art of communication especially in or applicable around complex, protracted violent conflict.

Also read/watch: First of its kind workshop on ICTs and Constitution Building and Technology and Public Participation – What’s New?, courtesy International Idea.

UN Digital Cooperation – Questions to SG Guterres, Melinda Gates and Jack Ma

Cross-posted from ICT4Peace Foundation website. Originally posted on 10 June 2019. First two questions on (social) media literacy and the staggering bias present, today, in AI and ML architectures were penned and posted by me, complementing two others on AI’s weaponisation from a colleague.


To support the launch of the UN SG Guterres’ Report on Digital Cooperation on 10 June 2019, ICT4peace submitted the following four questions addressed to the UN SG, Melinda Gates and Jack Ma:

  1. In countries with poor media literacy, social media is a vector for spread of rumours that often result in kinetic reactions. How to harness the potential of social media to inform, and at the same time, reduce its impact as a driver of hate and violence through misinformation?
  2. Persons of colour aren’t part of many machine learning architectures, from design to dataset, leading to unsurprising racial bias in execution and selection. What can the UN do to ensure new forms of racism aren’t embedded into AI systems that will undergird politics, commerce, industry and travel?
  3. The converging nature of emerging technologies allow combinations of different weapons areas (AI/LAWS, cyber, bio-chemical, nuclear), areas that are currently dealt with in an isolated manner in GGEs and treaties. How can we break-up/connect those classical weapons-specific approaches to reflect this convergence?
  4. Major tech companies have taken on a pseudo-political role through ‘ethical’ principles that might protect certain basic/human rights. How to go about this shift of political tasks and the resulting incapacity to guarantee that regulations affecting HRs have political legitimacy?

Download the UN report here.

ICT4Peace had submitted its formal input to the High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation in October 2018, which you can find as follows:

  • Download our reflections and recommendations as a PDF here.
  • Download summary of recommendations here.

ICT4Peace has been supporting the UN System-Wide Digital Cooperation since 2007, carrying out the first ever stocktaking of UN Crisis Information Management Capabilities in 2008, which lead to the adoption of the UN Secretary General’s Crisis Information Management Strategy (CIMS) in 2009 . The documents pertaining to this process since 2008 can be found here.

Input to Christchurch Call meeting in Paris

First posted on the ICT4Peace Foundation website. Features input given by me for Social Media companies and other key actors that fed into a document created for and tabled at the meeting held in Paris to launch the ‘Christchurch Call’. First published on 14 May 2019.


The Christchurch Call to Action to Eliminate Terrorist and Violent Extremist Content Online

In preparation of the Christchurch Call Meeting hosted by the Prime Minister RT Hon Jacinda Ardern in Paris on 14 May 2019, ICT4Peace prepared the following ICT4Peace Policy Paper as input to the conference.

Through our work at ICT4Peace over the past years, we have witnessed and analyzed the changing use of social media and its growing impact on critical issues related to democracy, political stability, freedom, communication and security. The euphoria about the role of social media as a primarily positive force during the Arab Spring has given way to a much more layered and complex picture of its role and uses across society and around the globe. The sheer enormity of today’s social media platforms, the volume of users and almost infinite mass of content, means that the containment of the spread of violent content, as witnessed after the Christchurch attack, proved almost impossible.

We have been working on these issues for many years now, including, launching on behalf  of  the UN Security Council  the Tech against Terrorism platform  with inter alia Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and Telefonica; carrying out cybersecurity policy and diplomacy capacity building for inter alia ASEAN and the CLMV countries; working with the UN GGE and ASEAN on norms of responsible state behaviour for cybersecurity with the ASEAN regional Forum on CBMs; carrying out workshops  in Myanmar, Sri Lanka on online content verification and online security; participating in the CCW GGE discussions in Geneva on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS), and analyzing the role of artificial intelligence and its role in peace-time threats such as surveillance, data privacy, fake news, justice, the changing parameters of health including the risks of certain biotechnological advances and other emerging technologies.

The challenge of controlling and removing terrorist content online

Despite now serious attempts by social media platforms to control content that violates norms, human beings are simply unable to keep up with the speed and connectivity of content creation around the world. This task can only be computationally managed by algorithms and AI, but these are also opaque, offering biased recommendations, search functions and are in part responsible themselves for the rise in extremism, conspiracy theories and destabilizing content online. However, there is some hope going forward in the engineering of greater friction in times of crisis. Instead of on/off censorship, engineering greater friction into sharing can help, at scale, control and curtail the flows of misinformation. The best example of this comes from India and WhatsApp. For years, apps – linked to ‘growth hacking’ made it as easy as possible to share and engage with content. In countries and contexts with little to no media literacy, this because quickly weaponised by actors who used the virality of content over social media, without any fact checking whatsoever, as a vector for misinformation spread at scale. With added friction – limits on the number of forwards, adding visual aids, adding an extra step to interact, in the backend, through algorithmic suppression of content with poor quality (e.g. clickbait articles) are a range of ways that from the app (front facing) to the algorithm (back-end) companies can and have invested in ways that in effect, reduce mindless sharing.

Protecting democracy, ethical principles and a free open Internet

The challenge of balancing the need to maintain a free and open Internet with the need for security and protection of human beings, data, ethical principles, human rights and democratic processes is daunting. It is essential to achieve a broad alliance pushing for practical change to prevent the spread of extremist content online and the glorification of the perpetrators of mass murder.  It is also important to protect users from fake news, misinformation and manipulation in particular in the terrorist context. From the Global South perspective, a key concern is also how and if measures undertaken by social media companies in response to Western demands, challenges and concerns, might undermine the ability of civil society to hold authoritarian governments accountable, and could weaponise processes and structures to clamp down on dissent. We must remain vigilant to ensure that at each step of the way these concerns are considered.

Social Media, Coming of Age

We have a responsibility to current and future generations to ensure a framework for all emerging technologies that respects basic human rights and ethical principles. Social media is evolving and society needs to figure out how these tools should be used now and in the future. There is a real risk of the race to the bottom with hate and the baser nature of human beings taking the lead as users gravitate toward clickbait and gruesome content. However, society seems to have fortunately reached an ethical border with the livestreaming of murder, just as we had reached a border in biotechnology with the cloning of a human being. We need to develop guidelines for how we, as a global society want to move and operate in the social media space. What kind of ethical principles need to be built into the algorithms and AI that will control our future content and interaction online?  How should social media companies evolve in their approaches and business models to take into account the human dimension? We need to shift and develop technical measures that consider the quality, not just quantity, of conversations online, the mental and physical health and age of consumers and the ways in which content is shared and manipulated.

For years, Facebook and other Silicon Valley companies prioritised ‘growth hacking’ by which they meant that the increase in user base for products and platforms overtook every other aspect of the business. At Facebook this was led by Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s COO. This is why the company is facing the issues it is today, and why Mark Zuckerberg’s pivot to the health of conversation and content is significant. It is a major change of course for the company, including the new emphasis on privacy over sharing, a concept scoffed at by Zuckerberg himself in the past. Though the contours of what the company will become are clear, it is unclear what exactly will be done to ensure the quality of conversations and content are engineered to be biased away from the toxic, violent and hateful. But across major platforms including YouTube, Twitter and Facebook’s Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp platforms, there is a new emphasis on securing user privacy and at the same time engineering ways that also protect users from hate, harm and violence.

Added to this is a new interest, at the operating system level of phones and tablets on both iOS and Android, ways through which Apple and Google respectively are now keen to ensure users have a good balance of on-screen and off-screen time. This includes logging device and app usage at the OS level, and by engineering tweaks on apps like Instagram for example (first, deeply unpopular within Facebook) to give a visual indication of when new content was over, and the user was scrolling through content already seen or engaged with, thus ensuring the user spent less time on the app, not more. Less time on apps meant less advertisements seen, and less interactions with the app or operating system, in turn resulting in less monetisable action points, impacting, at scale, profits as well as the harvesting of user level engagement metrics. So, what appears to be a simple change is actually a major shift for companies that now prioritise the health of users over constant engagement and addiction to apps.

Proposed actions for Social Media companies and other key actors:

  1. Develop joint multi-stakeholder taskforces to consider the big picture of the human dimension of social media and develop ethical principles that could guide Social Media companies and users in the online world.
  2. Social Media companies in cooperation with government, law enforcement and civil society need to reinforce joint SWAT team responses for content that meets certain extreme criteria, e.g. in particular livestreaming of murder or other heinous acts.
  3. Prioritize the development of AI that could better define and distinguish types of content and support in the clamping down in emergency situations on the connectivity of terrorist content.(The real problem at the moment is the definition of terrorist content. No AI at present can easily distinguish between the media’s coverage of a terrorist incident which may include graphic violence, and a terrorist group’s promotion of violent ideology, which may include the same or similar graphic violence. AI can also be fooled, and without human review, can and has led to instances where content documenting human rights abuses in war have been entirely deleted, in effect contributing to the impunity of perpetrators.)
  4. Ensure existing AI and algorithms do not promote terrorist content and extremist views by pushing more such content to users. (YouTube’s recommendation engine / algorithm, widely and increasingly criticized for the promotion over time of increasingly extremist content, is undergoing major overhauls on these lines).
  5. Proactively remove hate speech and repeat offenders. (This is directly linked to how much of human and technical resources can be put in by these companies, and also the challenge of end-to-end encrypted channels / platforms like WhatsApp, where even the company doesn’t easily know the kind of content exchanged in groups.)
  6. Improve review mechanisms and responsiveness.
  7. Reinforce trusted reporting network that expedites the flagging of content vetted through experienced individuals and institutions.
  8. Improve the reporting mechanisms built into Facebook apps like Facebook Messenger to make it easier and simpler to report violent or hateful content.
  9. It is important in these difficult times also to remember that just as social media helps extremist ideology take seed and grow, it also helps in healing, empathy, gestures of solidarity, expressions of unity, the design of conciliatory measures and the articulation of grief and sympathy. In the immediate aftermath of the Christchurch attack, a cursory top-level study of the nearly 85,000 tweets generated in the 24 hours after the violence shows a global community outraged or dismayed at terrorism, an outpouring of love, empathy and solidarity, engagement that spans many continents and languages, addressing prominent politicians and journalists, featuring hundreds of smaller communities anchored to individuals based in New Zealand and in a manner overwhelmingly supportive of the Muslim community.” Sanjana Hattotuwa in Pulse Points