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.

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?

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Machine translation and semantics
https://ict4peace.wordpress.com/2010/03/03/real-time-machine-translation-the-present-and-future/ and https://ict4peace.wordpress.com/2010/03/09/machine-translation-for-peacebuilding-and-conflict-transformation/ 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 – https://ict4peace.wordpress.com/2006/08/25/strong-angel-iii-real-time-broadcast-video-translation/ – 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 – http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/04/fbi-twitter-data-mining, along with the phenomenal work (which I believe you’ve covered in your own blog) of Recorded Future (https://www.recordedfuture.com/2012/04/04/rise-of-the-muslim-brotherhood-in-context-of-the-egyptian-revolution/) not so much for their platform, but their underlying analysis engine. And in the field of semantics, platforms like Cognition http://cognition.com/ 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?

Ethics
Not enough conversation is around the ethics of data generation, sharing, use and archival. https://ict4peace.wordpress.com/2007/10/30/humanitarian-information-systems-ethics-information-protection-and-information-dna/ and the more detailed https://ict4peace.wordpress.com/2006/10/15/how-much-information-should-we-share-in-peacebuilding-and-humanitarian-operations/ (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
http://vimeopro.com/msradesignteam/portfolio/video/39564783 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 https://plus.google.com/111626127367496192147/posts 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 https://ict4peace.wordpress.com/2006/11/20/mobile-phones-augmenting-reality/ which I followed up in 2009 when Layar came to my notice https://ict4peace.wordpress.com/2009/06/20/layar-augmented-reality-through-mobiles-in-amsterdam/. 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 http://www.event38.com/ProductDetails.asp?ProductCode=E382 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 (http://irevolution.net/2010/05/02/future-of-news/). Now there’s one http://mashable.com/2012/05/03/instagram-citizen-journalism/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Mashable+%28Mashable%29. Of course, the Gulf Oil Spill resulted in a similar app – https://ict4peace.wordpress.com/2010/06/02/oil-slick-reporting-through-mobiles/. Along with the likes of Google + for iOS, FB Timeline, platforms like https://wavii.com/, and the really interesting http://bottlenose.com/home, 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 http://liveplasma.com 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 – https://ict4peace.wordpress.com/2006/06/30/ted-videos-and-digital-archiving/. 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 – https://ict4peace.wordpress.com/2006/04/30/technology-for-humanitarian-aid-6-mantras/. They remain valid today, and will I submit also be valuable into the future. And please, more Failfares – https://ict4peace.wordpress.com/2010/03/25/learning-from-failure-failfare/. 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 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.

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http://30yearsago.asia
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.

http://changesrilanka.org
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.

http://constitutionalreforms.org
Books & other material related to constitutional reform in Sri Lanka

http://www.corridorsofpower.org

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?

http://imalanka.org

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.

http://www.movingimages.asia
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.

http://neveragainsl.tv
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.

https://notinournamesl.wordpress.com

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.

http://republicat40.org
A collection of scholarly essays marking the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Sri Lankan Republic in 1972. Edited by Asanga Welikala.

http://roadtotempletrees.org
Sir Ivor Jennings and the Constitutional Development of Ceylon: Selected Writings. Edited by H. Kumarasingham.

http://srilankanpresidentialism.org
Reforming Sri Lankan Presidentialism – Provenance, Problems and Prospects is a collection of scholarly essays edited by Asanga Welikala.

http://tjsrilanka.org
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.

Address at Online Dispute Resolution Forum 2017

I couldn’t make it to Paris, but managed despite some technical hiccups to be present virtually at the Online Dispute Resolution 2017 Forum through Skype Video. The agenda can be downloaded as a PDF from here.

I made a few overarching observations in the prescribed time that I had, which wasn’t much.

I noted that human rights and business enterprises were now inextricably entwined, with a rights-focus ostensibly centre and forward in many of the world’s leading companies. This includes specific UN initiatives in this regard. This wasn’t the case when in 2004 I entered the domain of ODR. I started by noting that I wasn’t part of the mainstream ODR community, which is anchored to commercial dispute resolution, and instead bring to the table experience around and an interest in using technology for the transformation of complex political emergencies, and violent conflict. This is a result of my work in Sri Lanka since 2002.

I commended the French in the audience on their electoral results, from yesterday and the election of President Macron, noting that the contest of ideas, and the pursuit of intellectual, fact-based (political) debate, in an age dominated by mercurial, parochial and petty politics at the global and local levels was very important, and set the tone and bar for other countries to follow.

I noted in particular the role of young voters and their association with technology, which functioned as an interlocutor. In had in mind the excellent points made in the BBC Newshour Extra podcast from just two days ago, focusing on what voters really take into account when making their choice in democratic elections; what motivates that very personal choice; and whether old ideologies allegiances have been swept aside to be replaced by new and stronger ties fostered by a more individual brand of politics.

The perception of and relationship with the world in this young(er) demographic – around polity, society, culture, history and so much more – was through their participation in social networks. I noted that the algorithmic basis for how news and information was filtered and featured wasn’t in the control of end-users and consumers, and instead in the hands of a few powerful trans-national companies headquartered in Silicon Valley. I highlighted this power asymmetry as a problem, and hinted at its ability to generate conflict and violence through exclusion, marginalization and algorithmic erasure.

I noted that when I first entered the ODR fold, my emphasis on developing for the mobile phone was treated with skepticism, at best. I noted that my vindication came from the ubiquity of the smartphone across so many countries and regions no matter what the socio-economic or political group, emphasizing the enduring need to create mobile-first applications around ODR. For many communities and individuals, their smartphones will be the only computer they ever own and can afford to use. ODR applications need to embrace this, especially since the loci of conflict and its transformation, I submitted, was now in the palms of billions.

I noted that an emergent challenge was around the transformation of disputes that were digital in nature, or digitally fomented, and also ephemeral. My example was Snapchat and content created on the platform that could give rise to, exacerbate or help in the transformation of violent conflict, but due to the nature of the app, platform and medium, expired after a certain time. And though it is possible through devious means to capture this information, it isn’t easy. This recalled my work on memorialization and archival of digital content.

Speaking to my point around mobile phones and devices as the primary vector through which millions would interact with ODR, I noted that data was the new oil. I said that if one couldn’t afford data, then one couldn’t participate in ODR platforms – something that could lead to a new data-rich class that rules over a data-scarce segment of a population.

I also flagged the need for gender to frame our discussions around ODR, noting that sexual orientation and gender identity play a huge role in violent conflict and its transformation – noting that any solution that by design or accident excluded women, could not really be an enduring, coherent or even a useful ODR solution.

I flagged the importance of media literacy, especially coming from a country – Sri Lanka – with a very high adult literacy but a very poor media literacy. I noted how this could directly contribute to the rise and spread of misinformation, disinformation and rumors, over social media channels, informing and sometimes even instigating real life violence.

I wanted to flag the role of social media in traditional diplomacy and the need to critically embrace privacy, as a guiding principle in ODR solution, but didn’t have the time. I did however focus on two key issues – the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence. IoT, in line with my keynote presentation at the Build Peace conference in 2014, I said could lead to (violent) conflicts that we couldn’t even imagine today. With AI, recalling the recent words by Apple’s CEO Tim Cook on the development of AI technologies, I emphasized the role of ethics and the real dangers around big data, fed into AI platforms, that could exacerbate, inter alia, racial, gender based, systemic, geo-location or identity group based discrimination.

I ended my presentation imploring those present in the room to create a currency of hope, using technologies to create hope in domains where hopelessness fueled violence. To this end I recalled the French aphorism, mieux vaut prévenir que guérir, and noted that to prevent conflict was far more desirable than in seeking its transformation or resolution. I said ODR was inextricably entwined in all of this, and that it was my hope in the two days hence and years to come, the field would play an ever increasing role in the domain of peacebuilding, in addition to commercial dispute resolution.