Digital Blooms | Article for LMD, January 2019

Witnessing a constitutional crisis through social media

Of the many frames of reference readers may employ to help comprehend the extraordinary developments in Sri Lanka after the 26th of October, I doubt images of flowers in bloom or flower beds would immediately spring to mind. And yet, this is how I see Sri Lanka, or more precisely, how I study the debates, conversations, events and processes that shape our polity and society today. My doctoral research is anchored to the study of social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, post-war. There is an entire canon of academic research and literature around the use and abuse of social media around revolutions. Little to nothing is published around the role, reach and relevance of Facebook and Twitter in societies coming out of war. I inhabit the intersection of what’s called data science – the study of very large datasets – politics and peacebuilding. My chief interest is in creating social media ecosystems – think of it like immunisation – resilient to content and actors who incite hate and violence.

Having set up Groundviews in 2006, the country’s first civic media platform that continues to publish content that cannot or will not go up in mainstream media, my research at present is anchored to the dynamics of social media beyond inflammatory and simplistic headlines. I look at Facebook and Twitter at scale – meaning, in the hundreds of thousands of posts – sifting through content in English and Sinhala for patterns and trends that can help explain complex interactions between what is produced, shared and engaged with online, and what this content goes on to inspire in the real world. A causal linkage between online hate and kinetic violence is elusive and not the goal of my research. I am more interested in how Sri Lanka’s 18-34 demographic are introduced to politics, and subsequently, engage with political developments on social media.

The research is hard. A large part of it is visualising upwards of hundreds of thousands of records in ways that can help flesh out conversational dynamics. Facebook and Twitter have different affordances – meaning that you can do things on one you cannot on the other. The most obvious difference is with the length of a post – Twitter allows a far more limited number of characters than Facebook. Looking at how conversations grow, spread and eventually die offers insights into what exactly generates the most traction on social media, and why. Over time, armed with contextual knowledge, the data can also help prefigure a proclivity towards certain responses.

The mushroom around Jana Balaya, the political protest engineered by Namal Rajapaksa in early September captures three key hashtags on Twitter used by the organisers. Even without knowing anything about data science, the singular way the graph is structured – like a hub and spoke, with a few key accounts at the centre every one else links to – is evident. Compare this to the mushroom that captures, around the same time, a campaign by Amnesty International South Asia around enforced disappearances. Using the hashtag the organisers used, the graph very clearly shows several clusters within a larger one. Not unlike a matryoshka doll, each cluster is its own ecosystem, within the larger campaign. The two campaigns are visually distinct. Both visualisations are created using thousands of tweets, computationally arranged in such a way that groups them according to ties to other accounts. This gives researchers the ability to figure out who in the larger network really drives the discussion as well as other influential actors who act as bridges or amplifiers. All this is useless without contextual knowledge, which is why my research is anchored to socio-political dynamics at home, which I know far more than a foreign country.

Since the 26th of October, several key dynamics and trends have emerged, strengthening what I have observed for months. Gossip in Sinhala on Facebook is the primary driver of news and information, including political frames. This is extremely disturbing on many levels, since these pages – which numbers in the hundreds – produce content as such great volume and velocity, they are by order of magnitude engaged with more than mainstream news sites in any language. Ethics are absent and professional optional on these pages. Those who engage believe they are very well-informed, when in fact they are entirely ill or misinformed. On the other hand, memes – or cartoons produced anonymously – are hugely popular as a vehicle for incisive political critique. Often, the assumption is that exposure to this content makes consumers better informed. Sadly, this too is not the case.

Think of followers or fans as different species of flowers, growing side by side. What may look visually quite appealing is in fact a significant, growing problem. Each bloom is distinct, and doesn’t interact with others. Likewise on social media, fans of a politician, party or brand rarely if ever engage with anything that contests their beliefs. Worse, they are hostile towards difference. These are called echo chambers, which are hyper-partisan and rife for the injection of rumour engineered to instigate violence.

Responding to these complex, violent dynamics is made harder by the fact that dissent, advocacy and activism, in a context of authoritarian control of all other media, is also to be found on social media. Vital speeches made at the Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero’s memorial event were censored by mainstream media and only carried over social media. Compelling letters, statements, press releases and short essays opposing the unconstitutional coup are rife on social media, just as much as content seeking to legitimise, justify and normalise it are also strategically produced and promoted.

This is Sri Lanka’s new battleground. Its dynamics are complex and evolving, but the simple fact is this – every single political party, politician and other actors vying for political power, recognise the value of capturing attention, containing negative messaging and controlling the narrative on social media. My research, like a medical doctor would, examines all this as a contagion. The worst we can be, and amongst us, often overwhelm our better angels on social media. The odds are stacked against those of us who seek to strengthen civil discourse, decency, dignity and democracy online. I work to increase those odds and believe the democratic potential of Sri Lanka is anchored to getting this right.

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First published in Lanka Monthly Digest (LMD), January 2019. Download PDF of the article here. Download PDF of the article as it appeared in the magazine here.

Social media and government

Was invited by out-going Director General of the Government Information Department Ranga Kalansooriya late Sunday night to give a presentation the next day on social media and its importance for government officials, at a workshop organised by him with representatives from Facebook (coming in from India) present. Incoming / acting DG of the Government Information Department Sudharshana Gunawardene was also present for most of the workshop.

I used a few hastily created slides (download the deck here) to showcase why it was important government (officials) used social media, and Facebook in particular, to communicate to and if they so wished to do so, engage citizens. Noting the youth bulge in Sri Lanka’s demographic coupled with the rise of broadband and mobile phones, I flagged the sea-change in the way citizens got information and news, and indeed, went on to share this content with others. Knowing that Facebook representatives from India would go into it in more details, I briefly flagged the 5 million monthly active users on Facebook as reported on my ad-dashboard (which is actually much less than what Facebook itself said were Sri Lanka’s MAU at the time of writing this, which is 5.8 million). I also noted the overwhelming majority of these users connected through their mobile phones.

I then flagged to what degree Facebook played a role in Sri Lanka’s elections, just over 2015. I just showed three key slides, which suggested citizens were keen to know more about what their elected representatives did over social media, and also went on to inform those not on social media with news and information they had first learnt about online.

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Highlighting the substantial, in-depth research and polling on Facebook content and use in Sri Lanka done by the Centre for Policy Alternatives, I focussed on the ‘Consumption and Perceptions of Mainstream and Social Media in the Western Province‘ report, published early 2016 with fieldwork done late 2015. CPA’s website has more details about this report and key findings.

Showcasing a number of instances where the current President and Prime Minister were surrounded by youth posing for selfies, I noted that selfies were 2017’s autograph, and communicated a powerful political idea that the way to influence their minds was through the devices they owned and wanted to be framed through.

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Flagged a very interesting data-driven research paper on the use of social media by government official and public sector workers, I noted that it was not so much fear of social media that prevented better and more strategic use, but fear of reprimand, and the Establishment Code as it stands today, which is anathema to proactive disclosure and meaningful engagement with citizens.

The academic paper’s findings seemed to be borne out by those present at the workshop!

 

I also flagged the Information and Communication Technology Agency’s 2015 attempt to come up with a Social Media Policy for Government, under the then head Muhunthan Canagey. After two or three meetings at ICTA, and a process of eliciting input and ideas by placing the draft in the public domain, ICTA just forgot about the process completely.

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I suggested it’s revival, under or led by the Government Information Department, along with the recently released social media guidelines for New York Times staff, as foundations that could be adapted and adopted for the creation of a suitable framework for social media use in Sri Lanka’s public sector.

I ended by showing just how many from government were already on Twitter, and the hard road to social media’s meaningful use, from just a passive publication mode to active engagement.

Was also really good to engage with Facebook at the workshop, and learn what plans they had for the region and Sri Lanka. As noted on Twitter,

Rohan Samarajiva, who also spoke at the event, has a great post on what he said. Many important points there. The end  is particularly revealing. I was the 32nd to read the post on the official government news portal, in Sinhala. A day after the event was held.

By way of comparison, just the first of a chain of tweets I published on the event, late yesterday, had at the time of writing this generated 939 impressions and 45 engagements.

That’s social media’s power.

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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.

President, PM, Parliament, MFA, Cabinet, Central Bank & News.lk: Searching via Google

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Created a new Google custom search engine (after the reception to the first made yesterday) covering key government websites.

Access it here.

The search engine indexes everything on:

  1. President’s Media Division – http://www.pmdnews.lk
  2. Official Website of the President – http://www.president.gov.lk
  3. Presidential Secretariat – http://www.presidentsoffice.gov.lk
  4. President’s Fund – http://www.presidentsfund.gov.lk
  5. President’s Wikipedia entry –
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maithripala_Sirisena
  7. PM’s Wikipedia entry – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ranil_Wickremesinghe
  8. PM’s Office – http://www.pmoffice.gov.lk
  9. Cabinet Office – http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.lk
  10. Parliament of Sri Lanka – http://www.parliament.lk
  11. Official Web Portal of the Government of Sri Lanka – https://www.gov.lk/welcome.html
  12. News.lk (official news portal) – http://www.news.lk
  13. Central Bank of Sri Lanka – http://www.cbsl.gov.lk
  14. Ministry of Foreign Affairs – http://www.mfa.gov.lk

Whereas the reason for creating the custom search engine for the Government Printing Department was the fact that the search functionality on that site was dodgy at best, here it is because, for example, the President of Sri Lanka has no less than four official websites. These four have content updated at different intervals, covering different issues – what’s on one, isn’t what’s on the others. This was brought into sharp focus when after the President’s speech to the UN General Assembly, three different versions of the speech were on three different official websites.

The custom search engine also searches all the images on these sites. It will benefit journalists and researchers the most, and others including the diplomatic community who want to search through the myriad of PRs, speeches, statements, announcements, reports and other material in Sinhala, Tamil and English. The custom search engine also searches within PDFs.

ICCM 2016, Manila, Philippines: Video message from ICT4Peace Foundation

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The International Conference of Crisis Mappers (ICCM) is the leading humanitarian technology event of the year, bringing together the most important humanitarian, human rights, development and media organizations with the world’s best technology companies, software developers and academics. As thus one of the few neutral spaces where such important conversations can take place, the annual ICCM conference brings together a wide range of diverse actors for important conversations that lead to concrete new projects and deliverables across a variety of diverse domains. As a community of practice, the ICCM thus helps facilitate new projects and catalyzes innovation in the area of humanitarian technology.

This year’s conference is being hosted in Manila, Philippines September 28-30, 2016 with field visits from October 1-7.

Couldn’t make it to ICCM because of logistical issues, but did this short video, which was shown at the start of the conference, on behalf of the ICT4Peace Foundation.

The keynote address I made at ICCM 2011, in Geneva, is below. Good times.

Remembering is resisting

I gave a short talk on the politics of digital memorialisation through personal archives at Colomboscope 2016 on a panel titled ‘Rendering Realities’, moderated by Subha Wijesiriwardena.

The festival’s description of my presentation read,

Sanjana focuses on the role of the human in creating digital archives. He reflects on the ways digital archives are being generated, some of the technologies and platforms that allow for these archives to be created at scale and at the role and relevance of a citizen archivist. He explores the increasing yet often under-valued tension between ubiquitous and persistent recording (of life moments) and the essential fragility of digital storage.

The presentation was anchored to two recent articles of mine published in the mainstream media in Sri Lanka (The Sunday Island) as well as on my (other) blog. ARCHIVING THE FUTURE and DIGITAL MEMORIES both look at the challenges of archiving the discursive terrains online in contemporary Sri Lanka, and attempts to capture the politics, content and tensions therein for posterity.

The panel was recorded and a link will be put here once the content is made public by the organisers.

Countering Violent Extremism & Mobile Advocacy in Myanmar

Cross-posted from the ICT4Peace Foundation’s website.

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I was invited to take part in Tech Camp 2016, held at Phandeeyar, where I talked about and trained on mobile advocacy and activism strategies. Calling on the work engineered in Sri Lanka around election monitoring, civil society mobilisation, voter education and civic media, I talked about how mobiles were used to bear witness to violence, promote democratic debate, dissent and also foster interest in voting.

I also travelled to and conducted an in-depth workshop in Mandalay, the heart of Myanmar’s deeply troubling Ma Ba Tha movement. The workshop was around the use of social media in general, and mobile messaging in particular, and focussed on countering violence extremism (CVE) and civil society mobilisation campaigns. Focussing on key campaigns in Sri Lanka as well as some of the leading peacebuilding related social media campaigns globally, I explored how vitality could be engineered, the importance of designing for mobile first and also how simple, effective messaging helped promote a campaign.

I also touched briefly on digital security for activists especially when going head to head with online trolls as well as others with powerful online networks.

Finally, I touched on the importance of data driven campaigns, using the wealth of data provided for example by Facebook itself in the planning, design and implementation of online campaigns against violent extremism.