Counter-speech: What works?


I was recently in Myanmar, where at the invitation of the Myanmar Information Management Unit (MIMU), I conducted an informal presentation on hate and dangerous speech monitoring plus counter-speech strategies, as well as social media strategies during and in response to elections.

In a subsequent conversation with someone from the excellent Phandeeyar initiative based in Yangon, we talked about what could be some of the most effective strategies over social media around counter-speech messaging to curtail and control the rise of expression that inflames communal tensions, with virtual content contributing over time to physical violence.

I noted the following points during the conversation, based on work in Sri Lanka monitoring hate and dangerous speech on Facebook in particular through the Centre for Policy Alternatives (Saving Sunil: A study of dangerous speech around a Facebook page dedicated to Sgt. Sunil Rathnayake, 2015 and Liking violence: A study of hate speech on Facebook in Sri Lanka, 2014).

Demographics are important: Youth (those between 18-24 in particular) stand the risk of radicalisation upon entering and engaging with online and mobile chat based fora. To appeal to this segment, iconic figures from youth (singers, actors, sportspersons, YouTube producers, hackers, IT industry leaders, young entreprenuers) are more important to leverage in counter-speech initiatives than say expressions from or iconography based around the dhamma. It is also the case that combined with geo-targetting, those who are held in high regard by this age group in local communities (ranging from monks in a community temple where this segment has gone for tuition or Sunday school to local business owners) can be leveraged, the emphasis being on the identification of influencers within that demographic, and furthermore, by geography.

Geo-targeting/geo-fencing: Easily done on Facebook, counter-speech content (ranging from pages to specific posts on Facebook) can be targetted to specific regions, at specific times, for specific communities. Wide-scatter promotions simply don’t work, either displaying on the screens of those who are already partial to the counter-speech content, or only sporadically appearing on the screens of those for whom it is most relevant. The larger the terrain of an audience, the greater the empahsis should be on ge0-fencing counter-speech content. For example, during an election, constituencies that have witnessed heightened communal or partisan violence can be targetted well before the day of the election with counter-speech messaging to prevent the spread of rumours and other inflammatory content.

Language: In a multi-lingual country like Sri Lanka, counter-speech is largely ineffective if it isn’t conducted in the language that dangerous and hate speech fora use in their interactions. Hate and dangerous speech on Facebook in Sri Lanka is almost exclusively in Sinhala, and counter-speech initiatives in either English or Tamil have no relevance or traction. Iconic counter-speech examples like Panzagar in Myanmar can be very effective, since they transcend the barriers of language. Short-form video can also be a powerful vector for counter-speech to reach target audiences, without necessarily being anchored to a single language.

Translation: This is not as easy as it sounds. Good translations that communicate ideas and meaning are hard to come by, and good translators (at least in Sri Lanka) are generally over-worked. Idioms, nuances, aphorisms and adages in languages differ, and native speakers of the language counter-speech content was originally produced in or for, and the language into which it will be translated into are very hard to come by.

Time: Counter-speech is a long-term process, and timinig is important in so far as what is expected as a result. Counter-speech to address and reduce electoral violence requires a different timeline to content that seeks to address deep-rooted communal or religious tension. Project oriented counter-speech campaigns, which are often driven by relatively short-term funding opportunities, are often too short for any meaningful impact.

Engagement more than likes: Facebook counter-speech initiatives often erroenously read the frequency or number of likes as a measure of popularity and reach. Firsly, Facebook likes are a misleading metric – since they can be very easily manipulated. Secondly, engagement accounts for readers who have commented on articles and/or shared them with or without comments on their timelines. As we’ve seen in Sri Lanka, engagement on dangerous and hate speech fora on Facebook is much higher than counter-speech fora and posts on the same platform, which is revealing.

Reasons for (social media) engagement: Counter-speech proponents need to do far more, and better research around why, and at what times, hate and dangerous speech content is produced and received with high levels of engagement. What drives the production cycles? Are there links to key political or cultural events? Is there a connection between the utterances of key individuals and the production of hate speech in online fora? Is there a connection between the speeches of political groups, politicians, religious leaders or other individuals and the engagement online using dangerous speech? Does hate speech increase in the lead up to an election, and if so, at what key points?

Law of diminishing returns: Remember the Kony 2012 video? Remember its follow up? Love it or hate it, many will remember the short film produced by Invisible Children in 2012, but not its sequel. While the first film is now a study in the generation of viral content online, the lesson is also that there is no guarantee what worked, every very well, once will generate the same metrics over subsequent attempts. There are some interesting studies on engineering virality for web content, which suggest that,

…if you’re trying to create content that will make a big splash, making the message positive is likely to help, and emotionality is key. Of course, more interesting, practically useful and surprising content is also more likely to go viral.

Counter-speech proponents need to look this research in greater detail, aiming to create content that doesn’t just go viral once. They should also keep in mind that content addressed to the same demographic will, unless very inventive, generate progressively less interest and interaction over time. The higher the frequency of content production sometimes risks the preception of counter-speech as spam, whereas too infrequent production also risks ineffective audience engagement. Context is critical to content.

Linked to the discussion above was a question posed to a colleague who attended a workshop on hate and dangerous speech in Brazil recently, held on the margins of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF).

Based on the SL experience, what is the best approach to counter hate speech?

I noted the following,

  • Study the generation and spread of hate and dangerous speech by spoilers and other groups who are the lead architects of discord
  • Demographics – carefully target those who haven’t yet been radicalized by their entry and participation in known FB groups that incite hate
  • Geo targeting – Locate and address cities, provinces and locations (i.e. Aluthgama) that have historically had a prevalence to act on content that is digitally produced and disseminated
  • Language – Use effective means through which to craft and communicate counter-speech (i.e. the use of slang and even baila)
  • Make sure the counter-speech is localized and appeals to the target audience(s) in terms of optics
  • On Facebook, counter-speech pages, groups and accounts must focus on engagement more than likes
  • Constantly examine reasons for engagement and try to strengthen known drivers to enhance reach
  • Encourage leading social media companies like Facebook to invest more in the algorithmic or machine examination of content posted.


Open data, civil society and data journalism in Sri Lanka

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I delivered a presentation on open data, civil society and data driven journalism at the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI), as part of a half-day introductory seminar on ‘open data’ organised by Internews Network.

The seminar looked at ‘open data’ and discussed the role civil society, the media and technologists can play in advocating to government to open up its data, enabling a culture of transparency and open government.

Details of the seminar, agenda and fellow speakers here.

My presentation started by touching on work and research around the use of big data in peacebuilding and conflict transformation, to which I’ve written I’ve penned an article in the International Journal on Security and Development.

I went on to look at Sri Lanka’s social media ‘pulse’ and how, even though the likes of Twitter and Facebook in particular don’t lend themselves to big data research, and don’t by default or easily provide open data, the content published and shared therein can be leveraged to strengthen situational awareness and over time, ascertain trends and generate insights.

I referred to #lka and #srilanka hashtags over Twitter, Facebook and Instagram (referencing accounts like Sri Lankan Baton and Every Day Sri Lanka on Twitter, that use rotation curation) as well as sites like Herefeed and Sightsmap, as simple yet effective means through which issues often marginal to or erased from mainstream media, as well as perspectives on other stories that have generated wide public interest can be easily gleaned, and captured with relative ease for posterity.

I then went on to talk about my own Twitter archives, which for Groundviews have captured hundreds of thousands of tweets over many years. I used this as an example of how ephemeral content on platforms like Twitter can be archived comprehensively. Even if the original producer of a tweet deleted content, the archives would remain unaffected.

Speaking briefly around data journalism, I used examples of what the Centre for Policy Alternatives had done around infographics (using social polling data), my own work with Google Earth imagery to examine inconvenient truths around the end of the war, and data driven stories on Groundviews related to the former President’s colossal waste of food, surveillance architectures in Sri Lanka and how Coca-Cola polluted Colombo’s drinking water.

I then went on to flag repositories of open data on the web, related to Sri Lanka. One of the points I made is the complete incoherence regarding open data in Sri Lanka, where no overarching policy in government exists to data to support open data across the whole of government. One result of this is what I showcased – multiple repositories and locations, each with their own proprietary backend and frontend, to host and public open data, with significant variance around the quality and range of datasets.

Speaking briefly about HDX and HXL (from UN OCHA) in the context of humanitarian open data sets (and how one visualisation from UN Global Pulse anchored to Twitter showed interesting aspects when juxtaposed with Sri Lanka’s political developments around the 8th of January), I flagged that globally, the conversations around and the movement towards open government and open data was in fact quite mature.

I encourage the participants to read the seminal ‘Beyond Transparency’ book, available for free online and said that platforms like Socrata were sadly largely unknown and unused in Sri Lanka as a means of opening up, publishing and cross-linking open data (from government).

I ended the presentation by flagging several key challenges, from a rights based perspective, around the use of big or open data, in the context of Sri Lanka in particular. I spoke about the dangers of discrimination as a consequence of being featured in, or being left out of big data analysis. I flagged that discrimination could occur not just at the most granular or individual level, but at the level of communities or geo-fenced boundaries. Complementing the submission by fellow speaker Nalaka Gunawardene I also made the point that open data was not just about the creation of new power centres and gatekeepers (those who had the media literacy, computing power, financial resources and intellectual acumen to capture and analyse big data) but more importantly about making data as accessible as possible to citizens for them to use as they saw fit, though the devices and platform they used.

Shifting power to the grassroots is I believe a fundamental tenet of open government, which needs to move away from the mere provisioning of a few random datasets infrequently updated to a more robust, policy driven, timely, transparent and measurable architecture that allows citizens access to information that benefits their lives, and can be used by them to solve challenges they face as individuals, neighbourhoods, communities and collectives.

Technology in Parliament: Opening Pandora’s Box or enabling citizens?

Paper prepared at the invitation of Dr. Asanga Welikala for a preparatory advisory roundtable on a new constitution for Sri Lanka, hosted by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), the Constitution Building Programme of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), and the Edinburgh Centre for Constitutional Law (ECCL) inn collaboration with the Government of Sri Lanka.

“With a few exceptions, politicians are pretty lame when it comes to social media. In fairness, they have to walk a fine line: they need to be interesting, but they have to do that without setting off (too much) controversy in a medium that thrives on silliness and hyperbole.” – ‘Members of Congress on social media: they just really want us to ‘like’ them’, The Guardian[1]

State of play: Members of Parliament

At the time of writing, over 400 have liked a post by UNP MP Harsha de Silva on Facebook, accompanied by two photos of an official document, that he took oaths as a Member of the 8th Parliament on the morning of the 1st of September [2]. A question posted by the author around the languages used in official documents generated a response from the MP in under one hour[3]. On a related note, the official Facebook account of MP Ranjan Ramanayake noted he had checked-in at Parliament, along with an emoticon that noted the MP was “feeling happy”. Nearly 900, in just over an hour, had liked this post[4]. Just before noon, another MP, Eran Wickramaratne, tweeted “We took our oath as MPs, so did Mahinda Rajapakse. The struggle for democracy and decency must continue” along with a photo, to over 2,100 of his followers[5]. On 29th August, MP Namal Rajapaksa posted on to Facebook again the fact that he had over 4,000 followers on Viber – a mobile based telephony and chat application – that allows him to communicate directly with each of these followers as well as broadcast information and updates to the group. At the time of writing, nearly 6,500 had liked this update on Facebook[6]. Close to 178,000 like MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s Facebook page[7], and his first speech in the new Parliament, posted to his Facebook page, was viewed close to 13,000 times in under an hour[8].

Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, a respected blogger and data wonk, published a study of Twitter as well as Facebook around the parliamentary election conducted on 17th August[9]. In this study, a few politicians including former President and now MP Mahinda Rajapaksa emerge as the most engaged users of Facebook[10]. These accounts engaged with, over just the duration of the study, around 1.9 million others collectively.


State of play: Communications landscape

Central Bank statistics reveal Sri Lanka has 107 phones for every 100 citizens[11]. Year on year, mobile based Internet subscriptions rose 85.8% and Internet penetration stands at around 16.4%, both according to the Central Bank which itself admits the actual numbers of those connected could be much higher[12]. Upwards of 2.7 million Sri Lankans are on Facebook alone. According to data by market research company TNS[13] Jaffna shows the highest per capita Internet penetration in Sri Lanka. Video (i.e. TV) consumption is already shifting online, from terrestrial broadcast (which means that citizens are watching content when they want, sometimes more than once, and socially sharing what they view, along with opinions on it). Information in the public domain increasingly suggests the 18-24 demographic in Sri Lanka, vital to engage with around transitional justice and reconciliation, don’t meaningfully engage with mainstream media (MSM) as newspapers, radio or TV. Wherever they are, they engage with MSM content primarily through smartphones, Facebook and chat apps and also produce content of their own, contesting and complementing mainstream media. Senior journalist and media critic Ranga Kalansuriya’s social survey based research in early 2015, notes that “The primary results shows that the internet, mainly the social media, is becoming game changer within the paradigm threatening the conventional media in a considerable way” and in particular that “almost half of the sample feels that the media content impacted on their decisions to some extent at the elections while, interestingly one thirds feel there had been no impact at all. The most impacted media was the television for almost 60 percent and then it was the internet for a group closer to 25 percent. The newspaper impact for less than 10 percent and radio impacted on only 5 percent”[14].

A poll done by Social Indicator (SI), the social polling arm of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) in late June and early July this year in the Western Province – as the most developed in the country – paints a picture of digital life other Provinces will mirror and may even leapfrog a few years hence. Asked if web usage if more content/sites were available in Sinhala or Tamil, 57.1% said yes. 79.1% accessed the Internet through their smartphone. Facebook was used by 73.3%. 60.2% said compared to a year ago, they spent more time online. 42.2% said Ministers in government should use social media to engage with the public. Along with this snapshot of access and use comes also insights into Sri Lanka’s discursive frameworks. 50% said that over the past year, they had decided to learn more about a political or social issue because they had read it online. Interestingly, 61.5% said the action they took was to create awareness amongst family and friends. In the Western Province today and in a few years throughout the island, primarily through smartphones and tablets, citizens will produce, disseminate and discuss issues anchored to entertainment and gossip as well as news and current affairs via social media platforms and apps, increasingly in Tamil and Sinhala.


Parliament today: Use of ICTs

In sharp contrast to these developments stands the Parliament of Sri Lanka. Just as much as it is removed in its physical form from society, it’s virtual presence is also poor, at best. There is in fact no social media presence at all for Parliament. There is no live feed of proceedings. The little video of proceedings available on the website is delivered via wholly outdated technology that is incompatible with modern web browsers on the desktop and mobile. The search capabilities on the site are dysfunctional. Descriptions of MPs are rudimentary. The independent website’s politician rankings and comparison tools[15], based on the Hansard, to produce compelling public dashboards that hold MPs accountable for their interaction in Parliament, remains alien to those in Parliament itself responsible for similar initiatives. The Parliament has no link to or record of social media accounts and interactions of MPs. By extension, there is no archiving whatsoever of these interactions and vital output in the public domain. Key officials connected to Parliament, such as the Secretary General and the Parliamentary Secretariat writ large, have no social media presence and thus, no way for citizens to engage in the manner they now engage with some MPs directly.

Welsh academic, novelist and critic Raymond Williams wrote about a “structure of feeling”, the culture of a particular historical moment. The phrase suggests a common set of perceptions and values shared by a particular generation, and is most clearly articulated in particular and artistic forms and conventions[16]. As Henry Jenkins, Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California avers,

“Often, we think about democracy as grounded in a rationalist discourse and shaped by structures of information, but democracy also has strong cultural roots and is shaped by what Raymond Williams would call “a structure of feeling.” We may ask in the first instance what citizens need to know in order to make wise decisions and, in the second, what it feels like to be an empowered citizen capable of making a difference and sharing common interests with others…”

Though Williams and Jenkins don’t mention social media, the web or the mobile Internet directly, the severe disconnect between what Sri Lankan Parliament fundamentally is as a physical model or idea, and the discursive spaces and conventions of engagement, primarily over social media for so many Parliamentarians today, could not be more stark. In sum and sadly, the Sri Lankan Parliament, as an institution, is peripheral to thriving debates around policies, bills and other matters related to governance taking place across the media landscapes, especially amongst voters between 18 and 34 – the primary users and interlocutors of social media.

This needs to change, and urgently. The 8th Parliament has, to an unprecedented degree, a unique opportunity to give life to Parliamentary proceedings in much the same way that individual MPs engage with their respective constituencies. Ironically, this isn’t a new idea in our Parliament. As far back as March 2008, the Department of Information Systems and Management of Parliament noted[17],

The development of ICT will transform the ways in which Parliament operates together with its representative function. The potential of transforming Parliament to an “e-Parliament” centres on three main areas:

  • Increased administrative efficiency & effectiveness 􏰀
  • Improved information access and dissemination
  • Enhanced interaction with citizens

At the same time technology must be employed creatively; otherwise it merely becomes a more modern way of doing the work of the legislature, perhaps more efficiently but not necessarily more effectively.

Emphasis is mine. The full report has a section on enhancing dialog between Parliament and the public worth reproducing in full (Page 41[18]).

In addition to improving existing practices, there is a growing concern in many legislatures that unless effective channels of communication are established between the institution and their citizens, as well as among legislators and their constituencies, there could be a risk of further erosion of public’s trust in the legislative body.

 The growth of ICT and the newest web applications that allow user generated content have already started to alter the traditional relationship between citizens and their elected officials. In order to respond to these developments, parliaments must define new strategies to avoid marginalization in today’s public sphere. When developing an e-Parliament vision some see the potential to add new means for informing and interacting with citizens in order to re- engage the electorate in parliamentary affairs, in the hope that the negative trends in public satisfaction and participation in elections can be reversed.

While the use of interactive technologies alone is not enough to rebuild political trust, it may be an important instrument for addressing this problem (World e-Parliament report 2008).

Several techniques are now available that can be effectively deployed for this purpose.


As e-mail has become a more universally available and widely used form of communication, Parliament can provide public e-mail addresses on the web site to allow direct contact with MPP and the officers. E-mail provides the potential for good two-way communication, enabling citizens to establish a dialogue with their MP without necessarily going through conventional channels.

Online discussions and Blogs

Online discussion groups/forums and Blogs can be effectively used for soliciting comments and suggestions from the public on specific proposals or general topics etc. This feedback could be easily moderated too if needed.

Emphasis is mine again. The report pre-figures opening remarks made by Secretary General Anders Johnsson at the World e-Parliament Conference 2009[19], noting that “today’s experiences show that the young population does engage and it does so by using ICT tools” and that “constituents are increasingly interested in learning how their representatives have voted on key issues before parliament, and interrogating them about their actions. For members to have their voting record published, and to be able to give a reasoned defence of their record, is of the essence of political accountability.”

6 years ago, social media apps, services and platforms like Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and Facebook weren’t as ubiquitous as they are today, and other platforms like Vine, Instagram and live-broadcasting apps like Periscope hadn’t been invented. The emphasis on email then arguably is diminished today given the blossoming of discursive spaces over social media. On the other hand, the emphasis on blogs and online discussion fora retains a certain validity, if only for a critical appreciation of the direction the Parliament’s own development with regard to citizen interaction has gone. Instead of becoming a more responsive institution open to participatory mechanisms and open frameworks of citizen engagement, our Parliament – in physical as well as virtual forms – became increasingly closed-off and almost an adjunct in policymaking conducted entirely outside and independent of its chambers.

Parliament tomorrow: Use of ICTs

The self-organisation of citizens into geo-spatial, values based or ideas driven communities has taken root with the spread of the Internet and web. Platforms like CivilHub[20] build on this, allowing rich, real time and multi-pronged interactions to take place between citizens in a virtual space that results in real world action and change. Parliaments as the central loci of key socio-economic, political, cultural and even religious debates is no longer the case, and yet, the legislature does have an important role to play around law-making and policy guidance. Aside from’s dashboards as the pulse of Parliament, citizens will increasingly engage their MPs directly through social media. This engagement aside, Parliament itself needs a more responsive website – both in the sense of a website that is geared to meet the needs of citizens, and technically speaking, a website that is accessible over any device or browser, from desktop to smartphone. This is not just a question of aesthetics and design – a responsive website requires an underlying information architecture and a comprehensive document management system.

Without relying on purely textual information and responding to social media’s tendency to generate virality over video and photographic content, Parliament must also look at technologies like live-streaming proceedings over the web using YouTube or Twitter’s Periscope app. Structured dialogues via Google Hangouts, automatically archived on the web, can be employed with MPs around key issues or during key policy debates. Twitter Q&A sessions, introduced to Sri Lanka by the erstwhile President and subsequently conducted with several members of his staff and government, can also be more widely and frequently used. Similar interactions can occur on Facebook. For example, Facebook can be used, not unlike the European Parliament, to give a comprehensive historical record of the institution as well as provide up to date information and other services[21]. At the very minimum, our Parliament’s website should mirror the British Parliament’s comprehensive indexing of MPs, including official social media accounts[22]. Questions over one medium (e.g. Twitter) can be answered over another (e.g. answers over YouTube). The Hansard can be visualised through word clouds[23]. All MPs can be made to fill out comprehensive LinkedIn profiles, that are aggregated on the Parliament’s website. Members can be given entry level to advanced lessons in the use of social media so that variance amongst MPs on this score can be reduced and a harmonised approach to the use of social media adopted through consensus. Using annotated photography platforms like ThingLink, official photographs can be augmented with links to bio’s, bills, Parliamentary proceedings and other information. Innovative platforms like Google’s Moderator platform, though relatively unknown, can be powerful mechanisms to really engage public opinion around policy debates, as has been used by Groundviews to elicit ideas around how to democracy post-war[24].  Wikis, not unlike the most famous of them – Wikipedia – can be created around key policy debates, committee based reports and other parliamentary processes that occur over time and get input from a range of internal and external sources.

All of these mediums can accommodate interactions in Sinhala, Tamil and English.

In considering the plethora of easily adoptable and extremely adaptable technology options above, Parliament also needs to consider what information will be made available to citizens, when, how and why. This is brought out clearly in Information and Communication Technologies in Parliament: Tools for Democracy by the Office for Promotion of Parliamentary Democracy (OPPD)[25],

  • Is the goal to make all authoritative legislative documents publicly available or will some be limited to internal distribution?
  • What are the boundaries between what should be made publicly available versus restricted to parliamentary use?
  • Will the public have access to verbatim accounts of all plenary sessions? Of all committee meetings?
  • Are all agendas for both plenary sessions and committee meetings publicly posted?
  • Will recorded votes be readily available to the public?
  • Is there a time delay between information being made available internally compared to its release to the public?
  • Do members want to provide information on their own activities, in addition to the actions of the parliament, directly to citizens?
  • Is the internal budget of the parliament and its distribution a matter of public record?
  • Are there rules for constraining outside influences and is the implementation of them made publicly available?
  • Do members have to disclose their financial interests and is this information easily accessible?


As noted by Martin Chungong Secretary General elect of the Inter-Parliamentary Union in May 2014[26], “Technology can help to develop strong parliaments. It can provide new channels for parliaments to connect with citizens. But it will not fix processes that do not work. It is a complement, not a substitute, to the hard questions about what it takes to strengthen parliament as an institution.”

The evisceration of Sri Lanka’s Parliament, and inter alia, the culture of interaction, debate and policymaking within its chambers will take political will and time to fully heal. The fear towards ICTs around making Parliamentary processes more transparent and accountable stems from the residual interest of some Members and bureaucracy to keep things as they are. In a way, all this is moot. MPs are already interacting directly with voters, and first time voters quite simply will not engage with parliamentarians and parliamentary proceedings unless they have access to them over the media they use. Between elections, it is the thumb policymakers need to focus on. If access to vital information is denied or somehow debilitated, citizens will react and possibly even revolt. Authoritarianism’s basic design is to deny, decry or destroy. The growth and use of discursive spaces afforded by the web and Internet contests this, and Parliament must lead the way in providing open, state of the art deliberative architectures for citizens to host their own civic minded conversations as well as provide official information around national level policymaking.

In sum, Parliament must move away from an institution that is governed by a mentality that expects citizens to come to it for services or redress, and instead – with the dignity of office, responsibility towards citizens and rights afforded by being part of the legislature – go to citizens, engage in a language they are used to, in places – both physical and virtual – they frequent, over the apps they use.

Technology is a great enabler, but the real challenge is – and has always been – the requisite political will and imagination. Find, secure and strengthen that, and the technology will fall into place.

Sanjana Hattotuwa, 1 September 2015










[10] An important distinction here is that accounts with higher numbers of fans or followers may not be the most tuned into their respective audiences. Metrics around engagement trumps numeric strength of followers and fans as a true measure of how invested a user is in cultivating over time, through active participation, his or her audience around key issues, ideas, policies etc.



[13] Can be produced on request



[16] Dictionary of Cultural and Critical Theory, Michael Payne (Editor), 1997,






[22] For example,





Technology in constitutional reform: Central or peripheral to substance and process?

Paper prepared at the invitation of Dr. Asanga Welikala for a preparatory advisory roundtable on a new constitution for Sri Lanka, hosted by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), the Constitution Building Programme of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), and the Edinburgh Centre for Constitutional Law (ECCL) inn collaboration with the Government of Sri Lanka.

The backdrop

Media reports just before the Parliamentary Election held on 17th August 2015 indicated that the Government of Sri Lanka had entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with Google to bring around 14 high-altitude balloons above Sri Lanka to provide more seamless Internet access. Sri Lanka will be the first country in the world to employ these balloons, called Project Loon[1], commercially and at this scale. Though the MoU wasn’t made public and many questions around cost of access and coverage remain, one of Google’s avowed goals under Project Loon is to to connect people in rural and remote areas and help fill coverage gaps. Along with more traditional investments around telecommunications infrastructure and market imperatives, it can be expected that in under five years – the term of the new government – Sri Lanka will enjoy coast to coast wireless broadband coverage, with a population that is connected through at least one platform or one device, to the Internet, web and social media.

The trend is unmistakable.

Central Bank statistics reveal Sri Lanka has 107 phones for every 100 citizens[2]. Year on year, mobile based Internet subscriptions rose 85.8% and Internet penetration stands at around 16.4%, both according to the Central Bank which itself admits the actual numbers of those connected could be much higher[3]. Upwards of 2.7 million Sri Lankans are on Facebook alone. According to data by market research company TNS[4] Jaffna shows the highest per capita Internet penetration in Sri Lanka. Video (i.e. TV) consumption is already shifting online, from terrestrial broadcast (which means that citizens are watching content when they want, sometimes more than once, and socially sharing what they view, along with opinions on it). Information in the public domain increasingly suggests the 18-24 demographic in Sri Lanka, vital to engage with around transitional justice and reconciliation, don’t meaningfully engage with mainstream media (MSM) as newspapers, radio or TV. Wherever they are, they engage with MSM content primarily through smartphones, Facebook and chat apps and also produce content of their own, contesting and complementing mainstream media. Senior journalist and media critic Ranga Kalansuriya’s social survey based research in early 2015, notes that “The primary results shows that the internet, mainly the social media, is becoming game changer within the paradigm threatening the conventional media in a considerable way” and in particular that “almost half of the sample feels that the media content impacted on their decisions to some extent at the elections while, interestingly one thirds feel there had been no impact at all. The most impacted media was the television for almost 60 percent and then it was the internet for a group closer to 25 percent. The newspaper impact for less than 10 percent and radio impacted on only 5 percent”[5].

A poll done by Social Indicator (SI), the social polling arm of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) in late June and early July this year in the Western Province – as the most developed in the country – paints a picture of digital life other Provinces will mirror and may even leapfrog a few years hence. Asked if web usage if more content/sites were available in Sinhala or Tamil, 57.1% said yes. 79.1% accessed the Internet through their smartphone. Facebook was used by 73.3%. 60.2% said compared to a year ago, they spent more time online. 42.2% said Ministers in government should use social media to engage with the public. Along with this snapshot of access and use comes also insights into Sri Lanka’s discursive frameworks. 50% said that over the past year, they had decided to learn more about a political or social issue because they had read it online. Interestingly, 61.5% said the action they took was to create awareness amongst family and friends.

In the Western Province today and in a few years throughout the island, primarily through smartphones and tablets, citizens will produce, disseminate and discuss issues anchored to entertainment and gossip as well as news and current affairs via social media platforms and apps, increasingly in Tamil and Sinhala. The effects of these online conversations will also deeply resonate with social networks and communities that aren’t as well connected to online media.

Deliberative structures

Public engagement through these ubiquitous, multi-media and multi-lingual networks will for Government, and indeed, it’s vocal opponents, undergird new and hopefully innovative mechanisms for public confidence building, perceptions management and strengthening electoral support around policymaking, governance and constitutional reform. As importantly, tools, techniques and social networks to win votes around elections that go on to be under-utilised at best once elected to power is not a viable model. A government, out of enlightened self-interest at least, should seriously consider the importance of public engagement through technology after it is elected and especially when it is under siege. The central challenge here is not one of technology, it is one of political leadership.

Agility, responsiveness, transparency. Failing fast (not waiting until the final stages to acknowledge failure, but recognising it early on and addressing it) and failing forward (not being scared to admit failure and using it as a lesson to improve product and process in the future). Iterative design (learning to design better at every stage based on user feedback and interaction). These are some core principles of product development and design in the world of technology today. Though deeply relevant and replicable, they remain largely unknown as a basis for a government to think, operate, react or plan, or indeed, the blueprint of a constitutional reform process to be anchored to. This is especially relevant in a context where citizens think as consumers and expect levels of service delivery and engagements with government, and governmental services or processes, on par with that which they enjoy from trans-national corporations that manage (all social media operations on) the Internet. An obdurate, rude or unresponsive government risks irreparable reputational damage over a very short time and across geographies and communities. By not embracing participatory and responsive mechanisms to plan for and execute policy making as well as constitutional reform, governments risk the best of intentions to radically reform polity and society. The conversations over social media around the legislative drafting of the 19th Amendment – the delays in translation, the inability for the public to engage in structured debates or input, the multiple versions circulating in the public domain through non-official sources, the lack of direct, public engagement by government to demystify clauses – flag reservoirs of frustration, not all by spoilers, around the non-use of existing technology around a vital reform initiative.

Much more can and should be done. The examples that follow aren’t prescriptive. Each offers a way of thinking, seeing, or responding to a challenge that is integral to constitutional change or reform writ large. Each offers a template worthy of adoption and adaptation, given the innovation and skills that reside within Sri Lanka especially in the tech community and civil society. With strategic deployment and careful curation, each offers the promise of a public more aware of and by extension, responsive towards key issues around constitutional reform.

Technology platforms, apps and services

Democracy OS[6] is a citizen engagement platform for democracy at its most distilled – getting citizens to vote on an idea, and through this, getting them involved in processes of deliberation and debate around core issues. As noted on the Democracy OS website, with 4 million+ citizens, Buenos Aires became the first city to have a Digital Democracy in place with each of the 16 parties in Congress agreeing to present one bill to be debated along with every citizen of the city online. DemocracyOS has been used for, inter alia, policymaking, electoral reform, citizen participation and accountability in India, Chile, France, Mexico, Peru, Brazil and Colombia.

The usual example on deliberative democracy over digital platforms is to study President Obama’s campaigns and use of the media, including social media, as both candidate and incumbent. A Washington Post article from May this year[7] is an easy to access and understand blueprint on how Obama and his team strategically designed the message to fit the medium, and importantly saw engagement over media as inextricably entwined with and central to Obama’s political projects. Though important, of particular resonance here is not so much the use of social media but the imaginative mind-set behind the adaptation, adoption and appropriation of new and existing media for political ends. For example, after the debacle of Obama’s healthcare website[8], the President, instead of going on the defensive, acknowledged the problem and furthermore, appropriated comedy and comedians, including by spoofing himself, to push the same message. Millions engaged, and the project was ultimately – technically as well as politically – a success. The perception of issues is managed today not necessarily by those with the widest reach or largest readership, but by those able to generate the most viral content. To be shared and liked is a new social currency that extends well beyond elections and shapes public discourse, even offline. If interest in constitutional reform and its more substantive points are to reach the masses, along with imaginatively produced content, arguably the best way on Facebook alone would be by leveraging the reach of a popular female model and the near universal love for cricket![9]

This shift from the strongly didactic to a more deliberative and engaging approach, from constitutional reform as entirely exclusive to a process that engaged the public was most pronounced in the (failed) experiment in Iceland to create a “crowdsourced constitution”. As noted in Slate[10],

… 25 constitutional drafters [used] social media to open up the process to the rest of the citizenry and gather feedback on 12 successive drafts. Anyone interested in the process was able to comment on the text using social media like Facebook and Twitter, or using regular email and mail. In total, the crowdsourcing moment generated about 3,600 comments for a total of 360 suggestions. While the crowd did not ultimately “write” the constitution, it contributed valuable input. Among them was the Facebook proposal to entrench a constitutional right to the Internet, which resulted in Article 14 of the final proposal.

The failure to pass the new constitution wasn’t linked to the means of soliciting input from the general public. Lessons around the exercise in fact urge that in the future, more planning and consideration has to go into the process of constitutional reform, including more human and financial resources around the use of technology. In a much smaller way, but quite significant because of the violence surrounding discursive and critical spaces in Sri Lanka under the previous government, the growth of memes of Facebook is another instructive lesson in how popular culture over the Internet can strengthen (or seriously undermine) public appreciation of key issues. As noted by me three years ago[11],

The growth of the Sri Lankan meme on the web is a relatively recent phenomenon. It now has its own Facebook presence, with more fans than the Daily Mirror page (19,000+ vs. 16,000). There are historical antecedents. “Me kawuda? Monawada karanne?” (Who is he? What is he doing?) posters during Premedasa’s government was a meme – two sentences plastered on public spaces creating a questioning so subversive that it led to violent ends for producer and playwright… [Now] memes are shared on individual profiles, which are then ‘liked’ by others, downloaded, emailed, embedded on websites and flagged on Twitter. It reaches, quite literally, hundreds of thousands effortlessly… memes essentially critique the mainstream and change the story. In changing the story, memes can contribute to changing the status quo. Something for governments, including our own, to keep in mind the more censorious they get, and want to be.

The use of memes by a constitutional reform project can be seen as the modern day equivalent of, for example, South African cartoonist Zapiro’s interrogation of constitutional reform in the mid-90’s, albeit over social media and generated digitally, without confirmed authorship. With the focus of policymakers and constitutional reformers usually on mainstream media’s reach and effectiveness at shaping public opinion (which to date, in so far as metrics around the influence of TV talk shows in Sri Lanka go, is valid) the use of social media in particular, and Internet, web and mobile platforms in general around a reform process remains nascent, even as the diversity of content, its reach and spread grows.

Three technologies present themselves immediately in this regard – Facebook, Twitter and a platform that is not often talked of in the same breath as social media, WhatsApp. Facebook and Twitter growth in Sri Lanka is widespread and shows explosive growth. Groundviews recently archived tweets around the recently concluded Parliamentary Election[12]. The archive, spanning eight weeks and including two official hashtags used by the majority of users around the election (#SLGE15 and #GenElecSL), captured 174,663 tweets. Tweets using variations of these two hashtags, as well as not using either were also in the tens of thousands – far too much in fact to archive without industrial grade technical architectures. Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, a respected blogger and data wonk, published a study of Facebook around the election[13]. What was evident through this study was that the Mahinda Rajapaksa camp was the most strategic in their use of Facebook to engage, not just publish. Whereas one lesson is that in a less controlled, contained and censorious context, propaganda by any one camp has far less traction and unchallenged reach, this nuanced and strategic use of Facebook alone can and should be adapted to support wider deliberation and awareness raising around constitutional reform, amongst the same demographics. Examples from Libya[14] and Liberia[15] are also instructive in this regard.

Chat apps in general, and WhatsApp in particular lie outside the scope of many social media discussions and studies, and this is a pity. The hugely popular mobile instant messaging app, bought by Facebook for $22 billion in 2014, saw unprecedented use by the BBC in India’s 2014 General Election to engage voters around key issues[16]. In Sri Lanka, the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) used WhatsApp as a platform to publish, to hundreds of subscribers, information around election violence at both the Presidential and Parliamentary elections. The reason for doing so was to create a platform, in January particularly, largely impervious to censorship (WhatsApp is distributed and has no central server – shutting it down requires data across all mobile networks to be shut off). The BBC’s use is more instructive, and as noted on its website,

There are certainly valid editorial arguments about whether BBC News should really be treating news stories in this way, and whether [it was right] to test out emoticons… However, subscribers really seemed to like the item – it had by far the biggest engagement, in terms of responses, of any item we posted on WhatsApp, with hundreds of people sending back their emoticon faces.

How the BBC has now built on the experience of WhatsApp in India during the election to use chat apps more broadly[17] is a lesson in how these apps can also be employed to create targeted, interactive, engaging deliberative networks, across key demographics, to complement strategies to use content via other media targeted at an older demographic around constitutional reform. Another key example here is the possible use of Viber – an app described by the New York Times as one that helped install the current President in power[18] – to create public chats with select individuals in government around key policy issues. Again, it is the Rajapaksa camp that shows the way others must go[19], if public opinion is to be captured and support for reforms retained.

Technology for the drafters

Aside from all this, projects like Google Constitute[20] help those at the helm of drafting a (new) constitution access comparative examples and information from other countries. The use of data and data visualisation (dataviz) by the Comparative Constitutions Project[21] is also instructive in how specialist platforms, coding and information design can help constitution making. Legislation Lab[22] provides platforms for constitution making process that benefit citizens by making it easy to participate, and for drafters, provides a ‘dashboard’ of information around key policies or points that can help, in or close to real time, with course correction, editing, political buy in, negotiations and other strategic imperatives. A live example in this regard is how it is being used in Chile to discuss its constitution[23]. And if perusing information on that site is a problem (it’s all in Spanish) enter Google Translate. Constitution makers no longer need to rely on time consuming human translations to avail themselves of content or cutting-edge debates in another language – as of now, Google Translate covers 90 languages in total (for text translation). Merely copy a URL into Google Chrome, say yes to a prompt and a translation offering – depending on the complexity of the legal document – a gist of the original, opens instantly.



Why do any of this at all? Why does it matter? There is some comfort in the known and business as usual, especially around constitutional reform which has always been led by elites through exclusive, top-down processes that at best only episodically solicit public input, and that too with great suspicion. After over two centuries, the revered Encyclopaedia Britannica went out of print in 2012[24]. As of August 24, 2015 there are 4,951,563 articles on Wikipedia, with over 780 million edits across these articles, an average of around 21. 26 million users are registered with Wikipedia. 2.4 billion visited the site in July 2015 alone[25]. The demise of Encyclopaedia Britannica in our digital age and the astonishing rise and use of Wikipedia is a lesson for constitution making as well – a few experts no longer command complete authority, attention and agency. Recognition there are many experts in the commons, and embracing their feedback and input in a process of constitutional reform is the basic starting point for a process serious about engendering public support around key, contentious issues. Wikipedia is so successful because it is plugged into so many devices, platforms, apps and services seamlessly, and for free. It is accessible in many languages, including in Sinhala and Tamil, and encourages participatory approaches to content curation and creation. Wikipedia (and wikis as a web platform more generally) isn’t perfect, and no one technology is or will be. What information and communications technologies (ICTs) in general offer constitutional reform processes are a menu of adaptable, responsive, scalable, multi-lingual, creative and engaging tools to produce, discuss, disseminate, visualise and archive complex ideas.

The mere introduction of technology into a constitution reform process doesn’t guarantee its success. What is now evident though is that the non-introduction, in a strategic manner, of relevant ICTs in a reform process is almost a guarantee of its failure, or capture by spoilers who are (usually) more adept with new media. As noted by Christian Christensen at the Department of Informatics and Media, Uppsala University in Sweden[26],

… while techno-utopians overstate the affordances of new technologies (what these technologies can give us) and understate the material conditions of their use (e.g., how factors such as gender or economics can affect access), techno-dystopians do the reverse, misinterpreting a lack of results… with the impotence of technology; and, also, forgetting how shifts within the realm of mediated political communication can be incremental rather than seismic in nature.

Constitutional reformers cannot afford to be techno-dystopians, and those from the technology community and media sector, even in support of the most radical reform, cannot afford to be techno-utopians. Careful, measured and sober evaluations around embracing technology can undergird reform processes more resilient to spoiler dynamics, with greater traction in public consciousness, taking root in communities, giving a wider public a sense of ownership in the ultimate document and other benefits associated with deliberative, participatory mechanisms.

It is within Sri Lanka’s grasp. We should not let the opportunity go.

Sanjana Hattotuwa, 25 August 2015




[4] Can be produced on request
























Code4Good: Using ICTs for social good in Sri Lanka

Code4Good, Sri Lanka’s first social good hackathon kicked off today, an initiative of Internews Network implemented in partnership with International Alert, and with the support of SLASSCOM, Facebook, Google Business Groups and the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd.


The event today attracted a wide range of civil society organisations from as far North as Jaffna. Nalaka Gunawardene and I spoke at the event, and each of focussed on what role technology could and should play in addressing social needs. My presentation, in three parts, looked at how information and communications technologies (ICTs) could help civil society highlight the marginal or the inconvenient, better react to that which they sought to change, reform or redress and finally, use real time, citizen-generated information and content to help understand a context, and accordingly, strategise solutions to key challenges.

I prefaced by presentation by noting that not just with the advent of Google Loon to Sri Lanka (which at the time of writing, remains mired in more questions than answers), but also with continuing and indeed, increasing investment in more traditional telecommunications infrastructure as well as low barriers around access, in the next five years Sri Lanka would be more connected through the Internet, web than it has ever been in history. As current statistics indicate, many would access the web and Internet first or even exclusively through their mobile devices – smartphones and tablets.

Looking at Sri Lanka’s Open Data Portal, I lamented the fact that far too many journalists were unaware of this data in the public domain and that even without enabling Right to Information legislation, the use of this data could result in stories that could reveal, inter alia, interesting aspects of the country’s crime statistics, economy, population demographics. I flagged the Information is Beautiful site as a source of inspiration for civil society to see how raw data could be used to engage a wider public, through captivating stories told largely through well designed, interactive visualisations.

I then moved on to how ICTs could help civil society react, highlighting the example of Harass Map in Egypt. As noted on the site,

HarassMap is a volunteer-based initiative with the mission of engaging all of Egyptian society to create an environment that does not tolerate sexual harassment. Launched in 2010, we were also the first independent initiative to work on sexual harassment and assault in Egypt.

I said that through the use of a customised version of the Ushahidi mapping platform, Harass Map was able to name and shame cities and locations in Egypt that allowed Gender Based Violence (GBV) to flourish. I then showed the story I did after the devastating Koslanda landslide on Groundviews, where I used Google Earth’s historical imagery along with post-landslide imagery to communicate the scale and extent of the tragedy. I also talked briefly about my work on using Google Earth to document mass graves after the war and the conditions in the so-called No Fire Zones, towards the end of the war. Tools like Google Earth I submitted could help civil society both see and showcase challenges otherwise hard to communicate through just text. I ended up showing a fascinating large scale social experiment by the London School of Economics (LSE) to ascertain, through an app, the happiness quotient of those in the UK – called mappiness. As noted by LSE,

We’re particularly interested in how people’s happiness is affected by their local environment — air pollution, noise, green spaces, and so on — which the data from mappiness will be absolutely great for investigating.

I then talked about real-time technologies and how they could be employed by civil society to address key technologies, including the generation of big data. Looking at’s Android based ride sharing app, I also touched on Waze and how similar apps for example could help map, in close to real-time, flood prone areas in and around Colombo. The resulting data over time could be fed into the CMC’s flood prevention programmes, and if ride sharing apps took off, contribute to lower congestion.

Asked by Internews to come up with a concrete problem statement for the event, I instead thought of an app based on solutions journalism, to capture invention, innovation and resilience, in the face of austerity or violence, in Sri Lanka. The crowd-sourced app would record instances where something had gone right, or someone had gone over and above their responsibility to do something. It was about celebrating what was good about the country, instead of focussing always around what is not working, breaking down, corrupt or violent.

Called, for want of a better name, Seeing Good Sri Lanka, the app would allow for photo, video and audio input, the results would be gamified, so as to increase interest in recording events, and the data would be aggregated, suitably anonymised and displayed on the browser. As noted in the presentation, I said the value of such an app would be,

  • Capture organic solutions that work
  • Capture hyperlocal innovation
  • Celebrate creative individuals, communities and institutions
  • Showcase Sri Lankan inventions
  • Help in replication across the countryChannel content to relevant line ministries
  • At macro-level, showcase a country that’s resilient, innovative, hard-working

Teams went on to discuss and pitch their own problem statements at the plenary, and I’m looking forward to working with a few of them around the development of their problem statements and indeed, interactions with the tech communities.

Power mapping

Cross posted from Groundviews.


I was asked to contribute an article to an up-coming issue of The Architect, the journal of the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects. The issue will be anchored to the idea of ‘democratic space’. After the guest editor accepted my article without any reservations or edits, he was informed by the Editor in Chief a few weeks ago that references to the Rajapaksa’s were problematic. With some reservations, I agreed to delete these references. A hugely apologetic guest editor informed me this morning that the Institute and Chief Editor had further problems with the article, since they in fact agreed with the beautification programme led by Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the former government’s essential evisceration of communities in the heart of Colombo.

For context, read Forced Evictions in Colombo: High-rise Living published by this site’s institutional anchor, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA). The report robustly critiques the former government’s beautification drive and indeed, the World Bank’s involvement in and support of it.

In their refusal to publish this article, the Chief Editor and indeed the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects are cogent examples of what endures as a sickening phenomenon that bedevils our democratic potential – where educated professionals disgustingly continue to be unapologetic servants and defenders of an arrogance of power, corruption and violence we should have all left behind, and roundly decried, after the 8th of January.


How do we map the exceptions to the normal? How can we critique that which so many cannot even see as violent or oppressive? What really is normal or perceived as normal, in a context of protracted violence? And finally, in mapping architectures of violence, what is the intent? Is it subversive? Intended to foment reflection, reduction or revolt? Is it to bear witness or to inspire change? Architect and artist Gihan Karunaratne’s work, which I first encountered before the exhibition of his works at the Colombo Art Biennale in 2014, addressed many concerns I too had endeavoured to raise and question. His perspectives are largely anchored to and framed by London and England. My own attempts in using art, graphics, data science and architectural motifs were framed by the systemic ethno-political violence in Sri Lanka. It was natural therefore that he and I shared an interest in, inter alia, how State power and associated technologies could be mapped by human agents even under disempowered conditions, and how by doing so, a critical appreciation around the degree and nature of violence could be strengthened.

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Karunaratne’s work also piqued my interest because he interrogates, through a visual idiom based on geographical mapping, key mechanisms – both technological and human – essentially designed to control, censor and contain in the guise of security and order. These modern human and digital artefacts are an alternate reality, permeating our lives at every step yet largely invisible, and indeed even when flagged, inoffensive or politically inert to most. Karunaratne projects this covert landscape to a visible plane, alerting our consciousness to that which we are all hostage to, yet tuned out of. His maps are guides to that which Londoners walk by seeing without observing – the necessary fixtures of urban life that also, in that city, double up as the paraphernalia of surveillance and control. In ‘The Ordinary’, Karunaratne records the observable artefacts of a street, merging city infrastructure with the brick and mortar of commerce and industry, the signs of the State as well as signs to guide pedestrians and drivers, the locations of public utilities as well as the sites of private enterprise. Here you see the make-up of a modern city, demarcated by invisible lines of power. ‘Wi-fi’ continues this mapping of urban life, marking through a high concentration of private and public wireless networks the ‘filter bubbles’, to use Eli Pariser’s term, of modern life – communities defined not by their relations with each other, but through interactions that are self-referential or only with the like-minded. In the creation of this map, Karunaratne has done on a smaller scale what got Google into hot-water for doing on a far larger scale – the mapping of wi-fi networks. And yet Karunaratne’s critique works on multiple levels. In mapping so many networks within a small area, we are confronted with the inevitable question – are so many necessary in an urban commons? Why isn’t an open network the default? In plotting on a map the networks he discovered, Karunaratne also critiques the data collection, retention and usage policies of large corporations which are far more pervasive, opaque and beyond any critical interrogation.

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After Edward Snowden’s revelations, from 2013 onwards, around the nature and extent of surveillance by intelligence agencies in the US, UK and other countries, it comes as no surprise that private enterprise is a willing and vital partner in our pseudo-democratic panopticons. Karunaratne’s two works based on the geo-location technology built into Apple’s iOS mobile operating system reveal the degree to which, through meta-data, the nature of our lives could be revealed, visualised and indeed, dissected by those that have access to this information. It must be said that post-Snowden, more control has been ceded to end users and consumers around how much, and to what degree, this information is passed back to private enterprise, and often by extension, State intelligence services. Nevertheless, it remains the case that modern technology – from GSM networks to wearable computing in the form of fitness trackers, from smart homes to cashless payment systems – results in an invisible yet extremely comprehensive trail of our habits and preferences. This in turn results in an enduring problem – we are never in control of the information we produce as a consequence of our multi-faceted engagements with networks of automation and convenience. Karunaratne’s work beautifully visualises this in the form of plotting an iPhone user’s movements over time, by accessing nothing more than the operating system’s own record of the phone’s precise location. It begs the question – in a world where it is no longer possible to be truly invisible or completely private, what role and relevance does privacy play in governing our lives?

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While located in London, Karunaratne’s schematic visualisations of kettling – a police tactic for controlling large crowds during demonstrations or protests – is the most resonant in Sri Lanka. From the water riots of Weliweriya in 2013 to the quelling of so many peaceful demonstrations in Colombo, Jaffna and other parts of the country, the Sri Lankan State’s approach to crowd control has often been to shoot, water canon, mercilessly beat, arrest or detain first and ask questions later, if at all. One imagines that if Karunaratne was to locate his visual critique of kettling in Sri Lanka, the resulting visualisations would largely mirror the tactics of the London Metropolitan Police, albeit with more brutally effective means of crowd control. What Karunaratne’s work also reveals is that the monopoly of violence is often with those clad in riot control gear. 47 year old Ian Tomlinson’s tragic death, after being attacked by the Police in London, is captured in meticulous detail by Karunaratne based on social media accounts. This schematic reminds us of the power of sousveillance – the recording of an activity or context by those embedded in it, or in other words, bearing witness to what is going on around individuals and communities by technologies in the very hands of those individuals and communities. This radically subverts the general appreciation of surveillance as structures of oversight and control by agencies above and beyond the law. In Sri Lanka, the 2013 water riots in Weliweriya were meticulously recorded by citizens using their mobile phones, as was, in 2014, the violence against the Muslims in Aluthgama. What was violence rendered invisible through censorship and the production of propaganda a few years ago is no longer possible with the democratisation of mobile technologies. Interestingly then, Karunaratne’s artistic corpus examines, and very well, a central tension of society today – a democratisation of technology that has resulted in the erosion of privacy and heightened the possibility of surveillance while at the same time empowering individuals and communities, even at the very margins of power, to bear witness to violence and amplify their voices. Violence today, almost always, has a witness, and surveillance, no longer the monopoly of the State.

Through happy coincidence, the presentation of Karunaratne’s work during the Colombo Art Biennale in 2014 was at the height of what under the Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka was called ‘beautification’, a process whereby in Colombo, for example, entire communities (comprising of Muslims, Tamils and Sinhalese) were forcibly relocated with scant regard for their rights in the name of visually cleaning up the city and also the freeing up of prime land for commercial use. The ostensible benevolence of government provided the overarching fiction for what was a process supported even by those – the middle class residents of Colombo – who had the greatest access to information around how violent a process it really was, if that is, they chose to engage with inconvenient truths. Many did not. Pleasing visual aesthetics was a potent opiate to carry out policies around urban development that were at their core illiberal, illegal and violent. As Ruwanthie de Chickera’s compelling silent play ‘Walking Paths’ reminded us, it wasn’t just about an essentially authoritarian State defining our public and private lives, but the ceding of all oversight, interrogation and democratic course correction by citizens who are amongst the most affluent, informed and powerful in the country that remains one of the most disturbing aspect of ‘beautification’ under the Rajapaksa regime. Deep seated and essentially violent architectures of control – such as those presented by Karunaratne – overwhelmed civic resistance. Or perhaps, the narratives of resistance, anxiety and despair, produced by victims of beautification, were precisely those that mainstream media and the dominant propaganda of the State ignored, sought to erase and largely succeeded in overwriting. Re-imagining and reconstructing the architectures of our urban spaces post-war requires us to not repeat these recent mistakes. In the Rajapaksa model of ‘beautification’, the end justified the means and due process was entirely peripheral to more kinetic measures to execute a central architect’s vision. Karunaratne’s art, based on fact and the promotion of observable phenomena to a map, serves as warning to both the authoritarian State and indolent citizen. To the State, including the Sri Lankan State, his work is a reminder that violence – systemic, localised, aimed at mind or more corporeal in nature – when recorded by those who even without immediate agency, can through collective witnessing and over time, radically shift political power. To the citizen, Karunaratne’s work offers the dangers of complacency – where routine, convenience and agreeable aesthetics hold hostage, through the willing suspension of resistance, democratic norms, rights and principles.

It is unclear to what degree Sri Lanka’s new government will steer the city and country away from the worst of what it was towards the best of what it can and should be. One risks disappointment to hope that with all the resources and goodwill it commands, the Sirisena administration will, to take a cue off Karunaratne’s work, map a future that builds on technologies of emancipation, empowerment and education. A new cartography of freedom, dignity and democracy, surely, must serve to erase the deep lines of war – and it is towards this effort that we must redouble our efforts.

As a government. As citizens.

Speaking notes: The future of tech and peacekeeping, re:publica 2015

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Invited by ZIF – Center for International Peace Operations and representing the ICT4Peace Foundation, I spoke today at re:publica15 in Berlin, Germany on the future of peacekeeping and technology. The session this morning had a very compelling title: NERDS WITH BLUE HELMETS? DIGITAL INNOVATION AND PEACEKEEPING.

My submission was anchored to the following points:

Following from the ‘Performance Peacekeeping’ report, what are the central challenges for peacekeeping in our digital age? What impact will the Internet of Things (IoT) tomorrow, and the democratisation of mobile devices today have for the peacekeeping domain?

  • *radical inclusion*, where like it or not, voices hitherto at the margins, periphery or violent erased could and would record their stories, and disseminate it to a wider public, through a range of media.
  • What are the implications of live-streaming over Twitter? *Social witnessing*?
  • Stories that wouldn’t have been recorded were it not for a range of advances in technologies to record, disseminate, archive and engage. *management of exclusion* important – *actionable intelligence from noise and information*.
  • An *addressable world* would change our interactions within and between, for example, communities, networks and identity groups. Is it the case today, and increasingly in the future, that active agents of peacebuilding and peacekeeping have to necessarily give up more of their privacy in order to do, and say, what they must?
  • *Human avatars from network protocols* and the impact on real world perceptions, realities. How one could even remotely maintain control over privacy within ecosystem of competing owners, location sensors, proxy indicators, sentient nodes, ambient observation, pervasive automation that go on to recreate, digitally, our lives that may in fact be unrepresentative of who we really are? How will the politics of representation change?
  • *Privatisation of information on the web* – what can the UN do with intelligence that resides on corporate servers? The problems around FB’s initiative (net neutrality).

What implications does the use of big data and data from telcos have on the rights, privacy and safety of host communities and target groups, who are often vulnerable to violent conflict?

  • *New vulnerabilities* – producers of information, and subjects of oversight, aren’t the architects of how what they produce is used.
  • *No guarantee of reform* – Big data use in socio-political systems featuring chronic corruption, political instability and poor legislative oversight. Add to this mix the profit orientation of big corporate bodies, and consumer protection is often secondary, at best, to market imperatives or contra-constitutional state led directives.
  • *Data in the aggregate can discriminate as much as individual records* Even randomised and anonymised, big data can provide insights into geo-fenced communities and specific income groups that are then hostage to the nature of government and timbre of governance prevalent at the time.

Are the normative assumptions around the use of drones, big data and other technologies unsuited to be applied easily to contexts framed by systemic violence and chronic instability? Have legislative and institutional architectures haven’t kept pace with tech developments and indeed, use case scenarios?

  • In March 2014, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Ms. Navi Pillay noted in her Opening Statement to the 25th Session of the UN Human Rights Council that,

“… the development of new technologies – such as drones and lethal autonomous robots – which push us to the outer edge of our thinking on how to ensure our rights are protected, social media and new information technology which raises the question of where the public and private space lies and the importance of on-line and off-line freedoms..”

  •  *Disruptive technology* isn’t always empowering to vulnerable populations.
  •  *Can create new dependencies on West / existing power structures*. Sharing of information isn’t a given – cost implications, rights of access etc, in-country access post-disaster or within violent conflict, with congested or poor connectivity etc.
  • *Nepal UAV operations* – chaotic, and showcases how hostage UAV operations are to domestic legal and policy frameworks, even post-disaster.
  • *Does democratisation of use lead to more democratic frameworks of governance* – Five years hence, even small NGOs with shoe-string budgets will have operational capability for hyper-local UAV overflights, with or without official airspace regulatory oversight, government authority or, in some cases, military clearance. What about non-state armed actors getting UAVs? What are the optics around UAV crowded skies? How to maintain neutrality in the air?
  • *Informed consent* – what does it mean for UAV overflights? And the sharing of data downstream, months and years after original acquisition?
  • Need for data *sunset clauses*, expiration frameworks for information harvested from disaster affected communities?