Hacking the referendum

This level of demographic targeting, increasingly possible even in a small country like Sri Lanka along with more conventional means of propaganda, circumnavigates the labour intensive electoral system and the problems therein of mass scale vote rigging. What could in the past be achieved by more traditional means of violence and intimidation can now, on a daily basis, be engineered by carefully crafting media content that spreads over social media, shifting, over time, entire groups against or for ideas, exploiting what endures as an information and media literacy deficit. Put another way, the explosive growth of social media is in fact a risk for progressive, democratic forces, because it provides easy, cost effective vectors through which spoilers can now influence and reach key demographic groups, who don’t go to political rallies, have multiple, liquid affiliations with mainstream politics, aren’t card carrying party political members and don’t engage with mainstream media through broadcast and newsprint. However, what is a risk is also an opportunity.

The government, despite strong opposition led by senior monk Anamaduwe Dhammadassi Thero, said last week that it will nevertheless continue to pursue the constitutional reform process, which will be put to a referendum. This comes after PM Wickremesinghe was reported in the media the week before saying the task of the Constitutional Assembly Steering Committee (CASC) will be to draft the new constitution in such a manner that will not require a public referendum. Adding to this confusion, data in the public domain over two years from Social Indicator, the social polling arm of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, suggests quite simply that if a referendum is held in the near future, the socio-political context is such that it is very difficult to see how a Yes vote would win. Given that a referendum is really an electoral litmus test of governance, entirely independent of the questions asked, the government…

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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.

Communication projects, campaigns & websites on peace, constitutionalism, rights, governance & democracy

Compiled for the Centre for Policy Alternatives a list of websites around communications campaigns, advertisements, projects, websites and various other initiatives I’ve designed, developed or gave input into over the past couple of years. The sites feature award-winning and critically acclaimed content, and the voices of dear friends and renowned activists, who are no longer with us.

Presented in alphabetical order. Many of these sites also have corresponding social media accounts and updates, including on Facebook and Twitter. A lot of them are tri-lingual. All of them are hosted on GoDaddy, and some are also protected by CloudFlare. All of them are running on WordPress.

The one website I couldn’t archive before it came under attack and had to be shut down was one I created for ‘Mediated’, an art exhibition I curated in 2012 in collaboration with Saskia Fernando Gallery.  Details of that remain of Groundviews.


To remember Black July, Groundviews brought together leading documentary filmmakers, photographers, activists, theorists and designers, in Sri Lanka and abroad, to focus on just how deeply the anti-Tamil pogrom in 1983 shaped our imagination, lives, society and polity.

The Presidential polls of 8th January 2015 inspired the largest number of voters in Sri Lanka’s history to turn out to elect a president. As we all know, the work to shape Sri Lanka’s future doesn’t stop with electing a new president or a new government. Change will need to involve all of us as citizens in our various positions and roles in society. There is now a vibrant public and private debate of citizens across the country (and beyond its borders) about the hopes and vision for Sri Lanka’s future. This is currently taking place on social media, traditional media and also in homes and workplaces. The campaign encourages us all to focus on what we can do in our individual capacities, as well as what other citizens in government, opposition politics, public services, business or our own neighbourhoods can do, to bring about change for good.

Books & other material related to constitutional reform in Sri Lanka


what is a constitution? What place and relevance, if any, does it have in the popular imagination? Do citizens really care about an abstract document most would never have seen or read, when more pressing existential concerns continue to bedevil their lives and livelihoods, even post-war?


Internet Media Action (IMA) was set up in the belief that there is scope to openly debate and discuss challenges and opportunities regarding the production, publication, dissemination and archival of content online, under the broad rubric of the Freedom of Expression. In particular, we are interested in engaging and addressing bloggers, web media personnel including civic media producers and citizen journalists, citizens and civil society in discussions that are anchored to the Right to Information, democratic governance and human rights. Accordingly, IMA will press and advocate for greater freedoms online, the development of an open, free web and Internet, including over mobiles, and the protection of those who engage in online fora.

All the multimedia content on this website was commissioned by Groundviews, a critically acclaimed citizen journalism based in Sri Lanka. They are the country’s first high-definition video productions and the first to document their respective subject matter. The production of this content was supported by small grants from Groundviews which supported, in line with the raison d’etre of the site, content that furthers civil, progressive and inclusive discussions on the future of democracy, peace, reconciliation, social justice, fundamental rights and equality in Sri Lanka. The small grants were made possible by Ford Foundation.

These videos were broadcast on MTV (a terrestrial TV channel in Sri Lanka) from 23 to 30 July 2008, to commemorate the anti-Tamil pogrom in July 1983.


We have a choice, but time is running out. Speak up. Put your name in a comment below, in English, Sinhala or Tamil. Say that last week’s violence was not in your name. Renounce a fringe lunacy and resist extremism. By putting your name below, oppose mob violence and bigotry as ways to resolve disputes.

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

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

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

In its most recent initiative, CPA commissioned Kannan Arunasalam to direct a documentary on Sampur and to visually capture the narratives of the communities who have returned and continuing to return to their homes.

Address at Online Dispute Resolution Forum 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short memories, Doppler radar & disasters in Sri Lanka

An article published by renowned journalist Amantha Perera on IRIN today triggered a series of tweets over @groundviews around how officials in successive governments have lied to citizens around investments in life-saving technologies.

Amantha’s article notes,

Lalith Chandrapala, director general of the Meteorological Department, said the department doesn’t have Doppler radar capability, which allows for the accurate forecasting of the direction and velocity of storms.

For the radar to be effective, stations would have to be located around the country. Senadeera said that Sri Lanka had only one such station, but it had broken down. The government plans to set up two stations with Japanese funding within the next two years, he said.

Emphasis mine. This quote around Doppler radar reminded me of an article, also by the same author and on the same website, published as far back as 2013. In June that year, a storm killed at least fifty fishermen. Many of the deaths were preventable.

Speaking to the WSWS, angry fishermen condemned the government for not providing a proper early warning system and safety facilities. Though the storm was a natural disaster, many lives could have been saved if people had been alerted in advance. Via Sri Lanka: Storm kills dozens of fishermen

As Amantha’s article on IRIN published in July 2013 noted,

DMC assistant director Sarath Lal Kumara said the Department had also been experimenting with issuing recorded warnings over the web and sending out regular updates to a selection of government officials, armed forces, police and media outlets using SMS text messages.

The Department will begin operating a new Doppler radar system in late August, allowing it to detect changing weather patterns at least three hours earlier.

It’s 2017. We are now told the Doppler radar is still two years away. And the DMC is still not using in a discernible, coherent or sustained manner, any modern communications technology around disasters for early warning or risk reduction.

The issue around the installation of Doppler radar alone suggests that those at the Met. Department in Sri Lanka, along with those at the Disaster Management Centre (DMC), and all those involved in early warning, including the Minister, should be held criminally culpable for the loss of life, over many years. Why they get away with what they do is because we all have short memories, and tend to forget statements and promises made by officials.

Perhaps social media, in addition to being centre and forward in disaster response and relief, can also act as a record for posterity around individuals who choose to misdirect and misinform over saving lives, with complete impunity.

A column (Disaster Response) first published in The Sunday Island on 4th June 2017 goes into more detail around some of these issues noted above, looking at in particular the catastrophic floods that hit Sri Lanka in May 2017.

Human Rights & ICTs: Presentation to Amnesty International

I was invited to give a presentation of around 20 – 25 minutes to Amnesty International’s 2017 Chairs Assembly & Directors Forum (CADF) meeting, held for the first time in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Focussed on the work done through Groundviews at the Centre for Policy Alternatives to use information and communications technologies (ICTs), for over ten years, to bear witness to, verify, narrate, showcase and record human rights violations as well as more generally supporting democratic governance.

The presentation is embedded below. It can also be downloaded as an Apple Keynote, Microsoft Powerpoint or high-resolution PDF from here.

The presentation followed a speech by Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera. Live tweeted a few responses to his submission, and also touched upon some of what he said during the very short Q&A that followed my presentation.

I did tweet a bit earlier in the day that it was quite incredible to sit in a forum, where all the leading members of Amnesty International from across the world were present in one room, without a single issue around getting into the country. AI also announced the opening of a country office. Both developments would not have happened, or been remotely considered, under the Rajapaksa regime.

We have come far, but the journey ahead is no less arduous or challenging than what we have been through. It is unclear whether the Foreign Minister’s optimism and vision translates into what the President and Prime Minister want, believe and have the political will to see through. One hopes Amnesty International, also using a full spectrum of technology, will hold those in power accountable, complementing what Groundviews has stood for and done since 2006.

Blurred lines: Surveillance and ethics

I was invited to deliver a short-talk, as part of a public discussion looking at ‘Cross Cutting Dynamics of Online Democracy: Mainstreaming Internet Freedom and the Right to Privacy in Sri Lanka”, at the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) on 21 March 2017.

The programme can be downloaded here. The panel included old friends Nalaka Gunawardene, Subha Wijesiriwardena, Jayantha Fernando and others.

Partly because the title I was given from BASL was indecipherable, and partly also because I wanted to identify threats and opportunities on the horizon and not just what jurisprudence and the legal system had to deal with today, I opted to focus on the role, nature and scope of surveillance in Sri Lanka, as we know it, and implications for personal privacy. In the presentation I also focussed more broadly on the intrusive nature of web, cloud and social media services, siphoning ever increasing information produced by us for a process of monetization that is essentially the commodification of personal data.

Covering the rise of psychometric targeting, the passive yet pervasive harvesting of personal data by corporate entities, I also looked at AI technologies that now have the capability to mirror the discursive patterns of actual humans.

Noting the rise of a post-privacy world, at least related to traditional notions of privacy (I didn’t talk about the far more complex theories around differential privacy and big data, championed by the likes of Apple and Google), I also noted that the concern post-Snowden in particular is that States and corporations now have the ability to track or target individuals at scale. I flagged the atrocious nvestigatory Powers Act 2016 or Snoopers’ Charter in the United Kingdom as an example of how legislation today seriously eroded personal privacy.

I then showcased, based on court records in Sri Lanka as published in The Internet as a medium for free expression: A Sri Lankan legal perspective by senior lawyer J.C. Weliauma, how ISPs had pushed back against TRC directives to have blanket bans on websites, including YouTube, ostensibly because they carried pornographic content.

Looking at a story I did for Groundviews in 2015 (), I demonstrated how under the Rajapaksa regime, state authorities were deeply interested in procuring technologies that could covert infiltrate and surveil targets selected by intelligence authorities, which given the context at the time, would have invariably included journalists, civil society and human rights activities.

Towards the end of the presentation I also flagged serious concerns around the lack of data privacy laws in Sri Lanka in relation to the proposed electronic national identity card (e-NIC) project, particularly when as noted online, an entity leading the development of it, is also associated with and owned by the Ministry of Defense. Subsequent discussions during the panel suggested that this has changed, but the e-NIC project remains mired in confusion and secrecy.

Noting concerns around ‘smart cities’ and MoU’s with service providers based out of China to undergird the ICT aspects of proposed urban development in Sri Lanka, I noted there are significant privacy concerns around (though I didn’t mention it by name at the session), a world where the Internet of Things (IoT) increasingly controls and influences aspects of our lives.

I ended by referring to the Matrix, and feared many in the audience wouldn’t know what I was talking about or when I showed Neo, a central character in the trilogy, who I was referring to. The point I made, in homage to Neo’s role, was that instead of going with blind faith and acceptance towards a future where our privacy would no longer exist as we know, value and seek to protect it today, we needed as citizens or even consumers to be more aware of what we sign up to, install, use and publish on. I urged the audience to question everything, and noted that at the end of the day, digital rights and privacy was inextricably entwined with issues around citizenship and governance under a new constitution, promised to Sri Lankans later this year.