Namal Rajapaksa, bots and trolls: New contours of digital propaganda and online discourse in Sri Lanka

In the last quarter of 2017, pushback over Twitter to content Groundviews pushed out over the same platform came from sources not encountered or interacted with before. This piqued the interest of the site’s founding editor, Sanjana Hattotuwa, for one key reason. All the accounts publishing content against Groundviews were overwhelmingly promoting and partial to Namal Rajapaksa, a Member of Parliament and the extremely (social) media savvy son of the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The troll army retweeting and promoting Namal Rajapaksa’s Twitter account was overwhelmingly anchored to profile photos that were fake, and registered to names that deviously sounded like they were from the Muslim, Tamil and Sinhala communities, but were also fake.

In any case, the data clearly suggests Namal Rajapaksa drawing a highly predictable number of followers on to Twitter every day.

What’s interesting for social media research is the manner in which the @RajapaksaNamal account on Twitter is used, or arguably, abused. It reflects a new appetite for social media strategies specifically engineered for electoral gain amongst all politicians, and not just the Rajapaksas and Joint Opposition, involving human trolls as well as automated bots. The intent it clear – to influence voter perceptions and public discourse, over and beyond social media.

…the danger around the weaponisation of social media around electoral processes is that neither government nor civil society is prepared to deal with it.

…what is now a danger is that the followers (in the form of bots and trolls) can also be strategically leveraged to quell dissent, shape narratives, highlight propaganda, spread misinformation, drown out critical voices, bully, act as echo chambers and shape social media discourse.

Without sounding alarmist, Sri Lanka has already entered a new online political dynamic, in which the discursive landscape is governed agents of censorship, manipulation and control outside the parameters of traditional observation and analysis. This isn’t just a technocratic concern.

Co-authored with the amazing Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, read the article in full on Groundviews here.

CMEV’s election monitoring featured on Technology for Transparency Network

I was recently interviewed by the Technology for Transparency Network, an initiative of GlobalVoices, on the work I do with the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV). They were particularly interested in the pioneering manner in which CMEV uses the web and the Internet to aid its work, which I had written about in detail recently (see Election monitoring using new media: Notes from my experience in Sri Lanka) and the publication of an election monitoring SMS template we had developed.

As described on its site,

The Technology for Transparency Network is a three-month, participatory research mapping to gain a better understanding of the current state of online technology projects that increase transparency, government accountability, and civic engagement in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, South Asia, China, and Central & Eastern Europe. The project is co-funded by Open Society Institute’s Information Program and Omidyar Network’s Media, Markets & Transparency initiative, and aims to inform both programs’ future investments toward transparency, accountability, and civic engagement technology projects.

CMEV is the first, and to date, the only example from Sri Lanka in a database of compelling examples from around the world where the web, Internet and mobiles have meaningfully helped keep the excesses of government and authoritarianism in check, opened out information to citizenry and allowed them to take participate more fully in processes of governance.

Social media: An introduction to practical uses during elections

I delivered a lecture at the Sri Lanka College of Journalism today on the use of social media in election reporting. The presentation I based my interactive lecture on is below. Aspect of the up-coming Presidential Elections are unprecedented in any number of ways. A point about it is that both leading candidates use social media to a degree that no other election in Sri Lanka has witnessed in the past. My submission was that literacy in social and new media is thus a perquisite in covering these elections, both to critically appreciate content produced by and placed online by candidates, as well as to gather information on election violence and other outrageous malpractices.

I also used the lecture to suggest that the participants, leading mid-career journalists from print as well as electronic media in Sri Lanka, could use these tools to create media of their own, responding to issues they thought were under-reported, or were hostage to the bias of an editor, publisher or owner.

Mapping violence during elections and voter education

This is not the first time I’ve helped plot violence related to elections in Sri Lanka. In my first post I noted that the map helped journalists better understand the degree of violence on the ground. Things are no better in the lead-up to the Western Provincial Council elections.

Just like previous maps, this map is so packed with incidents of violence that you need to zoom into some places (e.g. Horana) to see the degree of violence on the ground. Shooting, arson, intimidation, assault, looting are common.

Must democracy countenance the worst of us in public office? How can we improve, through civic education using mobiles and the web, voters more informed about key issues, candidates, their positions and political parties that are contesting?

Kantipur in Nepal ran a comprehensive website in Nepali featuring information on candidates during their key Constituent Assembly Elections in 2004, interviews with them and their stances regarding vital policy issues. I don’t see a comparable effort here. Some leading bloggers have made an effort to interview som candidates and candidates themselves have leveraged web media (including Facebook), but overall there is little real awareness about the (oftentimes criminal and sordid) history of candidates.

I feel that election violence can only be addressed if voter education results in the electoral defeat of those who indulge in such activities. For example, Vote Report India powered by Ushahidi is a great example of just how vexing elections in the world’s largest democracy can be.

vote-report-india

But unless awareness campaigns before an election, and advocacy campaigns after which bring to light, including name and shame, perpetrators of elections violence, these exercises alone, including my own, have little chance of really strengthening democracy. The problem with raising awareness before an election is that NGOs can never match the reach of an incumbent government’s propaganda, or even that of a political party, both of which have vested interests in keeping the public ignorant about the history of candidates and their violence.

The problem with post-election advocacy is that placing the violence of winners in public scrutiny will almost always be (a) seen as a conspiracy to undermine the legitimacy of their victory (b) cast as a rival party political bid to discredit the electoral victory and the ‘will of the people’ (c) be seen as some sort of NGO / civil society campaign to discredit the winners.

Technology alone then is no guarantee of cleaner elections. But technology can be part of the solution.

Any ideas?

Western Provincial Council candidates go online: So what?

Duminda SIlva was the first that I know of to launch a website to support his campaign. The bloke looks like Queen Elizabeth on a bad hair day. He has an interesting track record and his (erstwhile) website claims his “foundation” has “donated 9,850 families”, which makes about as much sense as why anyone who would vote for such vile swine. As Indi notes,

Duminda is a repugnant human being who happens to have money. The way he treats women alone is disqualification for public service. And yet he wins. Why? Perhaps because we haven’t offered an alternative. I’m now trying to figure out if/where I’ve registered to vote. I think I’m part of the problem.

So what are the alternatives? Two other candidates from the UNP and JHU have created websites and even entered Facebook.

Continue reading

Micro-blogging election violence and malpractices in Sri Lanka

Set up a quick and dirty way to get updates from Vikalpa’s islandwide network of citizen journalists on election violence and malpractices in the Eastern Province.

See Vikalpa for details and our Twitter site for updates from the field. As I note in the Vikalpa post:

“While we cannot check the veracity of each SMS we receive in a timely manner, we hope and expect that citizens themselves will actively engage with reports posted on our micro-site and alert us with clarifications, updates and alternative perspectives of their own.”

This is the first of a couple of other interesting experiments using SMS + mobiles, blogs, Twitter and Google Maps that I want to try out in the lead up to and on the day of the elections in the Eastern Province in Sri Lanka on 10th May 2008.

For those resident in the East or who receive information from the Province, please SMS Vikalpa on 0777312079 with your updates and news.