The Sri Lankan President’s Twitter archive

Excerpt from a much longer piece I wrote for Groundviews (The Sri Lankan President’s Twitter archive and Propaganda 2.0: New challenges for online dissent), dealing with an archive I created that captures every single tweet published by the Sri Lankan President’s official Twitter account, and why this is so important.



It is evident therefore that the President’s new media presence isn’t seen as a vehicle of engagement with society and polity, but rather, an extension of his government’s policy to pass off propaganda and partisan perspectives as news and official updates.

Complete archive
Because of what’s stated as well as the damning silences and evasion, Groundviews felt it imperative to record for posterity all the tweets published by @PresRajapaksa as well as all interactions referencing this official account, starting from Day One.

Groundviews is pleased to present a novel and easy to use front end to a comprehensive archive, constantly updated, of the President’s interactions and content generation on Twitter.

To see all the tweets (updated daily) access the full spreadsheet here.

There is also a data visualisation giving top-level information about @PresRajapaksa accessible here. Though the screenshot of the dashboard below is accurate at the time of publication, the link will always open a page with updated statistics.


Twitter for Newsrooms: What’s missing?

Twitter for Newsrooms is a new resource from Twitter clearly aimed at journalists who to use the platform. It’s basic stuff, but useful for journalists coming to Twitter for the first time, and I am inclined to translate this into Sinhala and Tamil for my classes at the Sri Lanka College of Journalism (SLCJ).

There is however a glaring shortcoming in the guide. Journalists new to Twitter need to be told that not everything that goes up on Twitter is true, accurate and verified. While this may sound obvious for many, my experience is that those new to web based social media (a) implicitly trust it more than say mainstream media websites (b) lack the skills to ascertain the veracity of information published on the platforms. This is a dangerous combination, and the guide in giving journalists the skills to use Twitter may actually exacerbate a growing problem of impersonation online, from Amina Abdallah (the supposed gay girl in Damascus) to ‘Marc‘, who presented himself as an American gay rights activist disillusioned with the latest Gaza flotilla campaign. While both of these impersonations were not via Twitter, they do flag the danger of trusting and acting upon content posted online sans any verifiable marker of authenticity. Given that these markers are themselves under constant revision as web based media and social networking evolves, you can imagine the confusion it could lead to. A cogent example was the so called ‘Twitter Revolution’ in Iran two years ago, which if one was following international media, would have appeared to be a country full of Twitter accounts. The reality was far more complex.

Fortunately, Twitter itself published one of the best resources for tweet verification. Sadly, the entry from April 2010 is now buried deep in the Twitter Media blog, but is absolutely vital reading for anyone who finds Twitter for Newsrooms useful and indeed, even those more advanced in using Twitter. The tweet verification blog post is written by Craig Kanalley, traffic and trends editor at Huffington Post and creator of Breaking Tweets.

Read it here or download a PDF of it here.

Behind the scenes: How to upgrade a citizen journalism website

Updated 22nd December 2010 with list of plugins used on the site.

Groundviews launched its new version today. It was a radical departure from the look and feel of the old and first version to the new avatar.

Old / original version

Groundviews New
Current version

Counting articles and comments, Groundviews has, at last count, well over 5.5. million of words of content published since 2006. This does not include the photos, audio and video featured on the site. The sheer size was its own worst enemy – once an article went off from the homepage in the previous version, readers had a hard time rediscovering it. Site search was ineffective, inaccurate and slow to boot. While the site had a distinct look and feel loyal readers had come to love, it was evident that a lot of the content useful for researchers and historians, as well as serious readers, was simply too hard to access.

The new site officially launched today with key improvements. What was done to enhance the features, readability and discoverability of content is not something any other media site in Sri Lanka comes even close to achieving today.

How did we do it? Key to the new site were the following three considerations.

  1. Content discoverability and enhanced search features
  2. Mobile phone and mobile browser friendly content, with particular emphasis on Apple’s iOS based devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch)
  3. Integration with Facebook and Twitter

We didn’t move away from WordPress, which from the get go has served Groundviews well. That said, there was no plugin on WordPress capable of serving the search functionality we required. We turned to Google’s Custom Search Engine instead. For $100 per annum, the CSE we created is the most comprehensive search currently available for a site, bringing to bear Google’s power (including boolean logic operations and specific filetype searches) to enhance content discovery on the site. To complement this new search engine, we created a new Archive page on the site, making it easier to visually navigate to content published in the past.

Groundviews, through the WordPress Mobile Edition plugin, already automatically rendered content on mobile devices to suit each device and browser. This plugin was retained in the new version. The option to go to the full site is present and works best with iOS, Android and Symbian devices.

A strict a standards based design and the switch to HTML5, non-Flash based video was done with Apple’s iOS devices in mind, which don’t run Adobe Flash. All the videos, and the scrolling features on the homepage, are non-Flash based, and work perfectly on any iOS device.

The earlier site had patchy connections to Facebook and Twitter. The new site streamlines these connections. At the end of each article, tight Twitter and Facebook integration make it possible to highlight the story quickly and easily. In addition to this, we continued the use of Apture, first introduced to the site over a year ago. Featured on sites like the Economist as well, Apture comes into its own when one scrolls down any page. The resulting header makes it easy to search for content, as well as post anything to Twitter or Facebook. An added bonus is that double-clicking on any word, or set of words, opens an Apture window that searches Groundviews for that key word or phrase, as well as the wider web. It is an elegant solution that helps retain readers on the site.

Several new technologies are incorporated on the new version of the site. Google’s Feedburner now powers email subscriptions to site content. Full feed RSS is provided by default. The idea that readers have to come to the site itself to read and engage with content is laughable, and yet one that animates the majority of news websites in Sri Lanka. In addition to email subscriptions and full feed RSS, another new technology is the site’s tight integration with Instapaper. As Instapaper’s website notes,

“Instapaper facilitates easy reading of long text content.We discover web content throughout the day, and sometimes, we don’t have time to read long articles right when we find them. Instapaper allows you to easily save them for later, when you do have time, so you don’t just forget about them or skim through them…. The times we find information aren’t always ideal for consuming it. Instapaper helps you bridge that gap.”

It’s also important that Instapaper has iPhone / iPad apps, making it very easy to save and read site content on these devices, with seamless content synchronisation.

As noted in the email sent out announcing the launch,

“The site update has preserved links from the previous avatar and Google indexing. What this means is that references to site content made for example in academic journals are still valid, and that existing indexing of site content on Google is unaffected by the upgrade.”

The point about preserving Google indexing is important because over 2009 and 2010, the website of the Daily Mirror, one of Sri Lanka’s leading mainstream media newspapers (published by arguably one of the most profitable and tech savvy media houses, the Wijeya Group) underwent around over 3 major revisions. One revision completely rendered the Google indexing of the site’s articles worthless by changing the internal site links. Further, even today, this leading online news site offers a pathetic search engine seemingly designed to hide content rather than expose it. As I noted in Daily Mirror’s online woes reveal an industry issue,

It is one thing to know about web and new media, quite another to strategically leverage it to strengthen brand identity, content consumption and forge new models of participatory, independent and indeed, investigative journalism. Though newspapers in Sri Lanka have embraced the likes of Twitter, Facebook and web media, there is no real understanding of any of the platforms, the manner in which content needs to be tailored for each of them, the varying consumption and delivery patterns or through them, how consumers can be made to engage with the news in more engaging ways.

Underlying technology aside, the new design uses a new typography and layout, leveraging white space, line spacing and content placement to enhance readability.

Other key plugins for WordPress used on the site are:

  1. Akismet, for handling automated comment spam
  2. WP Captcha Free, complements Akismet, and guards against comment spam from contact and comment boxes
  3. Audio player, for MP3 playback
  4. Similar posts, for reader retention and content discoverability
  5. WP-Print, for easy formatting of a post for printing
  6. WP-Post Views, for displaying how many times an article has been read
  7. WP-CommentNavi, for page navigation on the site

The design, content migration and technical features were implemented by Cezar Neaga. It is almost impossible to find WordPress expertise in Sri Lanka to the level of complexity Groundviews demands. Cezar’s keen eye and technical proficiency helped a great deal to realise our core requirements for the new version.

At the end though, what drives a site is its content. All of the design elements and technical features are anchored to the international award winning content featured since 2006 on Groundviews. The new site makes this content more easily accessible and more visually appealing. It is also the basis for new, compelling ventures in citizen journalism lined up for 2011 and beyond.

Watch this space.

Politicians and Twitter in Sri Lanka and the elsewhere

Image courtesy the Economist, Sweet to Tweet

The Presidential and parliamentary elections held this year in Sri Lanka saw a number of candidates, in the run up to election, open accounts on Twitter. Leading politicians like Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sarath Fonseka, Champika Ranawaka, Sajith Premadasa and Milinda Moragoda, amongst others were extremely active on Twitter.

Save for Sarath Fonseka’s and Sajith Premedasa’s accounts, they are all now defunct.

Milinda Moragoda’s account, in the short time it was active, demonstrated more engagement with his followers than all the other accounts combined. This is captured in a tweet of his, noting that though he was new to Twitter, Moragoda believed “it should be used constructively”. Debates with @Nishan73, @Naleendra123 and @NalakaG for example shows Moragoda’s use of the platform to engage voters on key issues, even if the end result was to agree to disagree.

Tellingly, for Moragoda and others, Twitter was ultimately more a vehicle for propaganda than a means of sustained and meaningful engagement with voters post-elections. Premadasa’s and Fonseka’s Twitter accounts serve more as a one way broadcast of activities and updates, and no engagement at all with critical debate or dissent.

One counterpoint is the Twitter feed of Groundviews, which I curate along with one other, that regularly engages followers who ask for clarifications, contest our viewpoints, feed us with information and post their own opinions.

Screenshot of exchange between @groundviews and @prakashism via Echofon.

On the other hand, Sweet to tweet, published in the Economist recently, notes,

As well as boosting the profile of individual politicians, Twitter may be better designed for campaigning and opposition than for governing. “We’ll change Washington” is easy to fit into 140 characters. Explaining the messy and inevitable compromises of power is a lot harder.

And the article goes on to suggest,

The days when tweets involved a sweaty-thumbed real-life politician giving candid thoughts on the day’s events may be passing. Risk-averse politicians are likely to make their tweets bland, and bland tweeters may be less likely to be followed. Once politicians understand that everything is public, they are much less likely to offer the unadorned truth, at least to ordinary voters.

The article in the Economist is interesting reading, for it analyses differences in the behaviour of politicians on Twitter in the run up to and after elections, as well as in opposition and in government. We can see these general observations play out in Sri Lanka as well. With Twitter now supported on Dialog via SMS (and perhaps other mobile phone networks) one can expect to see a growing number of those seeking public office use the medium in the run up to election to reach to, though not necessarily engage with, their prospective vote base.

Whether the use of social networking and media will, in any way, help transform the culture of politics in Sri Lanka from a corrupt, nepotistic and clientelistic model to a more deliberative, participatory and responsive framework will be a question I will continue to engage with, as will I am sure, many others.

Lists of the best Twitter accounts on Sri Lanka

After incorporating Twitter’s @Anywhere functionality to Groundviews, I was inspired create two lists of Twitter accounts I follow on a regular basis. The first was a list of the best Twitter accounts on Sri Lanka, currently featuring 14 feeds.

The second was a list of the best Twitter accounts by Sri Lankan bloggers, currently featuring 15 feeds.

The lists are not meant to be comprehensive, nor do they include accounts with only occasional or peripheral references to Sri Lanka. Best, of course, is a subjective judgement. For example, the list of the Twitter accounts on Sri Lanka are updates I follow daily, and importantly, trust.

The list of bloggers on the other hand are not all those I follow daily, or agree with content of. But as noted on Groundviews, these Twitter feeds feature updates ranging from the quirky and personal to the incisive and political. Oftentimes, tweets from these bloggers will reveal issues, facets, processes and situations that go unreported or under-reported in mainstream media. They are not always tweets I trust, but often offer story ideas, inspiration or at the very least, a good laugh.

One hopes mainstream media in Sri Lanka catches up with innovative ideas like curated Twitter feeds to leverage social networking’s potential for journalism.

Dopamine and humanitarian aid

Boomers had the zipless fuck. We have the clickless give.

With a line like that, you know the article you’re reading is going to be irreverent, intelligent and incisive. How Twitter + Dopamine = Better Humans by Scott Brown on Wired is all three. It is also a cogent critique of the generation of humanitarian aid using technology. Brown notes,

Our brains release congratulatory hits of dopamine when we engage in selfless behavior — which we’re moved to do the instant we witness something awful. Melissa Brown, associate director of research at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, calls this our “immediate altruistic response.” But, she notes, the IAR impulse is easily blunted by delay: “Generation X and the Millennials don’t want to go through the trouble of entering a 16-digit credit card number to make a $25 donation.”

This is in fact an aspect I have dealt with on this blog and in my work. In December 2009, I delivered a presentation today at a workshop organized by South Asian Women in Media looking at media coverage of disasters. In the first part, heavily influenced by Nicholas Kristof’s Advice for Saving the World, I suggested story ideas and angles better able to generate and vitally, sustain, audience interest in disasters and their aftermath, resonating with the submission that the ‘immediate altruistic response’ rapidly diminishes over time.

The presentation above is available as a full colour, high resolution PDF here. Not sure how references to zipless fucks and dopamine would have gone down at this workshop though…

A huge thanks to Bill Warters for sending me this link.

The mind-boggling growth of Twitter

I had just published Archiving every single tweet on Twitter: Two parallel initiatives when I came across this graphic visualising the growth and scale of Twitter.

The original can be seen here.

In Sri Lanka, I’ve pioneered the use of Twitter for new models of journalism. Through Groundviews, we have used it to cover, inter alia, the President’s speech at the National Victory Parade after the war ended in 2009aftermath of the presidential election in January 2010, mirror mainstream media stories when traffic spikes resulting in their sites crashing and to dispel false reporting on the web over a speech made by the President.

It must be said that mainstream media’s foray’s into Twitter have not been all that successful. The Daily Mirror’s Twitter account is the only example of a mainstream newspaper using it to complement its online reporting. The Sunday Times, owned by the same publishing group, had a less successful approach to Twitter, which eventually got worse! Even the Daily Mirror still uses Twitter largely as a point to its web articles, with no real appreciation of the platform as a news engine itself.

@SmithJoanna’s tweets following the earthquake in Haiti earlier this year is one example of how the service can be used in journalism to cover a complex, traumatic event. Will mainstream media in Sri Lanka ever learn?