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Fluid politics


Ranil Wickremesinghe

Sanjana Hattotuwa

Over the three years I’ve enjoyed the space to pen this column, I have often endeavoured to communicate clear and present dangers to Sri Lanka’s democratic potential not often captured by other, far more experienced and older political commentators. The readership of this newspaper are two to three decades older than the demographic I am usually focussed on and online, interact with. It is their conversational landscape that I’ve created platforms for, helped shaped and contributed to. That a Tamil, Sinhala and English readership of mainstream press, or a consumer of TV, would see remarkably different and often conflicting frames of Sri Lanka is well-known and for some decades. Less well understood are the echo chambers a demographic between 18-34 inhabit, and those even younger are starting to populate through their use of instant messaging platforms like WhatsApp, Viber and Facebook Messenger. In the main, Facebook as a platform is ageing, and now drawing in those much older than the target demographic at launch – which was those in or just out of University in the US. A consequence of this, locally and globally, is the migration of conversation, collaboration and coordination amongst the young to instant messaging apps, where friends create groups and exchange hundreds of messages a day, free from the scrutiny of parents, the indexing of Google and the oversight of anyone other than those present in or invited to join the group.

The reaction to all this, from the highest levels of government to many I meet and talk with elsewhere, is abject fear – and stemming from that, a desire to completely cut off access. So instead of an education around the best or safe use, we have a parental, caregiver or adult response that guarantees that curiosity, mixed with innovative circumvention adults can’t even begin to imagine, will win out. A report authored by myself and two others who are experts in the field of data science – looking for and at patterns in vast troves of information – may I fear contribute to fear, when it is engagement and discussion that was the intended outcome of publication. One of Sri Lanka’s most senior figures in the UN, since retired, wrote to me and said that while the report was in the main not easy to understand, it was extremely frightening. I feared I had failed, because while fear can be helpful at constructive action and course correction, anxiety over the inevitability of doom and the powerlessness of ordinary citizens to stop any of it, is not. The report was on Twitter, which many readers of this newspaper may have only seen their children or grandchildren on. Twitter is both a social media platform and now a key vector of news, information and opinion. It is thus used to pull in information about what others are doing, saying and thinking as well as to push out opinion, offers and updates. Exact numbers are difficult to come by for users in Sri Lanka, but is very likely in the high hundreds of thousands at a very conservative estimate, with around 330 million globally in the last quarter of 2017. Every single major political party, well-known politician, sportsperson, journalist, academic, activist, entertainment personality and diplomat are on the platform, along with many government departments, ministries and even official projects and programmes. Our report investigated the many ways automated accounts on Twitter – called bots – risked seriously impacting the quality or conversation on the platform, used by a demographic which in Sri Lanka are first to fourth time voters.

Through a number of ways, relatively cheap to procure and rather easy to engineer, these bots would be used to shape a conversation in ways beneficial to a specific political party, issue, politician or actor, block out anything that was deemed inconvenient by drowning out their voice through the sheer volume of production, create artificial trends so that certain topics, places or individuals appear on the platform to be much more popular or appealing, engage in partisan propaganda aimed at a specific demographic, and in the lead up to elections, produce at scale the digital equivalents of what we see on political stages and the strained arteries of candidates – ranging from smear campaigns to negative ads, death threats and sophisticated misinformation. The report was data driven – which means it used what was being reported on widely on Twitter in Sri Lanka, to investigate the credibility of claims made around the scale and scope of bots, as well as their role, relevance and reach in potentially undermining our electoral process. What is a risk for us is stark reality in Malaysia today, where an electoral process has been overwhelmed by bots. In the past, Twitter has also been weaponised around electoral contests most famously in the US in 2016, Brexit, France, Germany and elsewhere.

All this and more is in the report which is in the public domain, which I hope if you ever download makes for interesting reading. Even if you’ve never used Twitter yourself, our argument is that you should be worried, and engage in conversation with those you know who do around the dangers of mindlessly promoting and sharing content without first verifying.

What’s not in the report is for me the more interesting and damaging aspect of new technologies which are now inextricably entwined in how the young see and engage with politics. The challenge is also accentuated by the UNP’s much anticipated party reshuffle announced last week. Sri Lanka has poor media literacy and high adult literacy. The confidence in and perception of democratic institutions is poor, and not improving. The perception of electoral processes are predominantly as power grabs and less as moments for robust interrogation of ideas, and voting based on evidence. Social media is balkanising a media landscape, breaking up audiences based on their age, local, language preference, gender, device type and even preference of platform. Politicians are directly addressing voters, in ways the mainstream media often doesn’t even follow, leave aside critique or frame. Academia calls this a networked society – which is not so much what we are all connected to (which is the web and Internet), but how social media (like Facebook) connects at least around five million eligible to vote at any national election in Sri Lanka. This new social capital constructed on group bonds as well as connectors like national level cricketers, able to bridge distinct online communities, sees politics in a very different way. There is a paradigm shift that’s already happened, the UNP leadership seems oblivious to. These voters see themselves as co-creators of policy and co-architects of governance – and not those who are told things or given promises. Undergirded by social media, the ubiquity of smart phones and cheap broadband, this is a new political and power structure that is a radical reconfiguration of the electorate. It is also very far removed from the UNP’s, and Mr. Wickremesinghe’s, modus operandi and the yahapalanaya government’s modus vivendi.

Old men, old ways in old parties, I told my interlocutor over email, can’t begin understand the language this new electorate speaks and can’t grasp the warnings we give, because they cannot imagine a world different to what they think it (still) is. An electorate fluid in its partisan affiliation, flexible in its vote, making up its mind about franchise at the last moment and impatient with the non-delivery of promise is a constituency ripe for populism’s seed to take root. My report was on Twitter and its weaponisation. The greater danger really is around those in government so tragically and patently unable to understand that they themselves are the reason for a resurgent authoritarianism’s glow and glimmer, to grow and gain.

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