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Digital flowers


Sanjana Hattotuwa

My love of nature, and by extension, the nature of things, comes in large part from my grandparents. Achchi and Seeya were often in and tended to our garden at home. Achchi had her routine, and I occasionally followed her around, doing nothing at all to help, but listening to what she said as she swept, weeded and watered. After they died, the challenge of tending to the various vegetable patches, plants, shrubs and trees became more apparent, and what they did daily, more valued.

Delivering a lecture recently on social media and path dependence post-war – the framing or critique of the world today as, to varying degrees, dependent on past decisions – I recalled what my grand-parents did and likened my current research to how a botanist would study a flower. From stem to petal, bud to bloom, the growth of something aesthetically beautiful sheds light into the nature of the plant, where it is located and how it pollinates. In some cases, like with Daphne or the Lily of the Valley, a flower pleasing to look at can be quite harmful and injurious to health. Some flowers, like the Daffodil, are mildly harmful only if one comes into contact with a certain part. The same flower bed can give life to a large variety of flowers, or vast quantities of the same kind. The botanist may choose to cross-pollinate, choosing to accentuate certain features of one variety, say resilience to strong sunlight, with the qualities of another, like colour or the shape of a petal.

Social media, when graphed or visualised, is remarkably like flowers in bloom. When plotted in a way that tracks its genesis, temporal spread and growth, the data almost magically gathers in clusters determined by fidelity to an idea or sentiment, approximate geographic location, affinity with a campaign or slogan, use of a particular app, content production at a certain time, or connections with certain other key individuals in the network. You can then do what a gardener does – look for aberrations like a certain colour appearing within what is predominantly an area of a different hue. Or why blooms that dominate a certain area don’t feature in other section. You might dig deeper into the roots of the blooms, to understand what gives it colour, shape or form. You might follow its branches, to understand how they grow outwards, and sometimes fight with other growth for dominance. Achchi liked her flower beds in an orderly fashion. Prefaced by a ‘me balanna putha’ she used to point at weeds, and with great vengeance and vigour, root them out. My research into social media differs in this respect, for I have no power or control over what I observe, based on content already published, produced and promoted. There is, however, one similarity. Like Achchi used to with uncanny accuracy and with almost muscle memory, hone in on the areas prone to and often featured weed growth, social media analysis also allows for the study of factors injurious to a network. By learning how they grow, attract, spread and infiltrate, content harmful or puts at risk the health of the network can with some accuracy be identified and tracked.

The effort taken to explain the nature of my research is in the service of more broadly promoting the importance of it, beyond academia. Last week, I conducted two studies based on available data. One, a comparison between a campaign around enforced disappearances led by Amnesty International and another campaign, spearheaded by Namal Rajapaksa, around a protest march into Colombo. Two, a study into what the official Facebook pages of Mahinda, Gotabaya, Namal, Yoshitha, Rohitha and Shiranthi Rajapaksa, the President, PM, Mangala Samaraweera, UNP, SLFP and SLPP had each liked – an affordance on the platform that allows the administrator of one page to like another page. Both, through data, confirmed what many have suspected, variously claimed or intuitively known for a while – that post-war Sri Lanka is a deeply divided country, especially along partisan political lines.

The comparison between the Amnesty and Namal Rajapaksa campaign was interesting because it is the first time I could study two campaigns, deeply pegged to social media for promotion and engagement, but also with activities pegged to the real world. Put simply, those who engaged with, were part of or chose to be affiliated with one campaign, weren’t part of the other. Think of it as a small flower bed (those on or using social media) giving bloom to two very different kinds of flowers, near but entirely distinct to each other. The lack of cross-pollination, and the purity of each variety suggests a disconnect between disappearances and the timbre of governance, and reciprocally, the issues raised by a protest march pegged to development, economy, socio-political and economic rights, and the concerns highlighted by a campaign on human rights violations.

A similar disconnect was discovered in the study of Facebook pages. Here, pages belonging to the government formed an echo chamber that was completely distinct from pages belonging to the Rajapaksas and the Joint Opposition. A fan or follower of one would be almost completely masked from what a competing political and partisan group liked. Of course, this is exactly how fans and followers of government or the JO like it. And this is also precisely why it is a big, and disturbingly, growing problem. Without a basic foundation of civic values, a cosmopolitan nationalism, and a progressive patriotism that is informed by but isn’t hostage to tradition and culture, the worldview of many who will vote for the first time, or are young voters, is predominantly framed by the parochial and partisan networks they belong to. Activism in one domain – around human rights violations – is seen as motivated by actors, or factors, entirely distinct from (and for some, perhaps even hostile to) what is projected as more ‘patriotic forces’ gathering to decry the decay of governance. Simple logic suggests that interest in one would lead to at the very least, an inquiry into related domains. This doesn’t happen. The Sinhala phrase ‘lin madiyo’ – or frogs in a well, springs to mind as the aptest way of describing what our youngest citizens are growing into and have already normalised.

Achchi’s and Seeya’s passing is a personal loss, felt keenly in the most unexpected ways – like when I walk in my garden back home in Ratmalana, noticing a weed or disarray growth that one or both of them wouldn’t have permitted. As a researcher now, I see blossoms, blooms and buds of a different nature, but pegged to the same principles of a vibrant, healthy garden I was introduced to growing up. My flower bed, as it were, is Sri Lanka’s young citizenry. The flowers I see bloom are political discussions and the contest of ideas. What I observe is disturbing. The completely false is taking root, and the outrageously partisan is growing. The health of the network is in decline, even as its growth is exponentially increasing. Those engaging with or connecting through social media, instead of nurturing a cross-pollination of ideas that makes us consider debate or difference as a key element of democracy, consider instead that what matters far more is to be surrounded by those who are like-minded.

My columns are attempts to caution against what just a few of us, at most, are studying, but impacts everyone beyond whom they want to see in power and vote for. These studies are far more mature in the United States and elsewhere in Europe, where the dramatic democratic decay – so evident political life and expression – has been exploited by foreign actors to seed division and distrust. It is not too late for us, but time is running out.

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