Terrorism in Sri Lanka: Some Threads in Social Media …. with Analytic Reflections

Sanjana Hattotuwa, in Sunday Island, 28 April 2019, where the title is “It doesn’t make sense”
-Naren Hattotuwa – Easter Sunday.” … with highlighting emphasis being the work of The Editor, Thuppahi

A Scene from Christchurch and Sri Lanka

On Monday, my 12-year-old son learnt his classmate had passed away at the Intensive Care Unit, a victim of one of the blasts in Colombo. My son’s mother and I grew up in the long shadow of the Black July anti-Tamil pogrom and the UNP-JVP violence in the late 80s. For many in our generation and older, there is a normalization of violence. This is often confused with getting used to or accepting violence.

After the Christchurch massacre in March, many Kiwis trying to get to grips with the scale of the violence unthinkingly said that since I came from Sri Lanka, I was far more used to dealing with terrorism. I suppose that’s in a way true. Mundane things done every day have their own logic and reason that no one from outside cycles of violence would understand. In Kabul, a city where so much is wrong and getting worse, I feel completely at home amidst the detours, convoys, checkpoints, occasional explosion, news of imminent attacks and sporadic gunfire – or the sound of an engine back-firing shrugged off as gunfire, obviously the lesser evil there. The assumption that the more time one spends with it, the greater the ease in dealing with terrorism is, however, untrue.

Terrorism is tragedy as theatre, and it is always terrible. The cataclysmic Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka and its aftermath this week leads to the weaponisation of everything and this fear that anything, anyone, anywhere, and at any time, can cease to exist. In this terrible equation, both familiar to some and entirely new to others, a traffic jam, the queue to pay at the supermarket, a film screening, pumping petrol, attending religious worship or going on pilgrimage, having brunch or going out for a meal, having a coffee in a hotel lobby, living next door to someone one hasn’t spoken with, sharing the lift, going to work in a high-rise building, parking underground, going to the park, using public transport, seeing off a friend at the airport or just wearing an item of clothing one chooses to can set off a violent response, or be a location where violence is unleashed.

The very real, growing anxiety this creates is a marketplace ripe for and often rife with rumour.

It is this aspect that from afar, I’ve studied in some detail this week. The same government that ignored intelligence reports about an imminent terrorist attack, we are asked to believe, blocks social media after hundreds have been killed or maimed out of an abundance of care for the safety and security of its citizens. The deep anger and revulsion against those in government is not what I want this column to reflect. However, it is barely contained.

A President who knows nothing by his own admission, then goes on to blame post-war security sector reform for the terrorism, a PM who also knows nothing and worse, is entirely bereft of any empathy and public, crisis or political communication skills, government spokespersons who laugh their way through a press conference organized the day after the attacks, intelligence reports leaking to the public domain, Ministers tweeting their ignorance or calling for their own government to act, no coherent communication and a near complete collapse of moral, political leadership. These are the dominant frames of our government today. I don’t think it will recover, soon or ever.

Mid-week on Twitter, I quipped that the remedial measures and accountability called for by the government is not unlike after close to 300 have died from acute food poisoning, the management and chefs of the restaurant responsible decide to fire a few hapless waiters for bad service. Many will cover this debacle out of a genuine search for answers and accountability or out of more partisan, parochial interest, leading up to and woven into the Presidential election campaigns.

I’ve focused on conversations around and coverage of the terrorism social media, as well as the effectiveness of and reasons for the block. It bears repeating that my doctoral research involves the study of Facebook and Twitter at scale – which is to say, I look at records in the aggregate, ranging into the hundreds of thousands and often, tens of millions. At this scale, the data tells its own story, superseding purely anecdotal, episodic and partial takes by individuals proposing or opposing the block.

Till Friday, the social media block had done nothing whatsoever to stem the tsunami of content production on Facebook. Twitter, which was never blocked, shows a significant increase in both active users and content production.

Gossip, meme and Sinhala mainstream media on Facebook produced content that engaged tens of millions, generating hundreds of thousands of posts. There was misinformation, rumour, hate and calls for violence, variously produced and promoted. This, all the Western journalists who called me and our government as well, put down as the reason for why social media was blocked.

The data tells me that on Twitter, the ACJU noting that it will not accept the bodies of the terrorists for burial, the wailing of a Muslim father in a mosque as he laid to rest his 13 year old daughter, a friend’s update from Batticaloa on how the community had come together to deal with the scope and scale of the loss, how an individual at a Coffee Shop in Colombo, in a completely bloodied shirt, was pictured as someone who helped others after the blasts, and messages condemning the violence from the PM and the former President were, by far, the most retweeted and liked. Also, by far, a clear interest in and the sharing of content from reputed journalists. Traditional media on Facebook over the week showed a dramatic increase in the content produced and shared, including well over 20 million video views. On Facebook, posts around lactating mothers offering to breastfeed infants who had lost their own mothers, citizens offering places to stay and meals for those displaced or stranded, Churches noting that they will provide protection for mosques to hold Friday prayers, signs, posters, photos and memes around diversity and a plethora of content on solidarity, shock and sadness are thrived in the marketplace of limited attention.

Sadly, a government that never has and still doesn’t understand or strategically leverage social media is not one capable of acknowledging, on the merits of data science, that they are wrong.

This is not to say misinformation and rumour don’t exist. This week, leading journalists and international correspondents got violent, venomous pushback on social media for what they were reporting from the ground. I have read and reported all manner of other conspiracy theories too on social media that do risk the peace. Yet, these disturbing dynamics post-Sunday reflect what existed on social media well before the terrorist attacks. The government’s well-meaning response to this was to identify the BBC correspondent as a ‘true Sri Lankan’. By extension, this necessarily means that living amongst us, and perhaps in our own families and amongst our friends, are ‘false Sri Lankans’ or inauthentic, unpatriotic ones. In trying to suggest the BBC’s correspondent in the country was a ‘true Sri Lankan’, the MP who tweeted his support inadvertently shone light on and contributed to what remains a deeply divisive, othering, majoritarian perspective of an authentic or acceptable national identity. Further, if international media quoting sources from Sri Lanka’s intelligence community are to be believed, the feeling of never being accepted into or truly part of our national fabric may have contributed to planning and execution of this violence.

On Tuesday, when I spoke to my son, he just said that the violence didn’t make sense. I didn’t have anything to add. I’ve forgotten the exact amount of Facebook posts, messages, emails and tweets I’ve read this week. They range in the thousands. Through it all, I kept coming back to Naren’s question, which was also an observation. Perhaps it captures our country’s cri de cœur, to figure out what went so wrong and to realise that though incalculable grief convinces us otherwise, it is through democracy that we must seek answers.

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