By Uditha Jayasinghe
With democracy under threat around the world, former US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power yesterday called on Sri Lanka to protect its democratic ideals and institutions, so that fostering unity, promoting equality, and improving development remain key priorities.
Delivering a well-researched and eloquent speech at the ceremony to mark three decades since Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera entered politics at the BMICH, Power dwelt extensively on the achievements of Samaraweera, and the importance of adopting and maintaining liberal ideals in an increasingly divisive world. She hailed Samaraweera for his consistent backing of reconciliation, inclusivity, and universal rights, as well as always standing by his principles.
The event was attended by President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, and former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Parliamentarians, diplomats, and public officials were also in attendance.
Power drew examples from around the world on how democracy has come under threat, partly from social media platforms, which have become a tool for spreading misinformation and influencing people in other countries. Alluding to concerns of collusion during the US presidential elections, and other instances, she called for gigantic social media companies to be held accountable, pointing out Facebook alone had more members “than Christianity.”
“For all of the good we know technology can do, rapid advances in fields from social media to AI to automation are also posing profound risks to our democracies. These tools are going to be decisive in global development going forward, but governments must confront their dark uses as well as their boundless possibilities,” she told a packed audience.
“I believe we need to dramatically increase our scrutiny of the effects of new technologies. That will require fresh thinking, critical perspectives, and bold steps by policymakers, to find a better balance than we currently have—a balance that takes into account the impact that tech is already having on politics and human rights.”
Recalling the part played by social media in setting off sectarian violence in Myanmar, as well as in Digana, Kandy last year, Power noted that social media platforms also have potentially deadly impact on the rights and well-being of marginalised groups. She noted that even though these concerns have already been flagged to social media giants, there has been little response from them to engage meaningfully with stakeholders on the ground. In Sri Lanka, Facebook had announced two programs to educate 20,000 students on responsible social media usage, and another to develop small businesses, but they fell far short of the required level of accountability.
“These companies need to prioritise contributing to the health of democracy as a goal, right alongside making yet more money. The education and leadership of well-rounded, tech-savvy and civic-minded young people is going to be critical to reigning in the negative effects of new technologies. However, given the human consequences, this is a drop in the bucket. We need to think far bigger.”
Power insisted it was time for countries to think about a number of approaches, including instituting regulations and heavy fines for failing to remove hate speech, greatly restricting the ability of advertisers to micro-target users with messages designed to mislead and enrage, re-think the type of anonymity afforded to users so as to cut down on the spreading of lies with impunity, and probe whether some of these tech monopolies have become so dangerously big – and so dangerous to open society – that they need to be broken up.
“Governments like yours also have an essential role to play. You are going to have to insist that Facebook uphold its “Community Standards” for all of Sri Lanka’s national languages, or face serious repercussions. It is simply not acceptable that Facebook has not invested more in equipping itself to monitor posts in languages like Tamil or Sinhala. A platform with this much influence and reach cannot get by just doing the bare minimum—Facebook needs to be far more transparent, so that experts and civil society can guide the company in how to do better in the context of the unique challenges Sri Lanka faces.”
“I think what Mangala’s career shows us is that we in public life have a responsibility to take into account the human consequences of our tools – and our laws. At all of his stops along the way, Mangala has demonstrated how public policy can be crafted to address societal ills that others would prefer to ignore. The tech companies won’t have any sustained urgency to change unless those with power – all of you – make it known that you care, and insist that they care too.”
Even though there is widespread disillusionment with democracy as having failed to live up to the aspirations of people, it does not necessarily mean any alternatives are better solutions, Power argued. She strenuously supported the point that vibrant and liberal democracies had the best track record for delivering freedoms, protecting rights and achieving development for its people. Even though democracy may seem a side-lined ideal, she stressed that it does not reduce its credibility.
“We must not make the mistake of replacing one triumphalist narrative – about the inevitable spread of democracy – with its doomsday opposite. Recent events within established democracies like the United States are a wake-up call. We cannot take for granted all that we have taken for granted – the durability of liberal institutions, the status of science, and attachment to facts.”
Even though countries may veer towards autocracies, there is no proof that they achieve valuable rights and freedoms for people, Power noted, adding that if people living in autocratic countries had the power of choice, they would choose the resiliency and possibility for self-renewal of democracy.
“Despite the very real and worrisome backsliding, looking at all four of the most widely used and accepted databases that assess democracy over time, the percentage of democratic countries in the world in 2018 were at or near their all-time high. You will unfortunately hear very few democratic politicians making these points, but allow me to summarise the essence of the argument: democracies have the better model!”
Power said in autocracies, economic growth is likely to be impeded by stagnant State-owned enterprise, and a lack of transparency in the economy. Even in China, growth is slowing, Power said questioning how secure investors will feel with the arrest of expatriates, and the absence of due process and property rights.
“Autocrats often overreach because they don’t hear from critical voices in their inner circles, and often prefer the company of sycophants. If you worked for a strongman, you would likely be reluctant to be the bearer of bad news to your leader. When you have no term limits or put in place a President for life, it can breed decay. While innovation is flourishing in some sectors within certain autocracies, we have reason to question whether innovation will be undermined in the long term by the absence of freedom of speech, and the presence of fear.”
“And finally, one of the biggest factors explaining the appeal of illiberal or populist leaders is inequality, and the feeling of many that they are being left behind – a trend that will increase with growing automation. But there is no reason to expect that autocratic or authoritarian systems that concentrate power at the very top will more equally distribute benefits than liberal democracies.”
Despite the perception of dissatisfaction with democracies, people fare better under them, but Power acknowledged many democracies around the world are facing turbulent times. Power praised people who fought for Sri Lanka’s democracy during the constitutional crisis, and called on State and non-State actors to stay the course, and continue battling to protect and promote democracy.
“I do not mean to understate the challenges of maintaining a truly democratic society. My country and your country are facing turbulent times. All of this is a credit to the resilience of Asia’s oldest democracy, and to the checks and balances that Mangala championed over the years.”
“I hope that for both of our countries, the response to the challenges we are facing – and navigating – will end up affirming the enduring strength of democratic institutions and necessity of democratic accountability. Your hope, Mangala – that Sri Lankans “create a civilised society where humanity and decency flourish and the rule of law is respected” – is what I hope for both of our countries. And I look forward to the continued friendship between our two nations as we work together to make it happen.”