by Sanjana Hattotuwa
“Houston, we have a problem” is a famous line from 1995’s Academy Award-winning ‘Apollo 13’ film, told to NASA’s ground control by actor Tom Hanks, playing Mission Commander Jim Lovell. Based on real events, a catastrophic explosion crippling a spacecraft bound for the moon became a test of NASA’s ability to completely shift gear, from what was planned as a moon-landing to an unprecedented rescue mission. Space is not something that can be reasoned with. It kills with cold precision and complete indifference. What ‘Apollo 13’ showcasedis the ability of humans, in the face of the greatest imaginable adversity and certain death, to think out-of-the-box and engineer solutions to avert what the odds were stacked in favour of.
The SLPP’s announcement today, focussing on a man, vision or both, will be significant. As populist or saviour, doer or demagogue, the name chosen by or forced on Mahinda Rajapaksa to nominate as the SLPP’s presidential candidate is Sri Lanka’s Apollo 13 mission or moment, with one key difference. The country has no NASA to guide it. Far worse, there are those who think they are or constitute the equivalent of NASA but are very far removed it. Come Monday, election campaign crises will rapidly increase in scale, speed and complexity. Late 2014’s script, but re-mastered.
Houston, we are huta
A presentation at a workshop last week involved conversations with the usual suspects from civil society around some of these issues. Good people. People who have tirelessly worked for a long time to fight against the erosion of democratic processes, institutions and values. And yet, terrible people too. Unlike NASA’s ability to deal with unexpected challenges in entirely new ways, they remain completely committed to what they have always done, how they have always done it, no matter how much country, context, circumstances and challenges have changed. You often see this mentality in Yala, where many drivers truly believe the solution to getting a vehicle unstuck is to ram one’s foot down the accelerator. The more the vehicle sinks in, the more the accelerator is pressed. Even when winched to traction on terra firma, the driver will invariably grin and maintain that gunning the engine was really the only way out.
As of today, the country’s Yala and the government is that driver.
And what of the civil society I spoke with? Some of them are in the same vehicle as the driver, know it and like it. Others are standing around, shouting instructions at no one in particular or above each other, all the while getting caked in mud. A grand spectacle, achieving nothing. Meanwhile, elsewhere, those missing hard drives from dozens of computers discovered in a bunker underneath Temple Trees in early 2015are being booted up again, their data restored on to newer hardware, running improved programmes and connected to a much largernetwork of operators, domestic and foreign.
The difference could not be starker. I tried to highlight this as part of a presentation that though evidence-based and data-driven, was deliberately intended to shake participants from complacency. As expected, I failed miserably. There are several challenges, inextricably entwined and requiring a new breed of strategy to counteract. And therein lies the rub. Those present in the room had, in the main, no grasp of the current medialandscape, including entirely porous boundaries between traditional, mainstream, new and social media. Dismissed, damned or desired, use of the catch-all phrase ‘social media’ shows there is little to no understanding of how specific platforms work, differences between Tamil, Sinhala and English language content or the entirely divergent dynamics in media linked to specific issues, institutions or individuals. All this matters if one is desirous of creating media campaign or political communications that capture the attention of tired, angry, distracted voters.
An ‘information environment’ is what NATO now calls the complex media landscape citizens inhabit. This environment is variously influenced by cognitive, emotive and physical stimuli, which in Sri Lanka in the coming months will range from carefully engineered disruption of traffic and demonstrations on roads to, in concert, more sinister media strategies that shape perceptions, exacerbate apathy and shift allegiances.
Those in the room had no awareness of data-driven communications campaigns or the importance of looking at what is now freely accessible in the public domain as weathervanes of anxiety or aspirations. Journalists present didn’t understand contemporary media ecologies. Those responsible for strategic communication didn’t understand contemporary journalism. Those from civil society didn’t understand journalism or communication but thought they did.
There was no discernible interest in new forms of political campaigns. The SLPP’s newly launched V-Can app for Android, aimed at party cadre as a campaigning tool, can geo-locate the phone at all times. Coupled with user details including the mobile and NIC number, the developer can potentially easily track the movements of each phone the app is installed on, 24/7 (because the app can also stop the phone from going to sleep). As of last week, over 10,000 had downloaded V-Can, as noted on Google’s Play Store. The implications of this kind of technology, and the erosion of privacy, even – ironically – for SLPP stalwarts, is chilling.
We didn’t even talk about computational propaganda or other means by which Sri Lanka’s electoral processes, institutions and integrity can and will be harmed, undermined or attacked. This is no longer the domain of speculation. Globally, regionally and locally, the use of human, computational and hybrid means to shift public discourse, shape attention and steer responses is already well established and will grow in speed, scale and sophistication.
Astonishingly, it was news to many in the room that in 2017 China donated nearly $300,000 worth of equipment to Sri Lanka’s Parliament, including laptops for all MPs. Recall that in 2018, Le Monde reported that confidential data from the network infrastructure of the African Union HQ – a “gift” from China to Africa – was being copied to servers in Shanghai. We may already here a context where the citizens most keenly aware of our Parliamentary proceedings maybe closer to Hangzhou than Hambantota.
And though I passingly made a note of it, surveillance architectures from Israel and China, just this year, were imported into the country by none other than our President. Powerful entities from both countries now have unprecedented, unregulated access to our public and private communications, media as well as political, economic, policymaking, logistics, health, banking, travel and commerce infrastructure. We do not know the scale or scope of operations. And yet, these are the invasive, inherently violent foundations that the next President will inherit, build on and use as he sees fit. There is no rolling-back any of this. That should worry everyone, no matter who you vote for or like to see as the next President.
But do we understand any of this? Or do we read and with glazed eyes, turn page, tune out and move on- taking comfort in the fact that it has been bad before and that we’vecome out ok, just minus a few lives, limbs and fingernails? That’s certainly one way of looking at things. Another,which I am partial to, would make every effort to secure an electoral outcome inoculated against the weaponisation of our social and political divisions. I’d argue that this endeavour is much more important than getting worked up over the SLPP’s candidate and his defeat. He’s a distraction, and a pawn in a longer, greater game.
But who am I kidding?