The digital space in Sri Lanka has expanded at unprecedented levels. Mostly boosted by the COVID19 pandemic, this expansion saw many more users with very little understanding of the good, bad and the ugly sides of the internet getting dragged into the deep trenches of the digital world. While on many fronts more users and improved accessibility is a positive outcome it has presented with many challenges.
Social media is one of the most common uses of the internet in Sri Lanka. While the core expectation of social media has been about developing and maintaining social networks, it has also evolved to be part of everyday life for many of us. In the early days of social media it was hailed as a champion of democracy and a space for free speech but a few years later it has evolved to something very different. From being a platform for the oppressed it has gone to a platform of the oppressor. As all other forms of media, social media too is now often dominated by organised harmful narratives. The agency of individual social media users is gradually reducing and the pre-existing social fault lines have begun to control narratives online.
Even though media platforms have progressed technologically, the narratives and intentions of narratives have not changed much. One could argue the execution of single sided narratives at a much faster pace on social media has resulted in much stronger polarization in the real world. The polarizing narratives amplified by algorithmic echo chambers on the social media platforms are increasingly influencing the decision making of the public.
“In Sri Lanka, episodes of polarization have been rooted in diverse social, economic, and political cleavages. Class, ethnic, caste, and regional divisions have marked the country’s politics, with different historical conjunctures bringing these cleavages to the fore during different periods. Political leaders and movements have often combined these divides to consolidate a ruling regime, but with time these regimes have unraveled, causing new crises.” - Dr. Ahilan Kadirgamar
These narratives often target identities of those often considered ‘lesser’ in social currency and power in the society. Ethnic and religious minorities, women and LGBTQI+ community and ‘lesser’ castes are often victims of these narratives. This leads us to question the intention of the creators and disseminators of such narratives.
The answer is often ‘Power’ and ‘Fear’.
The polarizing narratives were always driven to support political interests and to maintain power structures in the society. The narratives are now used to rekindle some of the divisive spirits that were lost during the crisis period. The creators therefore depend on these narratives to protect and propagate their power and influence.
The creators utilize the ‘Us’ vs ‘Them’ echo chambers and this often leads to ‘Fear’ among the consumers of information. The fearful emotions often encourage consumers to be disseminators of these polarizing narratives.
In the early days of COVID19 the many uncertainties resulted in fear among the public. That resulted in the dissemination of many false news including fake miracle cures. The false voices notes during the post-Easter attack period about water sources being poisoned was another instance in which the creators piggy backed on the fear of the audience. The recent emerging narratives surrounding the archaeological sites in the north and the east as well as rumours surrounding leading anti- government protest leaders including minority religious leaders are also attempts to feed existing social fault lines and revamp stereotypes.
The focus of power and fear is not limited to ethno-religious identities as these flows into other identity factors such as caste, gender and even age. Female political and civic actors such as Hirunika Premachandra, Damitha Abeyrathne, Dr. Harini Amasaooriya and Vraie Balthazara and other known women and LGBTQI+ individuals have often been harassed online. Narratives are often fixated on the power and fear among the users.
“Those who hold power and those who wish to attain power fail to create a new human civility. If one human finds motivation and inspiration by asserting power over another, he holds no mercy towards the other” - Dr. E.W. Adhikaram
Much needs to be done in order to counter these harmful narratives on social media. Social media is no longer an isolated virtual platform. It does have a real-world impact in impacting the audience psychologically but also physically.
The biggest responsibility lies with the social media platforms who profit out of these narratives. The design and the programming of the platforms has allowed these harmful narratives to propagate and thereby to polarize the communities. Despite the proclamations of commitment, the big tech have failed to consistently moderate the dialogues adhering to their own standards and guidelines. It would be essential for the platforms to be held accountable.
Much of the responsibility still lies with the social media users. If I were to drive a vehicle, I would first learn how to drive it. If not, the consequences can be dire. Similarly, we should be careful in our efforts to use social media responsibly. The platforms give us a lot of power in consuming and disseminating information. As a user we must learn first to critically evaluate the information that we consume and be responsible in our actions. It is time we hold ourselves accountable.
Oppressive narratives led by power and fear have never brought positive results to society. It is time to reject and to be critical of such narratives.