Power of ‘trolls’ in Sri Lanka’s social media space | Sunday Observer

Power of ‘trolls’ in Sri Lanka’s social media space

The drastic rise in the number of politically-motivated ‘trolls’ and ‘bots’ in Sri Lanka’s online social media space has demonstrated a potential capacity to undermine democratic electoral processes by influencing voters at a future election, digital media analysts opine. According to a January 2018 report by Groundviews, a citizen journalism platform, this presents unique challenges for, amongst others, election monitoring bodies, which are traditionally geared to look at electoral malpractices at the point of exercising one’s franchise, violence that prevents or hinders this and malpractices during the collection, counting or the release of final results.

“The kind of threat social media that’s weaponised to promote a particular political ideology, idea, person, party or process is not something Sri Lanka’s government writ large, and in particular the Elections Department or any independent election violence monitoring body to date has even imagined, leave aside developed the technical capacity to monitor and address,” the report titled ‘New contours of digital propaganda and online discourse in Sri Lanka’ authored by Sanjana Hattotuwa and Yudhanjaya Wijeratne noted.

The two writers point out that what matters is not so much the technical details about how social media is weaponised, but the fact that in a country like Sri Lanka – where there is very high adult literacy and yet, extremely poor media and information literacy – what is promoted over social media is often what is trusted, shared widely and acted upon.

“Without sounding alarmist, Sri Lanka has already entered a new online political dynamic, in which the discursive landscape is governed agents of censorship, manipulation and control outside the parameters of traditional observation and analysis. This isn’t just a technocratic concern,” the report highlighted.

US Presidential election saga

In the aftermath of the 2016 US Presidential Election, there was widespread accusation - based on analysis on the database of recovered troll tweets - on how thousands of Russian trolls targeted national events during the election bid to infiltrate online conversations of millions of Americans. Foreign media reports suggest that Kremlin-backed agents orchestrated efforts to manipulate public opinion on the web through dedicated accounts, or ‘trolls’. These trolls spread disinformation and fired up discord on social media, distracting people from real issues.

According to Digital Media analyst and commentator, Nalaka Gunawardena, what happened at the US Election was a complex manipulation, where though trolls were involved to some extent, there were other factors like fake news dissemination and targeted advertising that also distorted political discourse and voter perceptions.

“But that has clearly shown the potential for undermining the democratic processes, and it can happen in Sri Lanka too. Without creating panic, our Elections Commission, political parties and all citizens need to be made aware of these new dangers to electoral integrity,” Gunawardena asserted.

He pointed out that the published findings of the January 2018 investigation by Groundviews on the rising numbers of automated social media accounts, or bots, traced to an opposition Parliamentarian, should be an eye-opener to the Sri Lankan Election Commission, election monitoring bodies and all vigilant citizens.

“We need to be aware of these developments, and also realise that we too are vulnerable to such manipulation. But at the same time, we have to be extremely careful in calling for any regulatory or other kinds of state intervention as ours is an overbearing state to begin with, and one that can easily be misused to undermine democratic freedoms,” Gunawardena emphasized.

Trolls and the art of 'trolling'

An internet troll is a member of an online social community who deliberately tries to disrupt, attack, offend or generally cause trouble within the community by posting certain comments, photos, videos, GIFs or some other form of online content. Wikipedia defines trolls as "Someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as a forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.”

As the Internet becomes more social, being trolled, or the act of trolling, is something users have had to increasingly deal with. Trolls are found all over the Internet – on message boards, the YouTube video comments, on Facebook, Twitter, on dating sites, in blog comment sections and everywhere else that has an open area where people can freely post to express their thoughts and opinions.

“Trolls – or those who resort to invective and abuse -- are an increasingly prevalent and unpleasant reality in Lankan social media. I don’t see a typical troll profile: they come in all colours and shapes,” says Gunawardena.

According to him, there are racial, religious, political and other kinds of trolls and may come from any social, cultural or educational background. The common factor is their intolerance, the sheer inability to see and accommodate other points of view. Indeed, if we are not careful, each one of us has the potential to become a troll online, he points out.

“Some Lankans exhibit troll-like behavior under their own real names, while others hide behind pseudonyms or fake accounts for their vitriol. I have found that certain keywords – like LTTE or Mahinda Rajapaksa – have the ability elicit irrational, hysterical reactions from certain social media users who are otherwise quite restrained and moderate. Clearly, these topics that strike a raw nerve in such people. So, like insanity, trolling behavior can also be temporary (or long-lasting),” he said.

While noting that trolling activity is increasing, Gunawardene says however this could simply be due to more people starting to use Internet which currently stands around one third of the island’s population and opening social media accounts. It is estimated that at least around 29% of the Sri Lankan population are presently using at least one kind of social media.

“But trolling is certainly making online discourse more unpleasant if not outright toxic at times.

The main thing about trolls is: DON’T FEED THEM! Most trolls thrive on attention, and we should deprive them of that by ignoring. But one thing I am determined NOT to allow is to withdraw from public discourse of important topics because trolls descend on the conversation,” suggests Gunawardena.

Meanwhile, Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, a researcher at LIRNEasia, a pro-poor, pro-market think tank said that when it comes to Twitter, one needs to be careful about the distinction between ‘trolls’ and ‘bots’.

“On one hand, you have the humans who are people operating accounts while ‘bots’ on the other are more complex automated operations through softwares. So bots can be deployed at much greater scale,” he said.

He noted that since ‘bots’ also respond to conversations, it is often hard to tell the difference between a ‘bot’ and a human especially if the ‘bot’ network is done well.

“The best example of bots in Sri Lanka is opposition parliamentarian, Namal Rajapaksa’s little ‘bot’ Army on Twitter.

To relate a recent incident, the moment I re-tweeted that recent article from the New York Times on Sri Lanka, there were accounts popping up from everywhere that had only done about 4 tweets previously, throwing in all sorts of questions. It gets a bit insidious,” Wijeratne pointed out.

Citing the example of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, Wijeratne said the incident had demonstrated that people could be quite gullible to ‘fake news’ if the sheer volume of disinformation outpaced that of the truth.

“In Sri Lanka, even those simple ‘bots’ that re-tweet like the ‘LK’ bot – which retweets anything that has LK in it because someone hijacked that LK hashtag and started throwing some fake news - hundreds and thousands of bots started to immediately re-tweet and people believed. People thought this was breaking news,” the researcher emphasized.

Trolling of Sushma Swaraj

In the more recent example of trolling, India’s minister of external affairs, Sushma Swaraj, is currently being subjected to the most vile and distasteful attacks by Hindutva right-wing trolls since she pulled up an employee in her ministry for harassing an inter-faith couple. Swaraj has been targeted on Twitter ever since her ministry helped a couple who alleged harassment by an official over passport renewal.

Swaraj Kaushal, her husband, told one of the trolls: “Your words have given us unbearable pain.” On June 30, the minister put up a Twitter poll asking her followers if they “approve of such tweets”.

Acknowledging that trolls are a nuisance and sometimes even a menace, Gunawardena however declares that the issue should not detract one from the enormous societal, economic and political benefits of social media.