Photo by Anushka Wijesinha/The Picture Press, via 30 Years Ago

As Groundviews turns 10, there appears to be a global sense of disillusionment in the values of equality, liberty and human freedom. The results of the US Presidential election came just months after the people of Britain voted to leave the European Union and the Colombian people rejected a hardly worked out peace deal bringing a decade long conflict to an end. There is widespread radicalization of young people in the Middle East and the world over while here in Sri Lanka, people are increasingly looking at the Yahapalanaya government, which came to power with a reformist agenda, as old wine (arrack?) in new a bottle. In such a landscape, the internet, for many of us, has become the greatest democratic defense of our time.

A ‘netizen’ is a citizen of the internet — one who actively uses the internet to as a platform for civic and political engagement. While citizens exercise their fundamental rights offline, netizens do so online. When citizens exercise their freedom of assembly at the Lipton Circus or the Galle Face Green, netizens assemble on Facebook or Whatsapp groups. The nature of these assemblies range from the mundane and the good-humored to pointless babble and shameless self-promotion to the extremely political. In these spaces, netizens express their freedoms of speech and expression via blog posts, tweets and Facebook updates. Now, the internet is also shaping how citizens share, access and consume information i.e. exercise their (now) constitutional right to information. Netizens also exercise their freedoms of religion and worship online. In the same way citizens congregate at temples, churches, kovils and mosques; netizens come together online to discover their spirituality, pray and worship, fostering discussions between people of different faiths.

The following are a few observations by the writer, about the rise of the average Sri Lankan netizen as an influential player in Sri Lankan statecraft.

Technology use is Sri Lanka is growing

In 2004 3.8% of households in Sri Lanka had a computer. By 2014, the figure has grown to 22%, with over 25% of Sri Lankans being computer literate.[1] However, disaggregated data points to some stark disparities. For instance, only 4.6% of households in the estate sector had access to a computer.[2] There are also many gender, age and class based disparities, among others. However, this ‘digital divide’ is receding with the popularization of the mobile phone. Today, there are more mobile phone subscriptions in the country than there are people. There are mobile phones in the hands of tuktuk drivers who use them to connect with networks such as PickMe & Uber, market vendors who use them to promote their businesses and many others across different communities.

With the introduction of unicode fonts people can now browse and read content in Sinhala and Tamil albeit the content in the vernacular languages are still limited. Data points to between 5 and 6 million Internet users in the country – about 25% of the total population. In terms of social media- Facebook is the clear favorite with over 2.5 million accounts by the end 2014.[3]

While the proliferation in these technologies has had profound impacts on everyday communication transforming our social lives, it has also influenced the civic and political landscapes of the country in more ways than one by allowing citizens to express themselves, mobilize citizen movements and crowd-source funds for causes they are passionate about. In many ways, it has changed the way citizens interact with each other and also how citizens interact with their government and exercise their fundamental rights.

Citizen journalism is the counter narrative

The Sri Lankan public is getting increasing disillusioned by mainstream media outlets which are seen as standing for partisan or corporate interests. It’s public knowledge that each of the major media houses are owned and funded by politicians or close aids of politicos who are pumping in money to stand for their interests. In this context, social media (not without exceptions) offers a counter narrative. This is why the role played by platforms such as Groundviews, Vikalpa and Maatram are ever so crucial- for they threaten the monopoly that the ruling class has over the media and access to information and has provides ordinary citizens with platforms to express ourselves.

Social Media as a Space for Advocacy and Activism

Social media has become a platform not only document violations of human rights but netizens are using online tools to plan offline actions such as protests, sit-ins and demonstrations – The Rally for Unity, Occupy the Square, and Save Wilpattu are a few examples. Human rights defenders and civil society movements in the country are utilizing social media to gain support for their causes and even raise funds to support their work. Political analysts have also pointed out that social media played an important role particularly, in the mobilization of votes amongst a younger demographic during both the Presidential and Parliamentary elections of 2015.

The Growth of the Smart Phone and the “Podi Malli” Effect

American essayist Walter Kirn in a New York Times opinion piece highlighted that as opposed to an omnipotent state which is ‘the Big Brother’, today, all citizens have the opportunity of being ‘a little brother’ (i.e. podi malli) by holding each other’s accountable by way of taking a picture or recording a video clip of incidents of rights violations and posting it online. As such, social media has become a platform to bring attention to incidents of injustice.  The footage from the railway station in Wariyapola where a young girl who was subjected to street harassment is seen slapping the perpetrator, or the security officers at the Independence Square who asked a young couple of move out from the premises are some recent examples. As such, videos and images on social media have brought attention to incidents of everyday injustice which may otherwise have gone unnoticed and have also provided a torrent of potential evidence.

There were some 3.5 million smartphone users in Sri Lanka by end 2015[4] each with a palm size devise with an inbuilt camera that could hold themselves and others accountable to their action.  This has transformed the dynamics of human rights in the country in more ways than one.

Access to technology is no longer a privilege, it’s a human rights issue

The efforts by the government to appoint a designated ministry for Telecom and Digital Infrastructure is welcomed. However, there needs to be a paradigm shift in the way the digitization initiatives in the country are framed. Technology and especially the internet today, has become an enabler of rights such as the right to information and the freedoms of expression and assembly. It has become a driver of social, economic and political change. Denying certain communities access to these technologies, is to systematically exclude them from spaces to exercise to these rights.

As such, it’s important to identify those communities which have the lowest access to these resources and skills: especially those belonging to the most marginalized communities such as plantation sector, rural women and the elderly and ensure that they have access as well as the required resources and skills. Furthermore, it’s imperative that these technologies are affordable to all. If we can recognize that the internet has now become a space where citizens exercise key fundamental rights such as the freedoms of assembly and expression, to make these technologies unaffordable is to deny certain communities a space to exercise these rights. When successive governments increase prices of these technologies, such as the recent surge in data prices, it needs to be viewed as not simply a price hike in commodities but as a barrier to accessing certain rights, including those civil and political rights that were discussed.

Of course it would be naïve to claim that social media is only a force for good. While I have consciously left out instances where these very platforms have been used to spread hate, radicalize young people and generate support various extremist ideologies; it is clear that that social media has democratized decision-making, thereby giving ordinary citizens a platform to raise their voices and get engaged politically. It has allowed ordinary citizens to pressure their governments to act in ways they would otherwise not do. While governments still remain the decision-takers, the average citizen has a new easy-to-access space to influence these decisions as politicians whose very survival depends on keeping his/her constituents happy, are is likely to respond to demands made on social media which have the potential to “go viral”.

In the year 1976, when the internet as we know it was, for the most part, only a concept; British Sri Lankan Science futurist Sir Arthur Clarke was at a conference on futurism and technology; where he, predicted the rise of technological advances such as the internet, email and social media. Sir Clarke said, people in future, would have communication devices that would include a “high definition TV screen and a typewriter keyboard” and that with this device, people would be able to “exchange any type of information… You’ll tell the machine, I’m interested in such and such item of sports, politics and so forth, and the machine will hunt the main central library and bring all this to you.”

With the exponential speed at which these technologies are proliferating, it’s much easier to predict that these developments will continue to have profound implications on human life, transforming our civic and political landscapes. Here in Sri Lanka, as in elsewhere in the world, the average internet user is slowly emerging as a force capable of influencing statecraft and policymaking.

[1] “Computer Literacy Statistics – 2014.” Department of Census and Statistics Sri Lanka, 01 Jan. 2014. Web. 05 Feb. 2016

[2] Ibid

[3] “Rebuilding Public Trust -An Assessment of the Media Industry and Profession in Sri Lanka.” Media Support.

[4]  Ibid