Cambridge Analytica has dominated headlines following revelations of how it exploited Facebook data of millions of users to potentially help swing the 2016 U.S. presidential election in favour of Donald Trump. However, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe pointed to the company’s Sri Lanka connection when he divulged recently that at least two years prior to the U.S. poll, it had reached out to him.
Speaking at a public event in Colombo last week, Mr. Wickremesinghe made a passing reference to the British firm and said that it approached his United National Party prior to the January 2015 presidential election. “I must say [that] Cambridge Analytica came here and canvassed me also to get work for the UNP. Fortunately, we did not use it [the firm],” he told the gathering. Many Sri Lankans consider the 2015 presidential poll to be a watershed election in which an unlikely coalition led by Maithripala Sirisena and Mr. Wickremesinghe defeated former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had been in power for a decade. It was also the first election in which Sri Lankan politicians took to social media campaigns in a big way, hoping to woo young voters.
In addition to raising eyebrows in Colombo, Mr. Wickremesinghe’s disclosure evoked an unlikely response — this time, from an aide of Mr. Rajapaksa. Charitha Herath, a former Secretary to the Mass Media Ministry, tweeted that their team had received the help of Bharatiya Janata Party’s top IT strategist Arvind Gupta in the same election, but the “campaign was not much impressive”. Mr. Gupta is said to have been one of the prime architects of Narendra Modi’s social media campaign ahead of the 2014 general election. Interestingly, when The Hindu reported in December 2014 on Mr. Gupta’s role in the Rajapaksa campaign, he appeared rather reluctant to acknowledge the link. While Mr. Herath’s tweet gave us a glimpse of the kind of backroom manoeuvres that mark a high-stakes election, he was quick to delete the tweet, reflecting the sensitivities involved even in a belated acknowledgment like his.
Even before the Cambridge Analytica fiasco came to light, Sri Lanka had enough reasons to worry about social media, particularly after last month’s anti-Muslim attacks in Kandy. Vicious hate speech targeting the community was posted and shared widely on Facebook, prompting the government to ban all social media for about a week. Facebook’s inability to act on pages spewing hate, which users had reported, became another point of concern. After the violence, the Cabinet recently approved a Bill to monitor and control cyberbullying and hate speech. Among other things, the Bill will regard ‘causing of religious, racial or communal disharmony among people’ as an offence, Sri Lankan business newspaper the Daily FT reported.
Risk and rage
Considering the evident risk and rage on social media, many netizens in Sri Lanka are pressing for a mechanism to monitor content or act on dangerous posts, without infringing on the freedom of speech and expression or compromising on users’ privacy.
But it’s not all about data and privacy. As journalist Gary Younge observed in his recent column in The Guardian , social networks, bots and dodgy data firms can merely “amplify” views prevalent in society, “but cannot invent them”. Political forces may court data miners to manipulate information for their gains, but citizens often have more reasons than social media content to reject those in power, as Sri Lankans showed in 2015.
Meera Srinivasan works for The Hindu and is based in Colombo