Fake News in Indian General Election 2019: Interview with Nikhil Pahwa

Nikhil Pahwa, journalist, digital activist and founder of Medianama.com

Nikhil Pahwa is an Indian journalist, digital rights activist, and founder of MediaNama, a mobile and digital news portal. He has been a key commentator on stories and debates around Indian digital media companies, censorship and Internet and mobile regulation in India.

On the even of India’s general election 2019, Nalaka Gunawardene spoke to him in an email interview to find out how disinformation spread on social media and chat app platforms figures in election campaigning. Excerpts of this interview were quoted in Nalaka’s #OnlineOffline column in the Sunday Morning newspaper of Sri Lanka on 7 April 2019.

Nalaka: What social media and chat app platforms are most widely used for spreading mis and disinformation in the current election campaign in India?

Nikhil: In India, it’s as if we’ve been in campaigning mode ever since the 2014 elections got over: the political party in power, the BJP, which leveraged social media extensively in 2014 to get elected has continued to build its base on various platforms and has been campaigning either directly or, allegedly, through affiliates, ever since. They’re using online advertising, chat apps, videos, live streaming, and Twitter and Facebook to campaign. Much of the campaigning happens on WhatsApp in India, and messages move from person to person and group to group. Last elections we saw a fair about of humour: jokes were used as a campaigning tool, but there was a fair amount of misinformation then, as there has been ever since.

Are platforms sufficiently aware of these many misuses — and are they doing enough (besides issuing lofty statements) to tackle the problem?

Platforms are aware of the misuse: a WhatsApp video was used to incite a riot as far back as 2013. India has the highest number of internet shutdowns in the world: 134 last year, as per sflc.in. much of this is attributable to internet shutdowns, and the inability of local administration to deal with the spread of misinformation.

Platforms are trying to do what they can. WhatsApp has, so far, reduced the ability to forward messages to more than 5 people at a time. Earlier it was 256 people. Now people are able to control whether they can be added to a group without consent or not. Forwarded messages are marked as forwarded, so people know that the sender hasn’t created the message. Facebook has taken down groups for inauthentic behavior, robbing some parties of a reach of over 240,000 fans, for some pages. Google and Facebook are monitoring election advertising and reporting expenditure to the Election Commission. They are also supporting training of journalists in fact checking, and funding fact checking and research on fake news. These are all steps in the right direction, but given the scale of the usage of these platforms and how organised parties are, they can only mitigate some of the impact.

Does the Elections Commission have powers and capacity to effectively address this problem?

Incorrect speech isn’t illegal. The Election Commission has a series of measures announced, including a code of conduct from platforms, approvals for political advertising, take down of inauthentic content. I’m not sure of what else they can do, because they also have to prevent misinformation without censoring legitimate campaigning and legitimate political speech.

What more can and must be done to minimise the misleading of voters through online content?

I wish I knew! There’s no silver bullet here, and it will always be an arms race versus misinformation. There is great political incentive for political parties to create misinformation, and very little from platforms to control it.

WhatsApp 2019 commercial against Fake News in India

Beyond Google Loon: More Needed to Bring Internet for All

Article published in Daily Mirror newspaper (Sri Lanka) on 3 August 2015

Beyond Google Loon: More Needed to Bring Internet for All

 By Nalaka Gunawardene

Google's Project Loon is necessary, but not sufficient for Sri Lanka to provide Internet for All

Google’s Project Loon is necessary, but not sufficient for Sri Lanka to provide Internet for All

On July 28, the government of Sri Lanka signed a memorandum of understanding with Google, Inc., to spread wireless Internet access throughout the island.

The partnership with Google Project Loon is for setting up a network of 13 high-tech balloons strategically positioned some 20 km above the island. These helium-filled and solar-powered balloons will act as ‘floating cell towers’ that distribute 3G mobile signals wider than ground-based towers can.

When commissioned in early 2016, this system would “make Sri Lanka potentially the first country in the world to have universal Internet access”, according to news reports.

This deal with Google was brokered by Lankan-born Silicon Valley venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya. The government’s Information and Communications Technology Agency (ICTA) hailed it as a major accomplishment.

Is it really so? What exactly does this deal bring us, and at what apparent or hidden costs? How will the average Internet user benefit?

Simplified diagram of how Google Loon system would work

Simplified diagram of how Google Loon system would work

Project Loon

We can only speculate, as the Lankan government’s MOU with the global media company has not been made public (Requests posed on Twitter were evaded by ICTA’s CEO.)

Going by generic information available online, Loon partnership seems a useful first step forward in enhancing Internet access in Sri Lanka. But it cannot work by itself. Other factors must fall into place.

According to Google, Project Loon (www.google.com/loon/) is “a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space, designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters”.

Sri Lanka’s Project Loon partnership promises to substantially extend the mobile broadband signal coverage of our existing Internet Service Providers, or ISPs.

Five mobile cellular telephone networks currently compete in our market where there are 107 mobile subscriptions for every 100 persons.

Airtel, Dialog, Etisalat, Hutch and Mobitel all use what is popularly known as Third Generation (3G) mobile broadband technologies. Some have also ventured into 4G.

Right now operators rely on their own networks of terrestrial towers for signal coverage. This naturally concentrates on where more people, businesses and offices are located. Thus, the south-western quadrant of the island enjoys much better signal coverage than many other areas. There are gaps that the market alone would probably never fill.

If we look at publicly available signal coverage maps on http://opensignal.com, for example, we see plenty of areas in Sri Lanka not yet covered by 3G from any telecom network.

All networks' 3G signal coverage - on 30 July 2015

All networks’ 3G signal coverage – on 30 July 2015

In theory, Google Loon’s 13 balloons over Lanka should extend our ISPs’ mobile broadband coverage to the whole land area of 65,610 sq km (25,332 square miles). Each balloon can provide connectivity to a ground area about 40 km in diameter using a wireless communications technology called LTE.

“To use LTE, Project Loon partners with telecommunications companies to share cellular spectrum so that people will be able to access the Internet everywhere directly from their phones and other LTE-enabled devices. Balloons relay wireless traffic from cell phones and other devices back to the global Internet using high-speed links,” says the project’s website.

There is one clear benefit of extra-terrestrial telecom towers: they are beyond the reach of geological and hydro-meteorological disasters that can knock out terrestrial ones. As a back-up system in the sky, well above most atmospheric turbulence, Loon can be invaluable in disaster communications.

Universal access?

But it’s important to remember that universal signal coverage does not necessarily mean universal access or universal use.

It is now two decades since Sri Lanka became the first in South Asia to introduce commercial Internet services. By end 2014, there were some 3.3 million Internet subscriptions in Sri Lanka, most of them (82%) were mobile subscriptions, says the Telecom Regulatory Commission (TRC).

Internet subscriptions are often shared among family members or co-workers so the number of users is higher. The Internet Society – a global association of technical professionals – estimated last year that 22% of Sri Lanka’s population regularly uses the Internet. So almost one in four Lankans gets online.

What about the rest? There can be different reasons why the rest is not connected – such as the lack of need, non-availability of service, affordability, and absence of skill.

I can think of three other important factors for successful Internet use:

  • COST: Contrary to some media reports, Project Loon by itself does not provide free wireless Internet or WiFi. Existing rates and packages of mobile operators would continue to apply. We already have some of the lowest data communication rates in Asia, so how much lower can these drop?
  • QUALITY of service: Mobile companies must ensure that broadband speeds don’t drop drastically as more users sign up. Such increase of backhaul capacity hasn’t always happened, leading to complaints that we get FRAUDBAND in the name of broadband!
  • USER CAPACITY: The Census and Statistics Department’s latest (2014) survey found basic computer literacy in Sri Lanka has reached 25%. Since the survey covered only desk top computers and laptops, this figure could be under-estimating the digital skills of our young people who quickly master smartphones and other digital devices. But then, most are not careful with privacy and data protection.

So beyond Project Loon, we have much more to do on the ground to reach a knowledge based economy and inclusive information society.

Google Project Loon balloon on display at Airforce Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand

Google Project Loon balloon on display at Airforce Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand

Google’s Benefits

Finally, what is in it for Google? Why are they giving this facility to our telecom companies apparently for free?

The information and media giant is investing millions of US Dollars for research, development and launching the service. Yes Google has deep pockets, but it is not a charity. So what do they gain?

For one thing, the Sri Lanka experience will produce proof of concept for Loon in a relatively small sized market. To operate, Google Loon balloons need permission to hover over Lankan airspace – this concession can inspire confidence in other governments to also agree.

In the long term, more people going online will generate more users for Google, which already dominates search engines globally (over 85%) and offers a growing range of other services. The company can then market its myriad eyeballs to advertisers…

There is no such thing as a free lunch. But as long as we engage Google without illusions, it can be a win-win partnership.

Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene has been chronicling and analysing the rise of new media in Sri Lanka since the early 1990s. He is active on Twitter @NalakaG and blogs at http://nalakagunawardene.com

project-loonppt-1-638

සිවුමංසල කොලූගැටයා #161: සමාජ මාධ්‍යවලට ඇයි මේ තරම් බය?

In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala language), I probe why sections of Lankan society are habouring growing fears of social media, especially Facebook.

A few have called for a blanket ban of Facebook, which the secretary to the Ministry of Media has assured (in his Twitter feed) would not happen. There is an urgent need, however, to enhance public understanding in Sri Lanka of social media use, with particular attention on safety precautions, privacy protection and cyber civility.

I have drawn insights from a recent Colombo event on ‘Online safety for children and youth in Sri Lanka’ organised by Unicef Sri Lanka which brought together a few dozen web-savvy young people.

Social Media montage

කාලයෙන් කාලයට අළුතෙන් මතුව ආ සංසිද්ධීයක් අල්ලාගෙන එයට හැකි තරම් පහරදීම හා ඒ ගැන අස්ථාන බියක් ඇති කර ගැනීම අපේ සමාජයේ ගතියක්.

මෙරටට රේඩියෝ යන්ත‍්‍ර හඳුන්වා දුන් 1930 ගණන්වල ඒවා පුපුරා යන්නට, ගිනි ගන්නට හැකි භයානක පෙට්ටි යයි ඇතැමුන් කී බව මා කුඩා කාලයේ ආච්චි  ආවර්ජනය කළා. 1960-70 දශකවල චිත‍්‍රකථා මාධ්‍යය අපේකරණය වෙද්දි එයට නැගූ අවලාද හා චෝදනා ගැන මීට ඉහත කොලමකින් අප කථා කළා. ළමා මනස දුෂණය කිරීම, අපේ සංස්කෘතික උරුමයන් විනාශ කිරීම, සමාජයේ ප‍්‍රචණ්ඩත්වය තීව‍්‍ර කිරීම, කාලය කා දැමීම ආදී බරපතල චෝදනා මේ අතර තිබුණා.

1979-82 කාලයේ ටෙලිවිෂන් මෙහි ආ විට ටික කලෙකින් අපේ ළමා හා තරුණ පරපුර නෙත් අඳ වූ ඔලමොට්ටලයන් වනු ඇතැයි අපේ සුචරිතවාදියෝ මොර දුන්නා. ජංගම දුරකථන හා ඉන්ටර්නෙට් මාධ්‍යයටත් ප‍්‍රබලව එල්ල වූ මේ සැකයන් හා භීතිකාවන්ට ලක් වන අළුත්ම ප‍්‍රවණතාව වෙබ්ගත සමාජ මාධයයි (Social Media). විශේෂයෙන්ම ෆේස්බුක් Facebook නම් සංවෘත, මිතුරු සාමීචි වෙබ් වේදිකාවයි.

සමාජ මාධ්‍ය යන නම පවා සමහරුන්ගේ අවඥාවට ලක්ව ඇති බව පෙනෙනවා.  එක් පුවත්පත් ලිපියක් මෑතදී කීවේ සමාජ මාධ්‍ය යනු සමාජ ශාලා (ක්ලබ්ස්) යයි හැඟීමක් අපේ සමහරුන් නොදැනුවත්කම නිසා ඇති කර ගෙන තිබෙන බවයි!

අන් හැම මාධ්‍ය හා සන්නිවේදන තාක්‍ෂණයක් මෙන් ම සමාජ මාධ්‍යවලත් විවිධාකාර සමාජයීය බලපෑම් තිබෙනවා.  මේ අතර සමහරක් අහිතකර වීමේ ඉඩක් ද පවතිනවා.  ඒ ඉඩ අවම කර ගෙන සමාජ මාධ්‍යවල ධනාත්මක විභවය උපරිම කර ගන්නට අවශ්‍යයි.

සමාජ මාධ්‍ය යනු Facebook පමණක් නොවෙයි. දොරටුපාලක අධිපතිවාදයකින් තොරව අදහස් සන්නිවේදනය කළ හැකි බ්ලොග් blogඅවකාශ, ඉතා කෙටි හා ක්‍ෂණික සන්නිවේදන කළ හැකි ට්විටර් Twitter වේදිකාව, රූප බෙදා ගත හැකි Flickr වැනි නිදහස් සේවාවන් මෙන් ම විඩියෝ බෙදා ගත හැකි YouTube වැනි සේවාවන් සියල්ලත් සමාජ මාධ්‍යවලට අයත්.

පොදුවේ සමාජ මාධ්‍යවල දැකිය හැකි ආව්ණික ලක්‍ෂණ කිහිපයක් තිබෙනවා. කාගේවත් අවසරයක්, අධීක්‍ණයක් නැතිව කැරෙන මේ සන්නිවේදන ලිහිල් හා විවෘතයි. තවමත් බොහෝ දුරට වැඩවසම් මානසිකත්වයක් ඇති අපේ සමාජයේ මෙබඳු මත දැක්වීම්වලට ඉඩකඩ සිමිතයි. පාසලේ, සරසවියේ, කාර්යාලවල හා වෙනත් බොහෝ තලයන්හිදී තරුණ තරුණියෝ විවිධ ධූරාවලීන්ට   (hierarchies) යටත්ව කි‍්‍රයා කරනවා. එහෙත් දොරටුපාලයන් නැති, අධිපතිවාදයෙන් තොර කලාපයක් වන සයිබර් අවකාශයේ එබඳු සීමා නැහැ.

23 June 2013: සිවුමංසල කොලූගැටයා #123: පුරවැසි මාධ්‍ය සහ අධිපති මාධ්‍ය

4 Aug 2013: සිවුමංසල කොලූගැටයා #128: සීගිරි කැටපත් පවුරෙන් ඇරැඹුණු පුරවැසි මාධ්‍යවේදය

ඉන්ටර්නෙට්  මාධ්‍යයේ ලංකාගමනය සිදුවූයේ 1995 අපේ‍්‍රල් මාසයේ නිසා දැන් මේ මාධ්‍යය සමග අපේ සම්බන්ධයට වසර 19ක් පිරෙනවා. මිනිස් ජීවිතයක නම් මේ කඩඉමට පැමිණෙන විට යම් පරිනත බවක් අපේක්‍ෂා කරනවා. ඉන්ටර්නෙට් මාධ්‍යයේ සමාජයීය බලපෑම් ගැන පරිනත සංවාදයක් කරන්නට නම් හුදෙක් තාක්‍ෂණය,  නීතිය හෝ ඊනියා සුචරිතවාදයට වඩා ඔබ්බට යන විග‍්‍රහයන් අවශ්‍යයි.

20 Nov 2011: සිවුමංසල කොලූගැටයා #41: ඉන්ටර්නෙට්වලට කවුද බය?

මේ බුද්ධිමය නායකත්වය ලබා දීමට මෙරට සරසවි ඇදුරන් හා පොතේ උගතුන් බහුතරයක් අසමත්.  මේ මාධ්‍යය ගැන වැඩිපුර ම අවබෝධයක් ඇත්තේ එය සමග හැදුණු වැඩුණු මෙරට මුල් ඩිජිටල් පරම්පරාවටයි.  ඉස නිකට නොපැසුනත් මේ මාධ්‍යය ගැන වඩාත් හරවත් හා යථාර්ථවාදි උපදෙස් සෙසු සමාජයට දිය හැක්කේත් ඔවුන්ටයි.

24 June 2012: සිවුමංසල කොලූගැටයා #72: ඉන්ටර්නෙට් නොදැන ගොස් මංමුලා වූ උගත්තු…

මේ ඩිජිටල් පරපුරට සවන්දීමේ සංවාදශීලි රැස්වීමක් පසුගියදා එක්සත් ජාතීන්ගේ ළමා අරමුදල හෙවත් යුනිසෙෆ් Unicef ආයතනයේ ශ‍්‍රී ලංකා කාර්යාලය සංවිධානය කළා.  සමාජ මාධය භාවිතය ගැන පෞද්ගලික අත්දැකීමෙන් හා ගවේෂණාත්මක අවබෝධයෙන් කථා කළ හැකි  හා මේ නව අවකාශය ජය ගන්නට ආත්ම ශක්තිය ඇති තරුණ තරුණියන් රැසක් එයට සහභාගී වූවා.

මේ සංවාදයට එක් වූ සැවොම එකඟ වූයේ අවධි වූ සිහියන්, ප‍්‍රවේශම්කාරිව සයිබර් අවකාශයේ සැරසැරීම අද කාලයේ අත්‍යවශ්‍ය කුසලතාවක් බවයි.

‘‘අපේ සමාජය අළුත් හැම දෙයකට ම ප‍්‍රතිචාර දක්වන්නේ බොහොම ගතානුගතිකවයි. නව තක්‍ෂණයක හෝ ප‍්‍රවණතාවක ගති සොබා නොවිමසා මතු පිටින් පෙනෙන දෙයින් එයට දොස් කීම බහුලව  කැරෙනවා’’ යයි මෘදුකාංග ඉංජිනේරු හා සමාජ මාධ්‍ය ක‍්‍රියාකාරික ගයාන් විජේවික‍්‍රම කියනවා.

ඔහුගේ මතය සයිබර් අවකාශයේ සැබෑ අවදානම් මොනවාදැයි හරි හැටි හඳුනාගෙන ඒවායින් ප‍්‍රවේශම් වීමේ ක‍්‍රමවත් සමාජ සූදානමක් ඇති කළ යුතුයි.  මාධ්‍යයට බිය වී එය තහනම් කිරීම හෝ ළමයින් එයින් ඈත් කිරීම හෝ නිසි ප‍්‍රතිචාරය නොවේ.

‘භෞතික ලෝකයේ නොහඳුනන අයගෙන් ප‍්‍රවේශම් වන්නට යයි අප දරුවන්ට කියනවා. නොදන්නා කෙනෙකුට අපේ පෞද්ගලික තොරතුරු හෝ රූප දෙන්නේ නැහැ.  මේ හා සමාන ප‍්‍රවේශම්කාරි බවක් නොතිබීම අද සමාජ මාධ්‍ය භාවිතයට ගොස් අමාරුවේ වැටීමට ප‍්‍රධාන හේතුවක්’ ඔහු කියනවා.

සයිබර් අවකාශයේ ප‍්‍රධාන අවදානමක් නම් අපේ අනන්‍යතාවය වෙන අයකු විසින් අනවසරයෙන් පැහැර ගැනීමයි (identity theft). බොහෝ කොට මෙය සිදු වන්නේ අප හඳුනන (එහෙත් සැබෑවටම අපට හිතවත් නොවන) කෙනකු හරහායි.

Facebook ගිනුම් අරභයා මෙරට බලධාරින්ට ලැබෙන පැමිණිලිවල අති බහුතරයක් මේ ගණයට වැටෙනවා.  තමාගේ නමින් අනවසර ගිනුමක් පවත්වා ගැනීම හෝ තමන් සතු වූ ගිනුම හදිසියේ පැහැර ගැනීම හරහා තමන්ට හානිකර රූප, ප‍්‍රකාශ පළ කිරීම ගැන මේ පැමිණිලි ලැබෙනවා.  විමර්ශනය කරන විට හෙළි වන්නේ එබඳු අක‍්‍රමිකතා පිටුපස බොහෝ විට සිටින්නේ විරසක වූ පෙම්වතුන් හෝ ඉරිසියාවට පත් හිටපු මිතුරන් බවයි. මෙය සමීපතයන් අතර password හෝ මුරපද බෙදා ගැනීමේ පසු කාලීන විපාකයක්.

මූලික මට්ටමේ ආරක්‍ෂක උපක‍්‍රම වන්නේ තමන්ගේ විවිධ සයිබර් සේවා ගිනුම් (accounts)වලට හරිහමන් මුරපද දීමයි.  ලෙහෙසියෙන් වෙන අයකුට අනුමාන කළ නොහැකි මුරපද භාවිතයත්, කිසිම හේතුවක් නිසා සමීපතයන්ට පවා එය නොකීමත් ඉතා වැදගත්.

එහෙත් අපේ බොහෝ දෙනා ඉතා ලිහිල් ආකාරයේ මුරපද තෝරා ගැනීම, එකම මුරපදය විවිධ භාවිත ගිනුම්වලට යෙදීම, රහසිගත බව නොසළකා හිත මිතුරන්ට එය පැවසීම, බොහෝ කලක් එකම පුර පදය පවත්වා ගැනීම වැනි වැරදි රැසක් කරන බව හෙළි වී තිබෙනවා.

වඩාත් ප‍්‍රශස්ත මුරපදයක් තේරිම ගැන නොමිලයේ උපදෙස් සයිබර්  අවකාශය පුරාම හමු වනවා.  එසේම අදියර දෙකක මුරපද : (two-step verification) දැන් සමහර සයිබර් සේවාවලින් ලද හැකියි. Google, WordPress වැනි නිදහස් සේවා තම සාමාජිකයන්ට මෙය නිර්දේශ කරනවා. එහිදී තමා තෝරා ගත් රහසිගත මුරපදය ඇතුල් කළ විට එයට සම්බන්ධිත ජංගම දුරකථනයට  SMS හරහා  තාවකාලික රහස් අංකයක් එසැනින් ලැබෙනවා.  අදාල ගිනුමට පිවිසිය හැක්කේ මුරපදය හා අංකය දෙකම හරියට ගැලපේ නම් පමණයි.  මේ රහස් අංකය අහම්බෙන් ජනනය වන නැවත භාවිතයක් නැති එකක්.

විශේෂයෙන් කාර්යාලවල, සයිබර් කැෆේ හා නැණසල ආදි ස්ථානවල පොදුවේ භාවිත කැරෙන පරිගණක හරහා සයිබර් අවකාශයට පිවිසෙන විට මුරපදයන් සුරැකීමත්, වෙනත් ආරක්‍ෂිත උපක‍්‍රම ගැන විමසිලිමත් වීමත් වැදගත්.  එසේම මුරපද යොදා තමන් විසින් පිවිසි ගිනුම්වලින් යළිත්  ඕනෑකමින්ම බැහැරවීම (log out) අවශ්‍යයි.

අපේ සමහරුන් තමන්ගේ පෞද්ගලික ඊමේල් හා ෆේස්බුක් ගිනුම් පොදු පරිගණකවල විවෘත කොට ඒවා යළිත් බැහැර නොවී තබනවා.  එවිට වෙනත්  ඕනෑම කෙනෙකුට එයට පිවිසී  ඕනෑම මගඩියක් කළ හැකියි.  නිවසේ දොර ජනෙල් අගුලූ නොදමා විවෘතව තබනවා වැනි අවදානම් සහගත ක‍්‍රියාවක්.

පරිගණක, ස්මාට්ෆොන් හා වෙනත් සන්නිවේදන තාක්‍ෂණ ක‍්‍රියාත්මක කරන්නට අවශ්‍ය තාක්‍ෂණික දැනුම (එනම් තොරතුරු සාක්‍ෂරතාව) පමණක් සෑහෙන්නේ නැහැ. ප‍්‍රවේශම්කාරිව, කාර්යක්‍ෂමව හා ආචාරශීලීව සයිබර් අවකාශයේ සැරිසැරීමට ඉන්ටර්නෙට් සාක්‍ෂරතාව (cyber literacy)  හා සමාජ මාධ්‍ය සාක්‍ෂරතාව (social media literacy) ද අවශ්‍යයි. මේවා මෙරට බහුලව හමුවන පරිගණක උපකාරක පන්තිවලින් හරිහැටි ලබා දෙන කුසලතාවයන් නොවෙයි.

Megara Tegal

Megara Tegal

තරුණ මාධ්‍යවේදිනියක් වන මෙගාරා ටෙගාල් කියන්නේ ලක් සමාජයේ ඉන්ටර්නෙට්  භීතියට අපේ බහුතරයක් මාධ්‍ය ද  වගකිව යුතු බවයි.  පාඨක හා ග‍්‍රාහක සංත‍්‍රාසය ඇති කරන ආකාරයේ ප‍්‍රවෘත්ති ආවරණයත්, ‘Facebook මාරයා’ වැනි වචන භාවිතයත් මෙයට දායක වනවා.

‘‘Facebook යනු කාටත් නොමිළයේ බැඳිය හැකි සමාජ මාධ්‍ය ජාලයක්. වේදිකාවක්.  ප‍්‍රශ්න මතු වන්නේ එයට බැඳෙන සමහරුන් දැනුවත්ව හෝ නොදැනුවත්ව කරන වැරදි නිසයි.  ඒත් අපේ මාධ්‍ය වාර්තා බලන විට Facebook යනු මහා භයානක, දුෂ්ට හා දුෂිත තැනක් වැනි හැඟීමක් හටගත හැකියි’’ මෙගාරා කියනවා.

මෙයට එක් හේතුවක් නම් අපේ බොහෝ මාධ්‍යවේදීන් හා මාධ්‍ය කතුවරුන්ට මේ නව තාක්‍ෂණ හා මාධ්‍ය ගැන නිසි අවබෝධයක් නැති වීමයි.  ඉන්ටර්නෙට් ආගමනයෙන් පසු ගෙවී ගිය මුල් වසර කිහිපයේ එය තේරුම් ගත හැකි වුවත් තවමත් මේ නොදන්නාකම හා දුර්අවබෝධය පවතින්නේ ඇයි?

මගේ මතය: ඉන්ටර්නෙට් මාරයා, Facebook මාරයා වැනි යෙදුම් තමන්ගේ මාධ්‍ය ලිපිවල ලියන්නේ ඉන්ටර්නෙට් හීනමානයෙන් පෙළෙන උදවියයි.  තමන් නොදත් හෝ තමන් අසමත් නව තාක්‍ෂණයක් සමාජයේ අන් අයට ලැබෙනවාට නොරිසි මේ අය පොදුවේ ඉන්ටර්නෙට් ගැනත් සමාජ මාධ්‍ය ගැනත් අතිශයෝක්තියෙන් බියකරු කථා පතුරවනවා.

Sanjana Hattotuwa speaking on Social Media & Youth Patterns and trends of adoption into the future’ - photo courtesy Unicef Sri Lanka Facebook page

Sanjana Hattotuwa speaking on Social Media & Youth Patterns and trends of adoption into the future’ – photo courtesy Unicef Sri Lanka Facebook page

ඉන්ටර්නෙට් භාවිතයේදී ඇති වන අක‍්‍රමිකතා හා මූල්‍යමය වංචා ආදිය ගැන මෙරට නීති සම්පාදනය වී ඇතතත් සමාජ මාධ්‍ය ගැන තවමත් රාජ්‍ය තන්ත‍්‍රයට පැහැදිලි අවබෝධයක් නැහැ.  විකල්ප ප‍්‍රතිපත්ති කේන්ද්‍රයේ ජ්‍යෙෂ්ඨ පර්යේෂක සංජන හත්තොටුවගේ අදහස සමාජ මාධ්‍ය ගැන දෙබිඩි පිළිවෙතක් රජයට ඇති බවයි.

‘‘එක් පසෙකින් ජනාධිපතිවරයා හා මහ බැංකු අධිපතිවරයා සෘජුව ම ලක් ජනතාවට සමීප වන්නට සමාජ මාධ්‍ය (Twitter) හරහා සංවාද කරනවා. ඒ අතර සමාජ මාධ්‍ය මහත් වසංගතයක් යයි ජනාධිපතිවරයා ම ප‍්‍රසිද්ධියේ කියනවා. සමාජ මාධ්‍ය මෙරට ජාතික ආරක්‍ෂාවට තර්ජනයක් විය හැකි යයි ආරක්‍ෂක ලේකම්වරයා දේශනයකදී කියනවා. මේ පරස්පරයන් නිසා සමාජ මාධ්‍ය ප‍්‍රශස්ත ලෙස සමාජ උන්නතියට යොදා ගැනීම දුෂ්කර වනවා’’ සංජන කියනවා.

4 Sep 2011: සිවුමංසල කොලූගැටයා #30: නීතිය, සාමය, ජාතික ආරක‍ෂාව හා ඉන්ටර්නෙට්

ටික දෙනකුගේ උද්ඝෝෂණ නිසා රජය සමාජ මාධ්‍ය මෙරට තුළ තහනම් කිරීමක් නොකරන බව මාධ්‍ය අමාත්‍යාංශයේ ලේකම් චරිත හේරත් ප‍්‍රකාශ කොට තිබෙනවා.  දැනුවත් වූ හා ප‍්‍රවේශම්කාරි සමාජ මාධ්‍ය  භාවිතයකට ලක් සමාජය යොමු කිරිමේ අවශ්‍යතාවය මාධ්‍ය අමාත්‍යාංශ ලේකම්වරයා  අවධාරණය කරනවා.

සමාජ මාධ්‍ය නියාමනයට රාජ්‍ය කමිටුවක් පත් කැරෙන බවට මෑතකදී වාර්තා වුවත් ඒ ගැන වැඩි තොරතුරු හෙළිවී නැහැ. සංජන හත්තොටුව කියන්නේ නියාමනය නොව සයිබර් සාක්‍ෂරතාවය හා දැනුවත්බව තීව‍්‍ර කිරීම අත්‍යවශ්‍ය බවයි.  එසේම සමාජ මාධ්‍යවලින් ලැබෙන නිර්නාමික බව (anonymity) හෝ විවිධ මවාගත් අනන්‍යතා (pseudonimity) හෝ හරහා ද්වේශසහගත ලෙස  තමන් නොරිසි ආයතනවලට, ජාතිකයන්ට හෝ ආගමිකයන්ට පහර ගැසීමේ ප‍්‍රවණතා වැඩිවෙමින් පවතින බවත් ඔහු කියනවා.

වික්ටෝරියානු අධිසුචරිතවාදය වෙනුවට සදාචාරාත්මක හා ආචාරශීලි රාමුවක් තුළ සයිබර් සන්නිවේදන කිරීමේ අවශ්‍යතාවය ද අපේ සමාජයේ ප‍්‍රවර්ධනය කළ යුතුයි.  නැතිනම් ඩිජිටල් පරම්පරාවේ දැලිපිහිය අතට ගත් වඳුරන් වැනි පිරිසක් බිහි වීමේ අවදානම තිබෙනවා.

How can scientists use web videos to communicate climate science?

Let’s face it: not every scientist is a potential David Attenborough, David Suzuki or Carl Sagan. Such supernovae are rare in any field.

But in this digital age, most scientists can use online platforms and simple digital tools to communicate directly with the public and/or policy makers. At least some scientists try to tap this potential — and we are grateful.

The World Resources Institute (WRI), a respected non-profit research and advocacy group, is currently trying to understand “how recent climate science discoveries can best be communicated via video”.

With support from Google, and with the help of three climate scientists, WRI has recently produced 3 different video types in order to test which works best. They are currently on display on their website, with a request for readers to vote and comment:

1. “A webcam talk” uses a self-recorded video of the scientist discussing his findings

2. “A conversation” uses a slideshow with a voiceover of the scientist discussing his findings

3. “A whiteboard talk” is a professionally shot video of the scientist in front of whiteboard discussing his findings

Here is the comment I submitted: the challenges WRI face are common and widely shared. And I do have some experience covering climate and other complex science and environmental stories across Asia for the visual and print media.

First, thanks for asking — and for exploring best public engagement method, which most technical experts and their organisations don’t bother to do.

Second, Andy Dessler comes across as an eager expert — not all scientists are! Some are visibly condescending and disdainful in doing ‘public’ talks that they immediately put off non-technical audiences.

Third, the options you’ve presented above are NOT mutually exclusive. For best results, you can mix them.

Webcam method is helpful, but people don’t want to see any talking head for more than a few seconds at a time. They want to see WHO is talking, and also WHAT is being talked about. The images in Conversation method come in here.

I realise webcams are usually set up inside buildings, but visually speaking the more interesting backdrops are in the open. In this case, if Andy Dessler were to record his remarks outdoors, on a clear and sunny day with some clouds in the far background sky, that would have been great!

I’m personally less convinced about Whiteboard Talk: many in your audience probably don’t want to be lectured to, or be reminded of college days. I would avoid that.

More about my work at http://www.tveap.org/

Was There Life Before Google (BG)? Sure, but try finding it!

Like many things, is Google a mixed blessing?


I now divide my life into two distinctive eras: Before Google (BG) and After Google (AG). The monumental ‘dividing event’ occurred somewhere in 1999 <em>Anno Domini (AD), when the now ubiquitous online phenomenon entered my life.

It was a good friend, photojournalist and new media activist Shahidul Alam, who first told me about this new kind of search engine with a funny-sounding name. Google. At that time, it was just a noun.

I was already weary of the simple, simplistic and yellow-page like listings offered by Yahoo, and welcomed this refreshing change. I immediately switched — and haven’t looked at another search engine in the past dozen years. And I also liked its cheerful, multi-coloured logo.

Things weren’t so slick or quick at the beginning, and even Google was learning by doing. We were still in the dial-up era, when 56 kbps Internet access speeds were still mostly an aspiration. Besides, there was far less content online, and far fewer ways to access and process it.

Where Google stood apart, from every other service, was in its better targeted search results. The research of any given quest was still in our hands, but narrowing down was helpful.

We’ve come a long way, and eons in Internet terms, since those early and murky days. With my always on, reasonably fast broadband connection, I now Google effortlessly many times day and night: I know I’m leaving a steady datastream of everything I look for, and that it can be traced, analysed and interpreted by anyone who can force Google to part with this back-end data (usually governments). But that’s the price I pay for Google’s versatile services.

I touched on this when I talked about ’21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers’ last month at Sri Lanka Press Institute on World Press Freedom Day, 3 May 2011. Here’s my PowerPoint:

A few weeks ago I tweeted “Was there life before Google?” My own tongue-in-cheek answer was: Sure, but I can’t easily locate anything from that period!

Not everyone appreciates Tweeted humour. I received a range of replies online and offline, mostly negative. Some cyber-skeptics faulted me for ‘deifying an American corporation like Google that is out take over the world’ (they haven’t heard the news!).

Others, school teachers and librarians among them, told me that Google has plenty to answer for. They lamented that many people have now forgotten the art and science of looking for a specific piece of information and imagery using well-organised information sources that combine physical and computer-based services. Professional information managers view Google as a superficial, hit-or-miss, much diluted version of their noble craft. Cyber take-away to be consumed on the run, as opposed to a gourmet meal to be partaken and enjoyed at leisure.

Sounds familiar?

I’m old enough to have used libraries diligently and regularly for several years of my working life. I still do, when I can’t easily locate something online — especially historical content that remains under-represented or non-existent on the web. For me, it’s not a question of either/or.

In fact, my frustration is that enough content from the pre-Internet period (much of history) is not yet available online in properly searchable ways. That includes my own personal archive. I’ve been producing journalistic output in the media for 25 years in print, radio and television outlets. The electronic media output is completely lost, and practically everything I wrote before 2000 AD (or Year 1 of my personal AG) is also not online. And my output in Sinhala, including my current Sunday column in the Ravaya newspaper, is not available online.

No, I don’t idolise Google as a global deity. But I thank Google a few times every day. Increasingly often, that includes times when I want to locate a specific reference to something I myself have written and published. This is what happens after writing several thousand pieces on a wide range of subjects and topics.

I envy those who can still recall precise details of their own vast bibliographies. As for me, I routinely turn to my usually reliable and well-informed friend Google. She rarely lets me down.

PS: One facility I stubbornly refuse to use is GMail. Google’s idea of a web-based email service never appealed to me, a Digital Immigrant who is not fully convinced about storing all my correspondence ‘in the cloud’. What really puts me off is how fleeting, erratic and often utterly incomprehensible GMail users are in their replies. There are a few honourable exceptions, but most GMailers I know are a confused and confusing bunch. I love you, Google, but when it comes to email, thanks but I’ll continue to operate my own accounts, branded on my own domain name.

Why are ‘Smart Mobs’ also very fickle? Looking for an antidote to fleeting activism

Smart but fleeting mobs?

‘Smart mobs’ is an interesting term for like-minded groups that behave intelligently (or just efficiently) because of their exponentially increasing network links.

The idea was first proposed by author Howard Rheingold in his 2002 book, Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. It deals with the social, economic and political changes implicated by developing information and communications technology. The topics range from text-messaging culture and wireless internet to the impact of the web on the marketplace.

In the eight years since the book first appeared, we’ve seen a proliferation and evolution of smart mobs, fuelled by the growth web 2.0 tools and, more recently, the many and varied social media. In fact, author Rheingold is credited with inventing the term virtual communities.

But the reality is that smart mobs can also be very fickle — their attention can be easily distracted. A smart mob can disperse just as fast as it forms, even while its original provocation remains.

This was demonstrated in dramatic terms in June 2009. Following a hotly disputed presidential election in Iran, there was a surge of online support for pro-democracy activists there who launched a massive protest. A main point of convergence for online reporting and agitation was micro-blogging platform Twitter. Within a few days, mainstream media like TIME and Washington Post were all talking about this phenomenon in gushing terms.

'Rescued' by Michael Jackson?

Then something totally unexpected happened. On June 25, Michael Jackson’s sudden death in Los Angeles shocked the world. As the news spread around the world at the speed of light, it crashed some social networking sites and slowed down even the mighty Google. Online interest on Iran dipped — and never regained its former levels.

As I wrote at the time: “I have no idea if the Ayatollahs are closet fans of Michael Jackson. But they must surely have thanked the King of Pop for creating a much-needed diversion in cyberspace precisely when the theocracy in Tehran needed it most.”

Other recent experiences have demonstrated how online interest can both build up and dissipate very fast. Staying with a single issue or cause seems hard in a world where news is breaking 24/7.

Here’s a current example. Following the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that started on 20 April 2010, local communities and environmental activists deployed various social media tools to track the unfolding disaster. BP, the giant oil company implicated in the disaster, has also tried to use social media to communicate its positions, but not too successfully. On Twitter, it was not BP’s official account but the satirical @BPGlobalPR that was dominating the online conversation. As one commentator wrote: “It is an object lesson in how social media can shape and control a company’s message during a crisis.”

Beyond PR?

By early July 2010, however, there were already signs that online interest on the issue was already waning — even as the oil continued to leak from this largest offshore oil spill in US history. In a detailed analysis of main social media platforms’ coverage of the issue, Mashable noted last week: “An estimated 100 million gallons or more of oil have surged into the Gulf of Mexico…Yet on Twitter, Google, blogs and even YouTube, we’re already wrapping up our collective discussion of the oil spill and how to repair its damage.”

Riding the wave can be fun, but waves form and break quickly. Those who want to use social media tools for social activism still need to learn how to hitch a ride with the ocean current beneath the fickle waves.

How I wish I could get some practical advice on this from a certain ancient mariner named Sinbad.

Twitterless in Beijing: Talking aspirationally about social media…

Under Chairman Mao's watchful eyes...

“Reading computer manuals without the hardware is as frustrating as reading sex manuals without the software!”

This is one of the less known, but more entertaining, dicta by Arthur C Clarke – he called it ‘Clarke’s 64th Law’, and I personally know he used to bring it up when meeting with particularly crusty or glum intellectuals. (Not all were amused.)

Clarke’s words kept turning in my mind as I moderated and spoke at a session on social media at Asia Media Summit 2010 held in Beijing China from 24 to 26 May 2010. The country with the world’s largest media market is not exactly the world’s most open or free – and certainly when it comes to social media, it’s a very different landscape to what we are used to…

These days, International visitors arriving in China discover quickly that access to YouTube, Twitter and Facebook is completely blocked. Apparently the brief ‘thaw’ in restrictions, seen before and during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, is now over — the current restrictions have been in place since the spring of 2009.

This doesn’t mean there is no social media in China. In fact, I heard from several Chinese friends and colleagues that there is a very large, dynamic and fast-evolving social media scene in China. For the most part, however, it’s not based on globally used and familiar platforms, and is happening in a digital universe of China’s own — under the watchful eye of the government.

Jump in...but some conditions apply!

For example, I found from this March 2010 blog post by Merritt Colaizzi that:
* 221 million people have blogs, largely in a diary-style.
* 176 million Chinese connect via social networking system (SNS) with their “real” friends and online networks.
* 117 million connect anonymously via bulletin board system (BBS). These interactive online message boards are the heart of social media in China. They’re where people go to find topic-based communities and where consumers talk about products and services.

There are lots of other blogs, mainstream media reports and research commentary on social media in China — just Google and see (now that’s another thing with limited – and uneven – access in China: Google itself is available, but search results come with lots of links that simply aren’t accessible). Much or all of this interaction happens in Chinese, of course. It’s a significant part of the web and social media landscapes, but if you’re in China on a short visit and want to stay connected to your own social media networks, that’s not at all helpful.

And, of course, it undermines one of the key attributes of a globally integrated information society: the interoperability of systems and platforms.

Luckily for me, perhaps, I can survive a few days without my social media fix: I have an appalling record of updating my Facebook account: days pass without me even going there. For the moment, at least, I’m also taking a break from regular blogging (well, sort of). But I’m more regular in my micro-blogging on Twitter, and visit YouTube at least once a day, sometimes more often. I could do neither during the few days in Beijing – and that was frustrating.

So imagine having to talk about social media as a new media phenomenon in such a setting. That’s only a tiny bit better than reading computer manuals without the hardware…But this is just what I did, with all the eagerness that I typically bring into everything I do. I planned and moderated a 90-minute session on Social Media: Navigating choppy seas in search of Treasures?

The session was part of the Asia-Pacific Media Seminar on Ozone Protection and Climate Benefit, so our context was how to use the social media to raise public awareness and understanding on the somewhat technical topics of ozone layer depletion and climate change (two related but distinctive atmospheric phenomena).

With access to key global social media platforms denied, we visitors and Chinese colleagues in the audience could speak mostly generically, theoretically and aspirationally. I didn’t want to place my hosts and seminar organisers in difficulty by harping on what was missing. Instead, we focused on what is possible and happening: how development communicators are increasingly social media networks and platforms to get their messages out, and to create online communities and campaigns in the public interest.

The thrust of my own opening remarks to the session was this: In the brave new world of social media, we all have to be as daring as Sinbad. Like the legendary sailor of Baghdad, we have to take our chances and venture into unknown seas. Instead of maps or GPS or other tools, we have to rely on our ingenuity, intuition and imagination.

More about the session itself in future blog posts.

For now, I want to share this TED Talk by American watcher of the Internet Clay Shirky on how cellphones, Twitter, Facebook can make history. Shirky shows how Facebook, Twitter and TXTs help citizens in repressive regimes to report on real news, bypassing censors (however briefly). The end of top-down control of news is changing the nature of politics.

PS: All this holds more than an academic interest for me, because there have been media reports in recent weeks that the Sri Lankan government is working with Chinese experts in formulating strategies for censoring internet access from Sri Lanka.

Passing the buck or passing the planet? Saving the Planet is everybody’s business!

Passing the buck? Cartoon by W R Wijesoma

Passing the buck? Cartoon by W R Wijesoma

This was one of the most memorable cartoons drawn by W.R. Wijesoma, Sri Lanka’s pre-eminent political cartoonist (and my one-time colleague). If I remember right, it first appeared sometime in the late 1980s in ‘Mihikatha’, Sri Lanka’s first all-environmental newspaper.

Alas, both Mihikatha and Wijesoma are no more among us. But the message in this cartoon is more timely than ever before.

“Is this what we are going to hand over to our future generations? Please……no!” was the emphatic message from Yugratna Srivastava, a 13-year-old Indian girl who addressed over 100 world leaders gathered at the United Nations headquarters on 22 September 2009 for the historic Summit on Climate Change.

Passing the ball – or buck – is something that governments are good at. Most governments are so narrowly focused on the now and here, and sometimes rightfully so, that they have neither the time nor interest for medium to long term scenarios. As I wrote earlier this week, “it’s going to take many more meetings, bickering and hard bargaining before the leaders begin to think in terms of the next generation.”

This is where citizen action comes in. Governments are not going to save this planet from environmental catastrophes; if at all, it would be the ordinary people. This is the premise of TVE Asia Pacific’s latest Asian TV series, Saving the Planet.

Where does the buck stop?

Where does the buck stop?

Governments, experts and big corporations alone cannot solve all these problems. Real change requires changing how each and every human being lives and works. Education becomes the biggest key to achieving environmentally sustainable development at local and global levels.

Filmed in six countries in South and Southeast Asia, Saving the Planet profiles groups working quietly and relentlessly to spread knowledge, understanding and attitudes that inspire action that will help humans to live in harmony with the planet. They often work without external funding and beyond the media spotlight. They have persisted with clarity of vision, sincerity of purpose and sheer determination. Their stories inspire many others to pursue grassroots action for a cleaner and safer planet.

We tried out a creative idea for the series opening sequence (20 seconds), an extended version of which became the series trailer (see below). It was planned and filmed in all the six countries where the stories came from — Cambodia, India, Laos, Nepal, the Philippines and Thailand. In each country, our roving director-producers filmed different individuals – young and old, men and women, in all their Asian diversity – passing around an inflated ball made to look like planet Earth.

I know my colleagues had fun filming these sequences, and back in our studio, it was also great fun to mix and match these various shots to create the apparently seamless passing around of our planet in peril. (Who said planet saving cannot be fun?)

Watch Saving the Planet trailer (1 minute):

Now it can be revealed: our original inspiration came from an unexpected source: the world’s largest media corporation, Google! In one brainstorming, our then production coordinator Buddhini Ekanayake remembered an open challenge that Google had made online just before introducing their email service, GMail. Google asked people to “imagine how an email message travels around the world” using a video camera.

In all, Google received over 1,100 clips from fans in more than 65 countries around the world — each one of them a different creative idea, playing with the iconic Gmail M-velope.

“The clips you submitted were amazing and it was hard to choose selections for the final video,” Google said when releasing the outcome of this collaborative video project.

See Gmail: Behind the Scenes (Final Cut)

Read more about the GMail collaborative video on Google’s blog

Watch all submissions Google received for its GMail promo video.

As Oscar Wilde once said, “Talent borrows. Genius steals.” You can decide which of these we have done!

Hurtling towards Information Society at the speed of light – with nobody in charge?

Who can crack this web 2.0 challenge? Image courtesy i4d magazine

Who can crack this web 2.0 challenge? Image courtesy i4d magazine

As the 19th Century was drawing to a close, the newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst (later immortalised in Citizen Kane) cabled a leading astronomer of the day: ‘Is there life on Mars? Please cable one thousand words’.

The scientist replied: ”Nobody knows” – written 500 times.

This would be my answer today, if a modern-day media tycoon were to ask me a different, yet equally compelling question: where are we headed with the bewildering developments in information and communication technologies, in which the mainstream media are a part?

And that would be the easiest 1,000 words I’d have written. But being me, I laboured a lot more in addressing that question in my talk to an assembled group of media tycoons and senior journalists in Colombo earlier this week, at the Sri Lanka launch of Asia Media Report 2009.

If I was too reflective on media futures, I can probably blame it on the venue: the Galle Face Hotel, Colombo’s oldest and grandest, where only a dozen years ago Sir Arthur C Clarke wrote the final chapters of his novel, 3001: The Final Odyssey. A bust of Sir Arthur still stands in the hotel’s lobby.

So, with the Indian Ocean lashing gently on the rocky beach only a few feet away, and under the slightly bemused gaze of Sir Arthur, I took my audience on a quick and rough tour of the near future — the one no one about which nobody is an expert!

Here are some excerpts:

Two waves that started separately have combined to radically change how people generate, access, store and share information: the rolling out of broadband internet, and the phenomenal spread of mobile phones.

The headline figures are impressive. For the first time in history, we now have the technological means to quickly reach out to most of humanity:
More than 4.1 billion mobile phones were in use by end 2008, a majority of them in the developing world.
Nearly a quarter of the world population (over 1.5 billion people) has access to the web, at varying levels of bandwidth.
• Thousands of radio and TV channels saturate the airwaves – these still are the primary source of news and information for billions.

Many of us don’t realise that even the basic mobile phone in use today packs more processing power than did the entire Apollo 11 spaceship that took astronauts to the Moon 40 years ago.

Where this growth in processing power and proliferation of devices might lead us, we can only guess — no one really knows. This can be both exhilarating for some — and very disconcerting for entities that were previously in control of the free flow of information, such as governments, academics – and dare I say it – the mainstream media!

Is that your final answer? Surely not...?

Is that your final answer? Surely not...?

They may not accept this, individual governments, and their collective known as the United Nations, don’t have full control over what is going on. But the ‘information genie’ is now firmly out of the bottle, and evolving by the day that it’s impossible to put it back inside. This is both fascinating and frightening.

If it offers any comfort, even big corporations like Microsoft, Apple or Google are all learning by doing. Everything seems to be permanently in experimental — or beta — mode…

What would emerge from the current chaos? The best brains on the planet are trying to come up with plausible answers.

There is talk about the ‘post-media age’. In the broadcast circles that I move in, they now acknowledge, quietly, that the post-broadcasting age is already dawning.

Is what we hear the death cry of the Old Order…or birth pangs of a new Information Society? Or perhaps both?

And how inclusive is that information society? As Asia Media Report 2009 reminds us, not everyone is invited to the party. Large sections of Asian society are left out.

But don’t expect such people to remain excluded for too long. Armed with mobile phones and other ICT tools, they are going to crash the party, whether we like it or not.

A J Gunawardana: Remembering a lost colleague…and discovering online gaps

A J Gunawardana with film director Lester James Peries

A J Gunawardana (left) with film director Lester James Peries

I have just written a 2,000-word essay recalling my times with a senior colleague and fellow media-watcher, the late Dr A J Gunawardana.

AJ, as he was affectionately known, was an outstanding university teacher, writer/journalist, cinema personality and art critic. When he died in September 1998 at the relatively young age of 65, we lost a rare intellectual who had his feet firmly on the ground, and constantly built bridges linking media, culture and society.

We shared more than our surname and involvement in the media. In fact, when I was beginning to be noticed for my journalistic writing in late 1980s and early 1990s, people kept asking me if I was AJ’s son, or at least a relation. I had to disappoint them.

My association with him was in the last decade of his life. His junior by a generation, I related to the genial professor as a fellow writer and occasional partner in mischief in the domains of media and popular culture. These are the times I have recalled in the tribute, just published on Groundviews citizen journalism website.

AJ started his career as a journalist with the then privately owned flagship of Sri Lankan journalism, Ceylon Daily News, where he was a noted arts and culture correspondent in the 1960s. He went on to obtain a doctorate in performing arts from New York University. Upon return, he pursued a career in academia as a professor of English at the Vidyodaya University (later University of Sri Jayawardenapura) and was closely associated with film and media education. He chaired a Presidential Committee of Inquiry on the Sri Lankan film industry, which issued its report in 1985.

In the arts world, he is perhaps best remembered for the screenplays he wrote for three films by Sri Lanka’s best known director Lester James Peries: Baddegama (1980), Kaliyugaya (1982) and Yuganthaya (1985). The latter two are included among the best of Sri Lankan cinema as compiled by the British Film Institute.

At the time of his death, AJ was working on a biography of the doyen of the Sri Lankan cinema, which was posthumously published in 2005 as LJP: Lester James Peries: Life and Work.

Read my full tribute:
Remembering A J Gunawardana: A creative public intellectual

In researching for this essay, I wanted to verify some biographical and filmographical specifics about AJ. The usually reliable Encyclopaedia of sri Lanka (2006) edition, compiled by Charles Gunawardena (note how we all spell our same surname differently!) had no entry on AJ, which is a bit disappointing considering the far more obscure personalities featured in this reference.

My next step was Googling for A J, using the various spellings for his and my shared surname. (Don’t ask me how and why different clans spell it differently – which must drive foreigners crazy – but it matters to us). Considering AJ published most of his journalistic writing before commercial Internet connectivity became widely available and newspapers started publishing their web editions, I wasn’t surprised by how little I could find online. I didn’t come across a single piece of AJ’s incisive writing online, although perhaps a specialised search might yet unearth a few from some depth of an archive.

This highlights an unmet need where many Asian newspapers and magazines are concerned: their archives only go back to a decade or a dozen years. Even when publishers are willing to unlock their archives and make it available, the sheer logistics involved must daunt them. This could change in time to come, with Google’s recently announced initiative to digitise newspaper archives. The search giant has begun scanning microfilm from some newspapers’ historic archives to make them searchable online, first through Google News and eventually on the papers’ own Web sites.

An aside: I remember making the same point to assembled ITU, UNESCO and other UN worthies at the WSIS Asia Preparatory Meeting in Tokyo in January 2003. In a world where search for information and records is moving increasingly to the web, I said, the old sources of Asia’s news, information and culture need to be progressively placed online. This is a huge undertaking even if we just consider only the newspaper archives. But if not done, these valuable sources may soon begin to be ignored as references.

I then turned to the Internet Movie Database, IMDB, for some specifics and was disappointed again. AJ’s main entry on IMDB listed only one of his three films, and there was no other information about him, at least in the areas allowed for free access. It was only later that I stumbled upon another IMDB entry for AJ, where the last two letters of his surname are lopped off, which keeps it out of most searches.

When the two entries are put together, one begins to get an idea of AJ’s cinematic accomplishments, but it still completely leaves out his work as a film critic.

These gaps are not unique to AJ. In fact, even though IMDb is said to be “one of the largest accumulation of data about films, television programs, direct-to-video products, and video games, reaching back to each medium’s respective beginning”, I imagine a large number of film industry creations and professionals from outside the mainstream English language cinema is currently missing or poorly indexed on it.

Clearly, there is work to be done – by film buffs from Asia, whose want their cinematic traditions and professionals featured adequately on IMDB. Although I occasionally edit entries on the Wikipedia, I haven’t figured out how to do it on IMDB.

In this era of user-generated content, we can’t just sit back and complain that the web is biased towards the English speaking west. It’s still the case, but web 2.0 allows us the opportunity and tools to go and do something about it.