“Weaponising 280 characters: What 200,000 tweets and 4,000 bots tell us about state of Twitter in Sri Lanka” by Sanjana Hattotuwa, Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and Raymond Serrato

The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) has released a report on social media, “Weaponising 280 characters: What 200,000 tweets and 4,000 bots tell us about state of Twitter in Sri Lanka”. The report is available for immediate download here.
The report is a collaboration between Sanjana Hattotuwa, a Senior Researcher at CPA and the head of the Civic Media Team and two leading data scientists – Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, based in Sri Lanka and Raymond Serrato, based in Germany. It is a response to an unprecedented social media phenomenon in Sri Lanka, with disturbing as well as potentially deeply disruptive implications for the health of the country’s democratic dialogue and electoral processes.
The recent violence in Kandy brought social media under renewed scrutiny for its role, reach and relevance in contributing to the production and spread of violent, hateful content. Starting late March, weeks after the cessation of the violent attacks, Twitter users began noticing a tsunami of accounts with no bios, no tweets and the default profile picture following them. Several fake Twitter accounts were identified to be promoting false or misleading content during the violence in Kandy. This, coupled with the heightened production of suspicious Twitter accounts raised red flags amongst Twitter users.
Given the scale and scope of the infestation, CPA’s English language civic media platform Groundviews, for the first time in the Sri Lankan Twittersphere, took the step of making public its block list, which other users could import. Even this measure though was not enough to address the high frequency with which new, fake accounts were being created, attaching themselves to prominent Twitter users in Sri Lanka. A preliminary analysis of 1,262 accounts, a subset of the larger dataset used for this report, indicated that the majority of suspicious accounts following Twitter users were bots.
A visualisation of the number of accounts targeted by the bots revealed that leading diplomats, Ambassadors based in Sri Lanka, the official accounts of diplomatic missions, leading local politicians, the former President of the Maldives, media institutions, civil society organisations and initiatives, leading journalists, cricketers and other individuals were amongst those who had large numbers of bot followers.
Considering bots are now a permanent feature of Sri Lanka’s Twitter landscape and will likely grow in scope and scale leading up to elections or a referendum, it is important to ask how to address the issue at scale, given the number of citizens – directly connected as well as influenced by those connected – involved.
Even with its limited scope and data, this report is a clear snapshot of the political landscape we now inhabit, and projects in the future real dangers that result from just the visible investments made around key social media platforms, which are today the key information and news vectors for a demographic between 18-34.
This report by CPA follows the path-breaking data driven study into the bots and trolls associated with a prominent politician in Sri Lanka, published in January 2018, which was also a collaborative research exercise with Yudhanjaya Wijeratne. Download Namal Rajapaksa, bots and trolls: New contours of digital propaganda and online discourse in Sri Lanka here.
For further information and media inquiries, please contact Sanjana Hattotuwa on sanjanah@cpalanka.org.
Source:The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA)

Content for civil society and activists: Combatting growing surveillance and censorship of online content in Sri Lanka

3 September 2012, Colombo, Sri Lanka: In late July 2012, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) released in Tamil, Sinhala and English, three short-form videos and informative posters on online freedom of expression in Sri Lanka. This content is now available on Flickr and YouTube, in addition to the other web repositories noted below. All the content can be distributed, embedded, emailed, broadcast and republished freely. The posters are designed to be clearly legible even in black and white, A4 prints.

The Sri Lankan govenrment has since 2007 systematically clamped down on critical content online. Over 2012, this process has dramatically accelerated <http://cpalanka.us2.list-manage.com/track/click?u=746409e6de7b1c2a97474620a&id=6f67b11e0a&e=625e121e01> . The government is now actively pursuing the introduction of draconian laws and taxation to clamp down on, as it sees fit, inconvenient content online. When the new law comes into force in the near future, it will be a new chapter in censorship, affecting all web users in the country, whether or not they are activists or human rights defenders. As Sanjana Hattotuwa, Senior Researcher at CPA and Editor of the online civic media platform Groundviews<http://cpalanka.us2.list-manage1.com/track/click?u=746409e6de7b1c2a97474620a&id=f7d73a1a45&e=625e121e01>  notes,

The impunity of powerful individuals, retrogressive laws and censorious taxes respectively showcase so much of what’s wrong and getting worse with the freedom of expression our country. We are impervious to the violent censorship of Tamil dissidents in the country, writing against both LTTE and the State, during and after war. But the noose now ensnares a larger community. If you’re producing content on how you see and choose to describe Sri Lanka, you’re now liable for criminal prosecution, regulation and possible taxation. It’s as simple as that.

CPA produced in 2010 <http://cpalanka.us2.list-manage2.com/track/click?u=746409e6de7b1c2a97474620a&id=c0bf64b5e7&e=625e121e01>  and again in 2011 <http://cpalanka.us2.list-manage.com/track/click?u=746409e6de7b1c2a97474620a&id=3f1b3debbe&e=625e121e01>  two key reports, the only ones of their kind to date, looking at the erosion of the freedom of expression on the web and Internet in Sri Lanka. As far back as August 2010, when it was evident that the Sri Lankan government was becoming increasingly censorious online, we held a workshop in Colombo<http://cpalanka.us2.list-manage2.com/track/click?u=746409e6de7b1c2a97474620a&id=129e54a13a&e=625e121e01>  looking at how critical dissent online could be strengthened and protected. In early 2011, we produced an online security poster <http://cpalanka.us2.list-manage.com/track/click?u=746409e6de7b1c2a97474620a&id=93ececf0b4&e=625e121e01>  that was widely distributed amongst Sri Lankan civil society in print and electronically.

In mid-2011, we translated from English online security flashcards in Sinhala <http://cpalanka.us2.list-manage1.com/track/click?u=746409e6de7b1c2a97474620a&id=2197fb4c7b&e=625e121e01>  for activists to use when producing and sharing sensitive content online. Also in 2011, the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) endorsed a blog post by Sanjana Hattotuwa on how web based platforms could be made more resilient to censorship and denial of service attacks (Advice for colleagues on the digital front lines <http://cpalanka.us2.list-manage1.com/track/click?u=746409e6de7b1c2a97474620a&id=ee50637cfb&e=625e121e01> ).

CPA’s posters and videos released in July 2012 complement this content and are aimed at informing ordinary users to leading activists who use the web in Sri Lanka today to be more safe in what they say, produce and do. The content can also help circumvent, to the extent possible, website blocks and online surveillance, including over mobile phones. All the videos and posters are available in Tamil, English and Sinhala.

  • The POSTERS are available for download here – https://www.box.com/s/7e91672c5119f472f064. They are very high resolution and will print perfectly in black & white as well as in colour, on any size upwards of A4. You can also freely share, resize and embed on websites, blogs, Pinterest and Facebook.
  • Limited numbers of high-resolution colour prints of each set of posters will be printed in all three languages, and CPA will send them to those working on FOE issues in Sri Lanka. Please write to sanjanah [at] cpalanka [dot] org directly if you need any copies, which will be sent free of charge within Sri Lanka, subject to availability.
  • The VIDEOS are available at https://vimeo.com/album/2019015. They can be downloaded, viewed online over any PC or mobile device and embedded on any social media platform or blog.

Please engage with this content, and share as widely as possible amongst your friends, colleagues and through institutional networks.




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The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) was formed in the firm belief that there is an urgent need to strengthen institution- and capacity-building for good governance and conflict transformation in Sri Lanka and that non-partisan civil society groups have an important and constructive contribution to make to this process. The primary role envisaged for the Centre in the field of public policy is a pro-active and interventionary one, aimed at the dissemination and advocacy of policy alternatives for non-violent conflict resolution and democratic governance. Accordingly, the work of the Centre involves a major research component through which the policy alternatives advocated are identified and developed.