Can Technology Bridge the Divide in Illiberal Democracies? Lessons from Sri Lanka’s Turbulent Terrain

Can Technology Bridge the Divide in Illiberal Democracies? Lessons from Sri Lanka’s Turbulent Terrain

In the face of violent conflict, hate speech, and illiberal regimes, can technology serve as a beacon of hope for democracy and human security? The answer, as seen in Sri Lanka’s complex history, is both encouraging and cautionary. While pervasive violence and repressive governments might seem like an insurmountable barrier, the internet and mobile technologies have emerged as unexpected tools for citizen empowerment and democratic dialogue.

This article delves into the unique potential of “new media” to challenge the status quo in illiberal democracies, drawing insights from the Sri Lankan experience. The land of serendipitous beauty holds within its scars the story of a tumultuous past marked by ethnic tensions, civil war, and state censorship. Yet, amidst the darkness, a flicker of hope shines through in the form of online platforms like Groundviews, Sri Lanka’s first citizen journalism website.

The Promise of Citizen Journalism:

Groundviews stands as a testament to the transformative power of technology. Launched in 2005, amidst the height of the civil war, it became a vital platform for under-represented voices to be heard. Groundviews provided ordinary citizens with the tools to tell their own stories, bypassing traditional media channels that often amplified state narratives or succumbed to self-censorship. With smartphones in hand, people became reporters, documenting firsthand accounts of human rights abuses, everyday struggles, and glimpses of hope amidst the conflict.

This empowered storytelling challenged the information monopoly held by the state and its cronies. Groundviews, along with other independent online platforms, exposed the realities of war, fostered critical discourse, and held authorities accountable. This democratization of information, even in a context of censorship and repression, proved to be a crucial step towards building a more just and informed society.

Beyond Information Sharing:

However, the journey towards a truly resilient democracy requires more than just information sharing. Online platforms, fueled by the boundless reach of the internet, also become spaces for dialogue and community building. Sri Lankan netizens, despite facing government attempts to block and harass, used online platforms to connect with each other across ethnic and regional divides. Online forums and social media groups fostered empathy, understanding, and a sense of shared belonging – crucial ingredients for healing the wounds of conflict and nurturing a more inclusive society.

Challenges and the Road Ahead:

While the potential of technology for positive change is undeniable, the path forward is not without its challenges. Illiberal regimes are increasingly adept at wielding digital tools for surveillance, censorship, and misinformation campaigns. The spread of hate speech and online attacks further hinder constructive dialogue and sow division. To navigate these challenges, technological innovation must be complemented by robust digital literacy efforts, strong online communities, and unwavering commitment to freedom of expression.

Lessons from Sri Lanka:

Sri Lanka’s experience offers valuable lessons for other democracies facing similar challenges. It demonstrates that even in the darkest of times, technology can empower citizens, amplify alternative voices, and bridge the divides fostered by illiberal regimes. Groundviews and countless other similar initiatives across the globe stand as testaments to the human spirit’s resilience and the unwavering desire for a just and informed society.

As we navigate the ever-evolving digital landscape, it is crucial to remember that technology is not a magic bullet. It is a tool, and its impact depends on the hands that wield it. Through collaboration, innovation, and unwavering commitment to democratic values, we can harness the power of technology to not only bridge the divide in illiberal democracies but also build more resilient, inclusive, and just societies for the future.

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