05/09/2012 10:51 am ET Updated Jul 09, 2012

When the Little Guy's Tools for Change Are Co-opted

"Pledge support for SL by signing the petition at" -- this seemingly innocuous exhortation suddenly began appearing on my phone screen every time I sent a text or made a call in Sri Lanka. The simple message belies the complex realities of a 26-year civil war and a government eager to hide its human rights abuses.

Government propaganda through mobile companies is a usual occurrence, as I learned four months earlier when, arriving in Colombo, I received a text from "PRESIDENT" wishing me a happy new year in English and Sinhalese (conspicuously, no Tamil). Now Dialog, Sri Lanka's largest phone operator, was asking me to take online action.

Surprisingly, redirects to a petition on the website asking the U.N. to stay away from the Sri Lankan peace process. Although the word "PRESIDENT" doesn't appear on the petition or the phone message, it is fair to assume from its cozy relationship with the phone companies that the government is involved., changing the world

That very day -- April 1 -- I received an email from, taking partial credit for the recent victories of nine petitioners. Apple had promised improvements for workers in China. Countless Syrians had been saved from terror. "It's possible none of this would have happened if people hadn't started petitions on," boasts Patrick of the team.

Paid campaigners select petitions to be highlighted in email blasts, while a newly-hired PR team works hard to sell the company's success in major media. The most compelling stories are those in which personal battles garner support for larger causes, as featured in the Washington Post and the New York Times. But how do we feel when a small group ("Sri Lankans for Sri Lanka") creates a petition that effectively attempts to shut down investigations of human rights abuses? Are they the underdog, and is the U.N. the big bully?

The petition is filed under's "Human Rights" category, despite evidence that those very rights are being violated on a daily basis by President Rajapaksa's government. Also ironic is the use of an American company's website. Construction Minister Wimal Weerawansa has called for a boycott of everything American, including gmail -- despite the fact that the defense secretary (the president's brother), has U.S. citizenship. The Sri Lankan government no longer considers applications for dual citizenship, but this directive is not retroactive.

"Our Hero Mahinda Rajapaksa"

Let's rewind. The Sinhalese constitute the largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka with 74 percent of the total population, while Tamils are the second largest (12.6 percent). From 1983-2009, the Sri Lankan military fought the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist militant organization trying to create an independent state in the north of the island. As an MP in the midst of this civil war, Mahinda Rajapaksa called for observers from the U.N. to investigate human rights violations -- including disappearances. Rajapaksa is now president, but disappearances are still a common occurrence.

So what happened to spur the president's sudden animosity towards international intervention? Channel 4's two documentaries on "Sri Lanka's Killing Fields" sparked renewed interest in the government's alleged war-crimes, and U.N. resolution 19/2 was passed as a consequence. The resolution does little more than impose a timetable on the recommendations of Sri Lanka's own "Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee," yet it was met with anti-western protests and large billboards with slogans like "Abraham Lincoln For You But Our Hero Mahinda Rajapaksa." I caught the beginning of an Al-Jazeera special program debating the authenticity of the footage used in the latest documentary, but the signal was (suspiciously) lost. No other channel seemed to be affected by a faulty signal.

In Sri Lanka, foreign journalists carry two phones under the assumption that at least one of them is tapped. Websites dealing with political affairs must register with the government or face local action, and many are blocked. These events are reminiscent the Chinese government's directive that all users of Weibo (China's Twitter) must use their real name and ID number.

Online activism and responsibility

Online tools used for social change are sometimes blighted as "slacktevism" -- signing a petition doesn't take much effort. But these tools have proved influential, most notably during the Arab Spring protests. The more urgent criticism of online activism is that it can easily be monitored and manipulated -- as it was in Bahrain, Syria and Egypt.

Many online tools allow gross oversimplification of complicated issues. The petition on uses the language of propaganda to rally -- to date -- 11,000 supporters to its cause. Do petitioners really understand what is at stake, or do they see the language of Human Rights on a website they trust and click a button to satisfy their noble desire to help?

Should Sri Lankans be left to negotiate the terms of a long-awaited peace on their own terms? Should censor content? The company's mission is to "fight for what's right." But if it allows "anyone, anywhere" to start a petition, then who defines "what's right?"

While we celebrate this latest medium of change, we should not over-romanticize this latest incarnation of propaganda. Remembering the lessons of radio (Rwanda) and film (Nazi Germany), it becomes clear that the tools of change can empower the oppressor as well as the oppressed. Who decides which way the balance of power tips?