Social media in politics
The root causes of ethno-political violence, discrimination, systemic racism and the essential nature or architecture of the state that is discriminatory and partial to majoritarian rule, have found new vectors for self-promotion, expansion and divisive rhetoric through social media. This content seeding violence and hate is produced, promoted and engaged with an unprecedented speed, scale and scope.
The rise of Islamophobia and the enduring struggles of communities in the North and East of the country around land, security, access to justice, accountability and reconciliation play out in Sinhalese conversational domains on social media as conspiracies, campaigns, calls or challenges entirely alien to what is natural, normal and necessary, in a post-war environment.
Academic research suggests that social media favours populism (Enli and Rosenberg 2018), which itself is usually a vector for authoritarianism’s entry, to the demise and detriment of democracy. This reading fits neatly with observable data around how former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, his sons, extended family and politicians aligned to him, have used social media to gain popularity since the incumbent government’s election in 2015 (Gunawardene 2015). There is ample data-driven evidence, however, to indicate that even out of power, the Rajapaksa family and Namal Rajapaksa in particular, are more popular on social media than any other politician or political figure. This is used to their benefit, to organically grow their online audience by using the existing user base and over time, indoctrinate this fan or follower base with political frames deeply partial to the Raja- paksas. This is working. Preliminary data collection and analysis indicates that in comparison to 26 official Facebook pages of politicians tracked by the author, including the President and PM, from July 2017 to July 2018 just four official pages anchored to the Rajapaksas generated around 33% of the total engagement (i.e. interactions by way of likes, shares, etc.).
In a study conducted in late August 2018 into what had been liked by the official Facebook pages of members of the Rajapaksa family (Mahinda, Gotabaya, Namal, Yoshitha, Rohitha and Shiranthi Rajapaksa), President Maithripala Siri- sena, PM Ranil Wickremesinghe, Mangala Samaraweera MP, the United National Party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, as some of the leading figures of Sri Lanka’s political landscape at present, the author discovered that (Hattotuwa 2018a) pages belonging to the government formed an echo chamber completely distinct from pages belonging to the Rajapaksas and the Joint Opposition. A fan or follower of one would be almost completely masked from what was liked by a competing political and partisan group.
Pioneering and irrepressible social media campaigns, anchored both to political parties as well as civil society, contributed to high election turnout in 2015. President Maithripala Sirisena was elected to office with a record turnout of 81.52% of the electorate, a total of around 15 million voters. Later in 2015, 77.66% of the electorate turned out for the Parliamentary election. The figures show a high interest in electoral processes and the exercise of franchise (IFES 2016), including among 1st to 4th time voters, fuelled at the time by voter mobilisation drives on social media.
There is also extant, data-driven evidence to suggest that a pulsating fan base on social media does not result in participation in a real-world protest movement. In late August, Amnesty International South Asia held an unprecedented campaign around enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka and South Asia. The campaign was pegged to activities in the real world, as well as a hashtag and related content production primarily on Twitter, as well as Facebook.
The start and zenith of the Amnesty International campaign overlapped with the longer run-up to what was initially framed as an “invasion” of Colombo— a massive protest movement led by Namal Rajapaksa called “Jana Balaya Colom- bata” (People Power to Colombo). This campaign, unsurprisingly, featured heavily on social media, anchored to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In scope and scale, Namal Rajapaksa’s campaign on social media was by order of magnitude, larger, wider and deeper than that of Amnesty International. However, social network analysis of Amnesty’s campaign on Twitter alone revealed that it resonated among many countries and activists within each country, despite the fact that the campaign’s real-world advocacy (which involved trucks with signage and slogans driven across the island) was rooted in Sri Lanka. Although the Amnesty campaign and the Namal Rajapaksa campaign overlapped temporally, they showed no cross-fertilisation.
As I wrote to the media at the time (Hattotuwa 2018a),
those who engaged with, were part of or chose to be affiliated with one campaign, weren’t part of the other. . . . The lack of cross-pollination . . . suggests a disconnect between disappearances and the timbre of governance, and reciprocally, the issues raised by a protest march pegged to development, economy, socio-political and economic rights, and the concerns highlighted by a campaign on human rights violations. ... It gets more interesting from here, because the reader may assume that given all I’ve noted, the ‘Jana Balaya Colombata’ campaign would have vastly eclipsed the Amnesty campaign by the sheer turnout it generated, given the hype on and reach of Namal Rajapaksa’s social media accounts, leave aside an eco-system of accounts aligned with him. This wasn’t the case. The campaign was an utter flop, barely managing to fill a single large intersection in Colombo, and bringing out just around 50,000
As I noted on the civic media platform Groundviews,
The failure of Jana Balaya to live up to its hype is even more strange given the SLPP’s electoral fortunes in February. One reading is that Namal Rajapaksa’s digital footprint may only be that. The significant inability to get his fans and followers to come out and join a protest could be entirely independent of his enduring ability to influence or inform their political frames, in the lead up to an election or referendum. Another reading could be that the politics of rallies and protests have given way to a politics of digital dissent and witnessing, where the preferred mode of participation or engagement is primarily through smartphone or browser. This is concerning when juxtaposed with what Malii- nda Deshapriya, the head of the Elections Commission, has already flagged as very low voter registration. Namal Rajapaksa must be commended for trying his best to get fans and followers out on to the streets. His inability to do so is something we should seriously reflect on more, beyond partisan frames.
Though much hyped, the debate and discussion around a new constitution is virtually dead. There is no discernible conversation for or, tellingly, even against, on social media. Promises by the Prime Minister to leverage social media in constitutional consultations and design haven’t materialised to date. It also stands to reason that spoilers will leverage the ignorance over social media to frame the new constitution in a light that is almost certain to guarantee widespread opposition.