[This is an excerpt from an article appearing in the current edition of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]
What is true of the US is now true of Sri Lanka as well. Because millions of millennials now use, amongst other SNS platforms, Facebook, which makes available data around its users to third parties, there are both persuasive and pervasive new vectors for political information anchored to details about personal identity and opinion that in their aggregate offer unique and detailed insights into relational markers, political trends, and other explanatory inferences that are crucial for political messaging. This applies to social media use in general too as foundations for the harvesting of interaction data to help or hinder political campaigns. For example, though outside the remit of this paper, this (new, but already firmly established) type of political campaigning embraces the use of highly targeted content to specific demographics, even in Sri Lanka, since 2015. So-called ‘dark ads’ which are non-public posts that the campaign can make visible to whomever it wants, promoted posts, and the automated agents – technologies that today can be outsourced and procured easily – constitute the new language of propaganda, aimed at first time and young voters in particular. This has profound implications for political mobilisation in relation to constitutional controversies and especially so in a run-up to a referendum.
Extant research around social media use around electoral processes and referenda in some countries and contexts held in recent years unequivocally underlines the central role played by SNS in voter mobilisation, opinion generation, propaganda, pushback and, importantly, misinformation. This research is vital to study in the Sri Lankan context because the electorate enjoys connectivity – and thus its exposure to both the risk and potential around social media adoption – at a similar level of development and penetration. Furthermore, even more disturbingly, research suggests that social media favours populism, itself usually a vector for authoritarianism’s entry, to the demise and detriment of democracy. This fits neatly with how the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, his sons, extended family and politicians aligned to him use and abuse social media, to gain in popularity since the incumbent government’s election in 2015.
Further, using Chadwick’s theorising of a hybrid media system and Castells’ conception of a networked society as the basis for risk assessment helps frame, in brief, the technical and structural challenges social media poses to a referendum in Sri Lanka in the current socio-political configuration and discursive landscape. Here, this paper is in agreement with those who argue that political communication embraces technology to innovate and disrupt. However, this reading does not take into account the many ways in which social media can benefit democratic dialogue, social engagement and help political communication. Proposals to eschew technological determinism or normalisation and instead study it in context have great merit in Sri Lanka.
The mob violence against Muslims in Digana, Kandy in March 2018, the incitement to hate and violence over Facebook since 2014, the weaponisation of Twitter at least since 2015 all flag the significant disruptive power of social media to derail democratic dialogue. On the other hand and as importantly, though beyond the scope of this paper, social media advocacy and activism played a key role in the pushback against authoritarian creep during the unprecedented constitutional imbroglio towards the end of 2018.
Those who seek to disrupt or shape the outcome of the referendum need only to look at the UK, Scottish and Colombian examples. Facebook and social media can be weaponised to be accelerants of discord, instead of platforms for democratic dissent. A few powerful accounts (i.e. voices) over social media are enough to seed doubt, which then spreads across the 18–34 demographic in Sri Lanka in light of the very poor media literacy as well. In Sri Lanka, while the incumbent government has struggled with political communication especially around the constitutional reform process and referendum, the various political formations led by the former President Rajapaksa command the media headlines, and shape social media discourse. In a vacuum of any coherent framing by the government, spoiler dynamics by those privately or publicly opposed to a new constitution infuse key social media networks. The inevitable result does not require academic research to divine. As noted by Castells, ‘networks matter because they are the underlying structure of our lives. And without understanding their logic we cannot change their programmes to harness their flexibility to our hopes, instead of relentlessly adapting ourselves to the instructions received from their unseen codes.”’
Looking at key terms in English and Sinhala that capture constitutional reform on Facebook and Twitter, from 2015 to March 2019, there is strong evidence around how in the absence of any strategic output, framing and intervention on social media by the government, the reform agenda is overwhelmed by negative, antagonistic and oppositional framing produced by detractors, spoilers and significantly, leading politicians from the Rajapaksa regime. Considering the agenda-setting effects of social media, and in a context where the digital informs and influences traditional media coverage and framing, volumetric visualisations of key producers as well as more qualitative analysis of key frames of discourse indicate that the hostility towards the reform agenda is manufactured through misinformation and production of partial truths, promoted and projected by actors who have a vested interest in seeing any reform agenda or process fail.
In sum, since 2015 the government of Sri Lanka has embarked on a major constitutional reform exercise without sufficiently acknowledging key socio-political, technological, discursive, disruptive and democratic features of the country’s electorate evident through even the most cursory study of social media.
Sanjana Hattatuwa is a doctoral student at the University of Otago, New Zealand and a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Policy Alternatives, Colombo, Sri Lanka.