A coup’s normalisation is key to long-term success. Architects of an unconstitutional transfer of power have to quickly give the impression everything is under control and nothing is going awry, so as to allay public fears, even amongst ardent supporters, that it may lead to more widespread chaos or instability. By 9 November 2018, just under a fortnight into the constitutional imbroglio the President plunged country into – things were not going well for him or the Rajapaksas. Looking at what was evident upon studying social media content and commentary at the time, I called is a ‘narrative roadblock’. The Rajapaksas had run out of stories, and the organic, public resistance to the arbitrary transfer of a Prime Minister was growing apace. The highest engagement at the time was around an interview Muttiah Muralitharan – the enduringly useful spinner for the Rajapaksas – did for television. ‘Jana Mahimaya’, a joint rally with the SLPP and SLFP had been announced days prior. Bizarrely, there was little to no further promotion of it, which meant interest in it had waned very quickly. A younger Rajapaksa kept publishing selfies even at this time – the crucial first stage of a coup – highlighting what academics call an ‘ego-centric’ network, which is to say that everything promoted on social media accounts was about him, and nothing much else. Either he had already lost interest, or wasn’t planning on tainting his brand image and its appeal with a power grab doomed to fail.
Worth noting was that the UNP – as a party – and Ranil Wickremesinghe – as an individual – were entirely absent from any discernible strategic or political communication. An apocryphal story recounted to me had the UNP searching for a Sinhala typewriter, and then someone who could type in Sinhala, in order to update its Twitter account, only to find that no one in the party remembered the password to the account because it had lain unused for so long. The only reason I am partial to believe this is the sheer amount of social media accounts, now unused, associated with the UNP or its leader over the years, suggesting passwords are irrevocably forgotten on a regular basis. The lack of any counter-narrative from the UNP rendered the absence of propaganda from the Sirisena and Rajapaksa camps even more surprising. Given what was produced and how around the ‘Jana Balaya’ rally just months prior and the SLPP campaign for the Local Government election, the ‘narrative roadblock’ – evident only through the study of social media at scale – gave a clear indication of underlying issues President Sirisena confirmed to mainstream media only much later.
At 500 million rupees a rogue, new loyalties had proved to be too expensive to buy out in required numbers. Range Bandara’s recording of S.B. Dissanayake’s offer and resulting disclosure had severely impacted the optics of bribe giving and taking. The numbers in Parliament the architects of the coup had expected to be on their side, hadn’t crossed over. Things were not going to plan and getting worse.
Like Viagra for an election, weeks after the heady SLPP convention, the party’s candidate again relied on Muralitharan to boost flaccid engagement. Not a good sign. Last week, the official Facebook page of ‘Eliya’, a campaign intimately connected and referred to by the SLPP’s Presidential candidate, published a post purporting that the artefacts of a temple were being destroyed by a group of extremists. This post was subsequently boosted on Facebook through a paid ad to reach a broader audience. Tellingly, however, the post and ad were pegged to a story already debunked by AFP as completely and utterly false. The dog-whistling was clear – the extremists were Muslims, and the explicit call was to rise up against them. Facebook has as much to answer for here as the SLPP’s official campaign, for running and profiting from incendiary misinformation that promoted thinly veiled racism. The UNP is its own soap opera, and the less said, the better. The current state of affairs, ironically, makes it harder for the SLPP to focus on a certain set of individuals as their opposition or competition. The party and its leadership is clearly nugatory and risible, but a Presidential election is pegged far more to person and personality. Counter-intuitively, at least through the lens of data, the lack of a confirmed candidate has helped the UNP generate very high levels of engagement around rallies, gatherings, speeches and Q&A sessions organised by or around an individual many other MPs want to see as the party’s front-runner. The JVP and its confirmed candidate also enjoy episodic appeal whenever there is some public engagement. Significantly, the JVP’s appeal is more organic on social media in comparison to the UNP or SLPP, who individually benefit considerably from partisan coverage by two leading television stations, with a massive footprint on Facebook.
These dynamics over the past month will change, but it is clear that all the parties are waiting for the announcement of a date, after which nominations will follow. What can we expect? Gossip and memes on social media will be the primary platforms of political contestation, through open support, visible opposition or strategic distraction and intentional silence. In the past month, 628 pages linked to all the major political parties and politicians on Facebook got around 8.7 million interactions, a metric that measures how users on the platform interact with content. In other words, one measure of reach.
In comparison, around 380 gossip and meme pages got nearly 31 million interactions. For better or for worse, political framing and discussion is now anchored to pages entirely removed from ethics, integrity, democratic institutions or elected individuals. This is akin to a tobacco company spearheading the promotion of a lung cancer prevention programme. Political campaigns in the pages I track published 23,000 posts in the past month alone. This will exponentially increase in weeks to come. Over 2,600 videos of rallies, gatherings, Q&A sessions or conventions in just the past month resulted in over 600 hours of video uploaded, collectively viewed nearly 28 million times. Video uploaded to Facebook, including live and studio broadcasts produced by terrestrial television, was the primary vector of news and information during the 2018 constitutional coup. The presidential election will be as much a battle between mainstream media’s partisan bias as it is between candidates. Disturbingly, a cursory analysis of content on Twitter indicates there is no common narrative, which means that very few are even exposed to the perspectives of a competing party or candidate. With no common narrative, hostile, violent or oppositional framing of competing candidates will grow. With unashamedly partisan mainstream media, this dynamic will both widen and deepen in the weeks to come, amplifying political divides instead of a more independent, critical framing of men and manifestos. Given what the SLPP has already done, ads on Facebook will be taken out to weaponise rumours and anxieties, unless urgent measures are taken to approve and track the promotion of propaganda more rigorously.
The first month of the presidential campaign, marked by the SLPP’s convention, is rich terrain for the study of social media’s influence and impact on political developments, and vice-versa. In comparison to the dynamics during 2018’s constitutional coup, there’s a lot that’s similar, but much that is very different. My fear remains that the integrity of Sri Lanka’s presidential election is increasingly hostage to new propaganda dynamics that existing regulations and laws fall short of addressing.
First published in The Sunday Island, 15 September 2019.