The offline effect

Curating, as I have since 2008, online media during election violence monitoring offers insights into the way voters react to propaganda, political parties and politicians. Take for example the lead up to the Presidential Election in January 2015 and the General Election in August of the same year. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s online social media campaigning was at its most febrile. Hundreds of newly spawned accounts on Twitter, dozens of Facebook pages coupled with text messaging and even content over apps like WhatsApp were coordinated or inspired, at the time, by architects of propaganda in leading advertising firms as well as the private sector.

The conversations leading up to the Presidential Election refrained from naming key individuals or specific candidates – a fervent desire for change and the importance of going out to vote were key messages, variously articulated over a range of media online. This changed significantly around the General Election. For the first time in the country, Facebook itself asked users to go out and vote. The status message after a user said they voted contained a link to the Elections Department website, which perhaps given the amount of people clicking through, promptly crashed early on election day. More interesting though was what was shared openly on social media and online. Many on Facebook used the platform to publicly reveal who they were voting for, why and encouraged others to vote for the same candidates or party. Whereas leading up to the Presidential Election a groundswell of opinion on social media was around regime change, the majority of users leading up to the General Election openly stated voting preferences, political opinion or political opposition. The pro-Rajapaksa camp had launched a concerted misinformation, disinformation and smear campaign, but it didn’t get the expected traction or support. I’ve written earlier noting that one reason for this could be the opening up of the discursive spaces online resulting in the former regime’s modus operandi – controlling information flows within a tightly censored space – falling apart. With hundreds of independent, critical voices, in Tamil, Sinhala and English, all publishing at the same time and calling to question the awful record of the former President and those in his government, the usual use of incendiary language by anonymous proxies and production of misleading information did not have the same impact as would have been possible under a repressive political context.

These information flows are extremely important to study. A report of a survey by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), which I helped design and will be publicly released this week, provides some insight into what are already mature, robust platforms for debate, and key vectors of news and information for young adults. The survey, conducted in the Western Province in July last year, looked at the consumption patterns around and perceptions of mainstream as well as social media. 1,743 respondents were interviewed in person, and the survey was conducted in both the Sinhala and Tamil. 70% of the respondents were between 18 – 34.

Half of those polled say that what they consumed through social or mainstream media compelled them to find out more about an issue. Upon receiving an interesting news article via email, 55.9% of respondents are likely share it with others. Furthermore, 61.5% say they created awareness amongst family and friends over something they learnt about online, suggesting the influence of content on social media in particular, and online content in general, extends to groups well beyond those who are directly connected to, and participating in these online networks. This also puts to rest the often quoted myth that since Internet penetration is relatively low in the country, content shared online has little to no footprint in the larger public consciousness.

Over half of those polled (51.5%) say that a news article, at first untrusted, if shared on social media shared by a friend, would make them re-consider their initial opinion. The ‘Facebook effect’ means that in a country with relatively poor media literacy, the demographic most interested in politics and get their primary information from online sources will tend to believe more what goes viral or is popular at any given time, which is often far removed from accurate and impartial content.

Over 42% believe MPs should use social media to engage with the public – note the stress on engage, when the majority of politicians and official social media accounts of government merely publish information.

Private television is the most popular source of news for the respondents, followed by Facebook and the Internet/web. When breaking down the findings by age category though, Facebook is the main source of news for 18 – 24 year olds. It could well be that short digital video clips of longer programmes appeal to a demographic that doesn’t watch TV, on a TV.

For 77.3% of the respondents, the smartphone is the primary device they access the Internet from. One take-away from this is that information or advocacy campaigns that aren’t geared to be consumed on palm, or navigated by thumb, simply won’t work.

Over the past year, around 50% of the respondents said that they decided to learn more about a political or social issue because of something they read online or something they learnt through mainstream media. Those who bemoan the death of media can take heart. This figure also indicates the enduring nexus between how public opinion is shaped by what is reported, and by extension, highlights the importance of urgently reshaping what remains a deeply partisan, conservative and retrograde mainstream media agenda.

For respondents aged 35 and above, a reduction in the monthly rental cost will see an increase of their usage, while for the 18 – 24 age group it is mainly an increase in their data package (42.7%) and for the 25 – 34 age group is better speed (41.6%). Cost may not be a factor when parents and caregivers subsidise or entirely pay for consumption, but is clearly a determinant the older users get, when other economic factors compete with maintaining online activities.

Studying, understanding and leveraging these rich terrains for debate is critical, especially over 2016. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe said last week that social media will be employed in the process of making the new constitution. Civil society is increasingly animated around the potential of engaging citizens around issues like transitional justice and constitutional reform. CPA’s survey supports through data, generated from the most densely populated province in the country and home to the country’s administrative and business hubs, how deeply social media in particular is already embedded in the shaping of public discourse. The findings are also a warning around how quickly disinformation and misinformation campaigns over media can derail even the best laid plans, and good intent.

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Published in The Sunday Island, 24 January 2016

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