The government, despite strong opposition led by senior monk Anamaduwe Dhammadassi Thero, said last week that it will nevertheless continue to pursue the constitutional reform process, which will be put to a referendum. This comes after PM Wickremesinghe was reported in the media the week before saying the task of the Constitutional Assembly Steering Committee (CASC) will be to draft the new constitution in such a manner that will not require a public referendum. Adding to this confusion, data in the public domain over two years from Social Indicator, the social polling arm of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, suggests quite simply that if a referendum is held in the near future, the socio-political context is such that it is very difficult to see how a Yes vote would win. Given that a referendum is really an electoral litmus test of governance, entirely independent of the questions asked, the government is not on a winning wicket. Less well understood is another danger – in line with what is now a disturbing trend in other countries, including the West. But first, some data.
According to the official 2012 census, 23.2% of Sri Lanka’s population is between 20 – 34. In a survey around media consumption and perceptions in the Western Province of Sri Lanka, conducted late 2015 by Social Indicator, 42.2% of those polled said that it was necessary for Government Ministers to use social media to communicate with the public. Those between 18-34 wanted to see regular updates from the Ministry or Minister. 61.5% said that after they came across interesting content online, they went on to share and create awareness amongst friends and family. This last point is important, because it clearly suggests the importance of digitally produced content, online, having an impact on a far larger number of citizens than those directly connected to social media apps, the web and Internet. Data gleaned from the Elections Department suggests there were seven hundred thousand first time voters in January 2010 out of fourteen million in total. There were nine hundred and fifty-five thousand nine hundred and ninety first time voters in January 2015 out of over fifteen million in total. The total 18-34 vote bank of first to fourth time voters was over two million by mid-2017. This is around 13.3% of all registered voters. Indubitably, social media – through smartphones, Facebook in particular and increasingly on private groups over popular instant messaging apps – is the primary vector through which this demographic gets their news and information.
If and when the constitutional referendum is held, and any national or local election in the future, content engaged with over social media by a young demographic, including first time voters, will in large part determine the outcome. There is research from the US and the UK which looks into social media as a quantitative indicator of political behaviour, noting that heightened engagement does in fact translate into votes. Research done at the Colombo University suggests that students who directly work for politicians and act as co-ordinators (opinion leaders) between the politician and university undergraduates have been able to influence first time voters. The research goes on to note that social media acts as a multiplier effect, widening the reach of what (younger) politicians have to say by placing partisan content in peer groups.
Politics in Sri Lanka has gone digital, moving away from rally, newspaper ad, manifesto, radio or TV spot to hyper-local, demographically targeted, visually engaging, constantly updated, self-promoting content over social media, embracing sound, audio, video, photography and professional marketing skills outsourced to teams of skilled individuals who post on behalf of the leading influencers. Not a single account from the incumbent government springs to mind as a key example. The best of what is now an established set of vectors to influence votes comes from the JO writ large and in particular, individuals like MP Namal Rajapaksa.
And therein lies the rub.
Sri Lanka is no stranger to election violence and vote rigging through voter intimidation, disenfranchisement, ballot stuffing or somehow tampering the electoral registry. For a chilling few hours starting around 2am the morning of 9th January 2015, all election results froze. Desperate calls were made to ascertain why and the worry grew that dangerous measures were being contemplated in order to rig the result of an election which, as it turned out, had the largest turnout ever in a Presidential election. We may never know what really happened, but details of meetings held at this time at Temple Trees, involving highly placed members of the armed forces, Police and the then government are in the public domain. The partial amnesia of those who attended these meetings to recall who else was in the room also reveals the sensitive nature of what must have been contemplated. What however your author didn’t buy, despite a range of conspiracy theories, was the wholesale hacking of the vote counting system and network infrastructure. If as suggested, the tampering was done at the point of data entry by systematically manipulating figures, the high turnout coupled with what endures as an extremely laborious, manual system of sorting, counting and tabulation well before electronic data entry, was its own best safeguard. No doctored result would gain public legitimacy precisely because Sri Lanka’s voting architecture is so maddeningly archaic and labour intensive.
What can more easily happen today is the targeting of individual voters in a young demographic – who are influential and reciprocally, easily influenced. Information and media literacy remains, amongst this group and more widely, very poor in Sri Lanka. We do not critically engage with what we consume, and instead believe, spread, act on and respond to content that passes very poor or low subjective tests of credibility. As we discovered through our social polling in the Western Province (and reflected more globally) the Facebook News Feed is seen as a more trustworthy source of news and information entirely independent of source and veracity, simply because it is perceived as coming from friends and thereby having, unconsciously, a higher degree of trustworthiness. The voter is the new target of hacking. A new discipline called psychometrics is taking root around elections, that targets individuals or key socio-economic, geo-located, language, religious and ethnic groups with content geared to nudge them, over time, into positions that then act as proxies to an agenda set by others in power, or desirous of it. The sophistication of all this is quite remarkable, and is almost impossible to detect using traditional media monitoring techniques. What’s increasingly evident is that one of the aims of spoilers – those who want the status quo to continue and are inclined towards a No vote at our constitutional referendum – is to muddy the waters by getting citizens to disbelieve everything, become vehemently cynical and approach the promise of reform with apathy. This electoral disengagement means that the votes which are in fact counted are around the rejection of an idea or question, rather than the support of reform.
This level of demographic targeting, increasingly possible even in a small country like Sri Lanka along with more conventional means of propaganda, circumnavigates the labour intensive electoral system and the problems therein of mass scale vote rigging. What could in the past be achieved by more traditional means of violence and intimidation can now, on a daily basis, be engineered by carefully crafting media content that spreads over social media, shifting, over time, entire groups against or for ideas, exploiting what endures as an information and media literacy deficit. Put another way, the explosive growth of social media is in fact a risk for progressive, democratic forces, because it provides easy, cost effective vectors through which spoilers can now influence and reach key demographic groups, who don’t go to political rallies, have multiple, liquid affiliations with mainstream politics, aren’t card carrying party political members and don’t engage with mainstream media through broadcast and newsprint. However, what is a risk is also an opportunity. Much can be recommended in this regard, but it all starts with the one thing that is lacking to date – political leadership and will. The vacuum of doubt created by silence and the confusion created by inchoate official communication needlessly helps those intent on holding back our democratic progress and potential. It’s easy to demonize technology when traditional party-political architectures are far removed from the aspirations and hopes of young voters in particular. The truth is far older than a fascination with social media.
Reform requires political will. And that is precisely what we don’t see much of in Sri Lanka today.
First published in The Sunday Island, 9 July 2017.