Extraordinary times, these. Aside from everything already published on the President’s actions, my fear – which has grown since 2015 – is that politics in Sri Lanka amongst the largest vote base is negotiated through and predominantly framed by vicious, divisive commentary and content, robbing electoral processes of vitality and validity. Most of what I’ve done in recent years, written on, championed and studied is around the net effects of ever greater division over social media, and how that, in turn, impacts kinetic, real-world interactions.
This is why the President’s actions are so devastating.
He has, single-handedly and overnight, normalized the illegal, unconscionable and unconstitutional. The immediate effect of this was to render constitutional rule optional instead of integral to and inextricably entwined with democratic tradition – one which Sri Lanka has even through the worst violence, never once risked or ridiculed in this way. The legacy will be felt for decades hence, if not reversed through Parliament. It will impact everyone, including everyone who volubly cheers on, or is apathetic towards, Sirisena’s actions. Further, the appointment of Rajapaksa has visibly galvanized physically – as awfully evident in the photos and broadcasts from last week – as well as exponentially over social media, racist, nationalist, xenophobic voices who are amongst the chief architects of and apologists for ethno-religious violence, post-war. Finally, Sirisena has abrogated in spectacular fashion any and all promises around good governance, bringing back into power the very individuals he has publicly and privately, spoken out again, and with good reason. The impact on young voters who supported him and were galvanized by a promise of a different, more decent, democratic political culture, is incalculably devastating.
Revealingly though, the capture and transfer of power, both unprecedented and unconstitutional, hasn’t been met with widespread opposition by the citizenry. My doctoral research affords a unique perspective into these terrible developments. Read the following in light of the brutish takeover of state print and electronic media on Friday night itself, and extending to the weekend, the immediate and complete deletion of all content from the Prime Minister’s official website, the insertion of a photo of Mahinda Rajapaksa on its homepage, pictures of the military and the IGP saluting, exchanging tokens, pleasantries and plans with Rajapaksas, a traditional propaganda machine on overdrive and not a single domestic media channel, paper or platform courageous enough to critically question key individuals involved in the constitutional coup.
Gossip sites, in Sinhala, are the predominant purveyors of political news and opinion. They are by order of magnitude engaged with more than Sinhala mainstream news accounts. English mainstream news sources, quite literally, flatline in comparison. The qualitative nature of content on these sites, this week, fetishized the army, militant Buddhist monks and former members of the armed forces in custody, on trial for murder. Overall, content overtly partial to Mahinda Rajapaksa as an individual, the Rajapaksas as a family and the SLPP as a political party, overwhelmed all other content from political actors over Facebook and Twitter, in Sinhala and English. The total control of state media led to framing and content that openly celebrated Mahinda Rajapaksa and ridiculed the incumbent Prime Minister, and his party. Over social media, private media partial to the Rajapaksa, with massive numbers of followers and engagement, also engaged in the legitimisation of the President’s actions. On social media, several user of Twitter noticed a rapid increase in bots following them, suggesting the activation of investments around what’s called algorithmic propaganda – the use of computational methods to influence public perceptions on social media. On social media, misinformation – the deliberate spread of falsehood – dominated every single Facebook and Twitter account partial to Sirisena or the Rajapaksas. This included a Photoshopped letter purportedly penned by Ranil Wickremesinghe asking UN Peacekeepers to come into the country – a risible request, but one that even when clearly, officially and repeatedly denied, was engineered to spread virally. Memes generated on Facebook, engaged with and shared by the tens of thousands if not more, celebrated Rajapaksa and often venomously decried Wickremesinghe. I summed it up on 30th October, after the quantitative study of hundreds of thousands of posts and the individual, qualitative study of a lesser number, that the content pro-Rajapaksa, SLPP, JO, Sinhala-Buddhist, racist, communal, violently exclusive, vicious, anti-UNP and anti-Wickremesinghe. The SLPP sported an amazing array of self-styled experts on constitutional matters, offering the most ridiculous interpretations and yet by virtue of airtime, broadcast and publication, managed to galvanise public attention. A rally organized by the UNP, joined by others organized by civil society, barely got any coverage on state media or domestic, private media. The astonishing, anomalous fact that at the end of the week, only China, Burundi and Pakistan had recognized Mahinda Rajapaksa as PM, and every single other bilateral, multilateral entity including the UN, EU and the governments of India, UK, US, Australia, Canada, Norway and others, calling for a restoration of democracy and the reconvening of Parliament, wasn’t reported in domestic media.
The common term ‘echo chambers’ to describe the partisan divides online don’t capture what I observed last week. Pro-UNP or Wickremesinghe supporters or those interested in constitutional rule who were bunched up with this group versus those in favour of Rajapaksa or Sirisena constituted competing frames of contemporary politics at complete, violent odds with each other. Each group is large and growing, but the pro-Rajapaksa group dominates the discourse and framing, by far – supported by algorithms that clearly reward content that the more viciously contentious, is the most visibly viral. The intoxication of engagement hides the toxicity of the exchanges. And very clearly, live video on Facebook now competes with, and very likely far exceeds in a certain demographic, terrestrial TV broadcast. Some of the video streams feature over ten thousand comments.
All this suggests, if nothing else, that the Rajapaksas (greatly aided now by Presidential fiat) have calculated and planned for – with great accuracy and skill – Sirisena’s actions to be judged in the domain of populist politics, and not on the basis of constitutional merit or legality. It is clear from the SLPP’s public rhetoric that they do not want to risk the fragile legitimacy of Mahinda Rajapaksa domestically, and the near-total non-recognition of his appointment internationally, with physical violence. This is why, combined with what has traditionally been an entirely decrepit, elitist and utterly useless communications strategy, at best, from the PM and by the UNP, the Sirisena-Rajapaksa combine has focused so much attention on the media. In what I see today on social media, signature misinformation strategies of certain countries, well-studied elsewhere in recent years, are evident, and clearly used to seed, sow and subsequently reap the benefits of a hyper-polarised polity and society, partial to authoritarianism in the guise of national security, stability, security, safety and economic growth.
Coupled with a purchasing power measured in the millions of dollars, more than equal to the greed of politicians, Basil Rajapaksa’s brilliant political strategizing, Namal Rajapaksa’s rock-star appeal, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s undying charisma, Sirisena’s power and authority extending to the abuse of state resources, the near total control of social media framing and the blanket coverage of misinformation broadly accepted as factual, normal, legally sound or fair, I am not optimistic about a return to or restoration of democracy. We have crossed a Rubicon. I have been repeatedly asked this week as to what the future holds. Frankly, I just do not know, because as of the 26th of October, anything goes. We should all be deeply anxious, apprehensive and angry. Tellingly, only a few of us are.
First published in The Sunday Island, 4 November 2018.