The missus versus manifesto

An unexpectedly tumultuous week at home left me little time to engage with the dynamics of the presidential campaign. This, in turn, brought newfound appreciation for how hard it must be for candidates to capture and retain the attention of those who aren’t, like myself, plugged into propaganda. The sheer volume of content produced – tens of thousands of posts daily on Facebook alone, just related to the campaigns – means citizens simply cannot keep up or cope with partisan tsunamis of promises. Unsurprisingly, many opt instead to inhabit spaces, both online and in real life, with the least friction against their political beliefs. The promise of the internet and social media to expose and connect diverse opinion ironically fails, simply because there’s just too much of diversity to get one’s head around. At some level, we all seek validation and the comfort of a space where one isn’t questioned incessantly about what one believes. And this is why, over time and at scale, the ‘constant campaigns’ – political propaganda disguised as normal content published or produced on pages, accounts and spaces not overtly or even remotely linked to politicians, parties or ideologies – are so powerful. By normalising what those in power want to see established or more of, over time, this content shapes the public imagination such that the exercise of franchise is manipulated long before an election (or referendum) is called or held. The more academic frames aside, the manifestation of this in daily life is interesting.

Purchasing a new monitor from Unity Plaza – that Mecca in Colombo for all things related to computing and peripherals – I was waiting for the delivery of my purchase listening to a loud, heated debate in the shop between four individuals, contesting the relative merits of Sajith Premadasa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa. They didn’t know me or care that I was present. Occasionally, as is the case in Sri Lanka, each interlocutor would glance at me after a point made about one of the two individuals, smile and seek acknowledgement by way of a nod or smile from me. I smiled many times, not because I was particularly interested in or partial to the points made, but that the discussion was happening in the first place, openly. This wasn’t the case late 2014, when social media and digital expression were the primary vectors or platforms of dissent at a time fear and anxiety were rife. It was during the Parliamentary Elections of 2015 that something extraordinary took place on Facebook. Many took to the platform, for the first time, to openly post content around who they were voting for and why. The comments under each post debated the merits of the stated position by author. Still, since it was largely between friends or acquaintances, the discussions were relatively civil, with the public nature of commentary amongst a known audience acting as an inhibition against more abusive or violent expression. The exchanges were thus anchored more to issues, histories, policies and the critical appreciation of promises, more than propaganda. Before 2014, leading blue-chip private sector companies in Sri Lanka had either explicitly forbidden or implicitly discouraged any political comment or content even on individual social media accounts. This has now changed. In sum, it is a good or even great thing. I’ve either heard or partaken in conversations about the presidential election at hospitals, malls, small shops in my neighbourhood, taxis and with the staff and security personnel at the airport. Many of these discussions have been punctured by content I’ve been shown, or others have been shown, the interlocutor had engaged with on Facebook or, increasingly, as WhatsApp forwards.

There’s a lot of political discussion and content around, digital in form and nature, but profoundly impacting the day to day conversations and interactions of those not connected directly to these platforms. In a week that both the UNP’s Sajith Premadasa and the SLPP’s Gotabaya Rajapaksa released their manifestos, you would think then that the substance of these important documents would generate the most amount of engagement, or interest. You’d be wrong. In the space of a week, photos framing each candidate with his respective wife generated, by order of magnitude, more reactions on Facebook than content around the launch of each respective manifesto. At the time of capture, a photo with Rajapaksa tying a pirith noola on his wife, who was captioned as his ‘silent partner’, generated 17 times more reactions than content around the release of his manifesto. A photo with Premadasa and his wife in a train compartment on the way to Kandy generated 6 times more reactions than the video around the release of the NDF’s manifesto. One reading is that the discussions one is privy to in public spaces is driven entirely by emotive reactions to personal frames. A photo or selfie generates much more engagement than a manifesto. Reading seems to be the issue here, which is counter-intuitive in a country with very high adult literacy. Video on Facebook, for example, on rallies, conventions or press conferences, of each leading candidate, is viewed tens of thousands of times, at least, live and then over a short period, watched as a recording millions of times. It is not surprising anymore to find a video of a critical rally or speech to be viewed many more times than the population of Sri Lanka. So while manifesto appears to be moot, engagement with video clips, carefully staged photos that look authentic or spontaneous, video streams and memes (cartoons) are astronomical.

What does this mean for the presidential election? I would go as far as to suggest that the spectacle of releasing a manifesto is now more important than the manifesto itself. I was never entirely convinced manifestos made a difference in the exercise of franchise in Sri Lanka. I am now even less convinced they have any impact on voting patterns, the more manifestos are released in digital and even tri-lingual form on the web and social media. The critical appreciation or blind following of policy, party or politicians is through frames and media entirely independent of these large, professionally produced PDFs (do they even print these anymore, I wonder?). Even floating voters may not read carefully every single manifesto to select their preference. Last week, as I’ve done since 2010, I visualised the English manifestos of Rajapaksa and Premadasa to help voters quickly grasp what each candidate was interested in, focused on or promised. Rajapaksa, for example, doesn’t mention human rights once, and only talks about rights in the context of the disabled. His manifesto is easier to read and more tightly penned, but Premadasa’s has a stronger and wider focus on rights, though it is shorter and more loosely edited. Prima facie, the two manifestos and their emphases are almost indistinguishable – both candidates, for example, come out very strong on national security. This is in stark contrast to the declarations of Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015 or between Sarath Fonseka and Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2010, where the difference in tone, thrust, frame and foci were immediately evident when visualised. In 2019, the devil – each candidate aside – is in the details. On the face of it, both Premadasa and Rajapaksa offer the same menu of options, just differently executed by individual, party, elder brother or extended family.

I would not be surprised to see the grandchild of Mahinda Rajapaksa appear in content that generates extraordinarily high engagement soon. The ‘aney me balanna’ and ‘like karanna nathuwana baa ne’ instinct are fueled by content many don’t know generate these reactions with a more pernicious intent. More than manifesto, political choice is today crafted by content that’s banal and basic. The emotive over the intellectual is something politicians have known and perfected for decades. Social media offers them new ways to pursue their dark arts. The virality of the missus over manifesto is proof of this. The test is how and if substance can win over soundbite, and policy over photograph.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 3 November 2019.

 

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