Information Society is Rising in Sri Lanka: ARE YOU READY?

Launch of the top-line report of a survey on the consumption and perceptions of mainstream and social media in the Western Province of Sri Lanka, 27 Jan 2016

Launch of the top-line report of a survey on the consumption and perceptions of mainstream and social media in the Western Province of Sri Lanka, 27 Jan 2016

On 27 January 2016, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) launched the top-line report of a survey on the consumption and perceptions of mainstream and social media in the Western Province of Sri Lanka.

I was one of the launch speakers, and my presentation was titled: Information Society is Rising in Sri Lanka: ARE YOU READY?

The report draws on a survey of 1,743 randomly selected men and women, interviewed in Sinhala or Tamil language during June-July 2015. They were asked about mobile phone use and web access. The survey was conducted by Social Indicator, CPA’s survey research unit.

As the launch media release noted, “From the use of Facebook to smartphones, from news on TV to news via SMS, from how information read digitally is spread to others who are offline, the report offers insights into how content is produced, disseminated and discussed in Sri Lanka’s most densely populated province and home to the country’s administrative and business hubs.

It added: “The report offers government, media, civil society and social entrepreneurs insights into the platforms, vectors, languages and mediums through which news & information can best seed the public imagination.”

Dilrukshi Handunnetti (centre) speaks as Nalaka Gunawardene (left) and Iromi Perera listen at the launch on 27 Jan 2016 in Colombo

Dilrukshi Handunnetti (centre) speaks as Nalaka Gunawardene (left) and Iromi Perera listen at the launch on 27 Jan 2016 in Colombo – Photo by Sampath Samarakoon

In my remarks, I said it was vital to draw more insights on what I saw as ‘demand-side’ of media. But at the same time, I noted how a growing number of media consumers are no longer passively receiving, but also critiquing, repackaging and generating related (or new) content on their own.

I applauded the fact that this survey’s findings are shared in the public domain – in fact, Iromi Perera, head of Social Indicator, offered to share the full dataset with any interested person. This contrasts with similar surveys conducted by market research companies that are, by their very nature, not going to be made public.

A case in point: Jaffna has highest per capita Internet penetration in Sri Lanka, according to a market research by TNS Sri Lanka – but neither the findings nor methodology is available for scrutiny.

Why do demand-side insights being available in the public domain matter so much? I cited four key reasons:

  • The new government is keen on media sector reforms at policy and regulatory levels: these should be based on evidence and sound analysis, not conjecture.
  • Media, telecom and digital industries are converging: everyone looking for ‘killer apps’ and biz opps (but only some find it).
  • Media companies are competing for a finite advertising budget: knowing more about media consumption can help improve production and delivery.
  • Advertisers want the biggest bang for their buck: Where are eyeballs? How to get to them? Independent studies can inform sound decision-making.

On this last point, I noted how Sri Lanka’s total ad spend up to and including 2014 does not show any significant money going into digital advertising. According to Neilsen Sri Lanka, ad-spending is dominated by broadcast TV, followed by radio an print. Experience elsewhere suggests this is going to change – but how soon, and what can guide new digital ad spending? Studies like this can help.

I also highlighted some interesting findings of this new study, such as:

  • Private TV is most popular source of news, followed by Facebook/web.
  • Across different age groups, smartphone is the device most used to access web
  • Online culture of sharing engenders TRUST: peer influence is becoming a key determinant in how fast and widely a given piece of content is consumed

None of this surprises me, and in fact confirms my own observations as a long-standing observer and commentator of the spread of ICTs in Sri Lanka.

Everyone – from government and political parties to civil society groups and corporates – who want to engage the Lankan public must take note of the changing media consumption and creation patterns indicated by this study, I argued.

I identified these big challenges particularly for civil society and others engaged in public interest communication (including mainstream and citizen journalists):

  • Acknowledge that we live in a media-rich information society (Get used to it!)
  • Appreciate that younger Lankans consume and process media content markedly differently from their elders and previous generations
  • Understand these differences (stop living in denial)
  • Leverage the emerging digital pathways and channels for social advocacy & public interest work

In my view, rising to this challenge is not a CHOICE, but an IMPERATIVE!

I ended reiterating my call for more research on information society issues, and with particular focus on mobile web content access which trend dominates user behaviour in Sri Lanka.

Award winning journalist Dilrukshi Handunnetti, and head of Social Indicator Iromi Perera were my fellow panelists at the launch, which was moderated by the study’s co-author and CPA senior researcher Sanjana Hattotuwa.

L to R - Dilrukshi Handunnetti, Iromi Perera, Sanjana Hattotuwa at CPA report launch, Colombo, 27 Jan 2016

L to R – Dilrukshi Handunnetti, Iromi Perera, Sanjana Hattotuwa at CPA report launch, Colombo, 27 Jan 2016

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