“Every citizen – including activists and academics — can play a part in shaping the future of our democracy. In this, technology is not the only key driver; what matters even more is the strategic use of our imagination and determination.
“We may not yet have all the detailed answers of our digital future, but one thing is clear. In 2015, we the people of Sri Lanka embarked on a progressive digitalization of our politics and governance.
“It is going to be a bumpy road – be forewarned — but there is no turning back.”
Since then, things have evolved further. In this essay, I look at how the Elections Commission, political parties, election candidates, civil society advocacy groups and individual cyber activists have used various social media tools and platforms in the run-up to, during and immediately after the Parliamentary Election.
“What role (if any) did social media play in the recently concluded General Election on 17 August 2015?
“Many are asking this question – and coming up with different answers. That is characteristic of the cyber realm: there is no single right answer when it comes to a multi-faceted and fast-evolving phenomenon like social media.
“Shortly after the Presidential Election of 8 January 2015 ended, I called it Sri Lanka’s first cyber election. That was based on my insights from over 20 years of watching and chronicling the gradual spread of information and communications technologies (ICTs) in Sri Lanka and the resulting rise of an information society.
“That was not the first time social media had figured in Lankan election campaigns. The trend started slowly some years ago, with a few tech-aware politicians and advertising agencies using websites, Facebook pages and twitter accounts for political outreach. However, such uses did not reach a ‘critical mass’ in the general and presidential elections held in 2010, or in the provincial and local government elections held thereafter.
“By late 2014, that changed significantly but this time the frontrunners were politically charged and digitally empowered citizens, not politicians or their support teams.”
The above is an extract from an op-ed I have just written and published in Daily Mirror broadsheet national newspaper in Sri Lanka (3 Sep 2015).
In this week’s Ravaya column, (in Sinhala, appearing in issue of 26 July 2015), I review how Lankan politicians and political parties are using social media in the run-up to the general election to be held on 17 August 2015.
In particular, I look at how President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe are using Facebook and Twitter (mostly to ‘broadcast’ their news and images, and hardly ever to engage citizens). I also remark on two other politicians who have shown initiative in social media use, i.e. former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and JHU leader Champika Ranawaka (both of who have held live Q&As on social media with varying degrees of engagement).
I raise questions like these: Can political parties afford to not engage 25% of Lankan population now regularly using the web? When would election campaigners – rooted in the legacy media’s practice of controlling and fine-tuning messages – come to terms with the unpredictable and sometimes unruly nature of social media?
While politicians, their campaigners and parties struggle to find their niches on social media, politically conscious citizens need to up their game too. Cyber literacy has been slower to spread than mere internet connectivity in Sri Lanka, and we need enlightened and innovative use of social media in the public interest. Every citizen, activist and advocacy group can play a part.
Speech of the President Maithripala Sirisena – 14 July 2015 (in Sinhala)
Sirisena’s speech outlined his key actions and accomplishments since being elected less than 200 days ago in one of the biggest election surprises in Lankan political history. He was mildly defensive of his low-key style of governance, which includes extended periods of silence.
I’ll leave it for political scientists and activists to analyse the substance of the President’s Bastille Day speech. My concern here is why he waited this long.
If a week is a long time in politics, 10 days is close to an eon in today’s information society driven by 24/7 broadcast news and social media. An issue can evolve fast, and a person can get judged and written off in half that time.
For sure, there is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak – and the President must have had some good reasons keep mum. But in this instance, he paid a heavy price for it: he was questioned, ridiculed and maligned by many of us who had heartily cheered him only six months ago. (Full disclosure: I joined this chorus, creating several easy-to-share ‘memes’ and introducing an unkind twitter hashtag: #අයියෝසිරිසේන.)
Sri Lanka’s democratic recovery can’t afford too much of this uncertainty and distraction created by strategic presidential silences. Zen-like long pauses don’t sit well with impatient citizen expectations.
And the President himself must reconsider this strategy (if it is indeed one) — his political opponents are hyperactive in both mainstream and social media, spinning an endless array of stories that discredit him.
Until a generation ago, we used to say that a lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes. In today’s networked society, when information travels at the speed of light, fabrications and half-truths spread faster than ever.
Public trust in leaders and institutions is also being redefined. Transparent governance needs political leaders to keep talking with their citizens, ideally in ways that enrich public conversations.
President Sirisena is not the only Lankan leader who needs to catch up with this new communications reality. When a controversy erupted over how the Central Bank of Sri Lanka handled Treasury Bond issue on February 27, the government took more than two weeks to respond properly.
In a strict legalistic or technocratic sense, Wickremesinghe was probably right (as he usually is). But in the meantime, too many speculations had circulated, some questioning the new administration’s commitment to transparency and accountability. Political detractors had had a field day.
Could it have been handled differently? Should the government spokespersons have turned more defensive or even combative?
More generically, is maintaining a stoic silence until full clarity emerges realistic when governments no longer have a monopoly over information dissemination? Is it ever wise, in today’s context, to stay quiet hoping things would eventually blow away? How does this lack of engagement affect public trust in governments and governance?
These are serious questions that modern day politicians and elected officials must address. In my view, we need a President and Prime Minister who are engaged with citizens — so that we are not left guessing wildly or speculating endlessly on what is going on.
No, this is not a call for political propaganda, which has also been sidelined by the increasingly vocal social media voices and debates.
What we need is what I outlined in an open letter to President Sirisena in January: “As head of state, we expect you to strive for accuracy, balance and credibility in all communications. The last government relied so heavily on spin doctors and costly lobbyists both at home and abroad. Instead, we want you to be honest with us and the outside world. Please don’t airbrush the truth.”
Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene has been chronicling and analysing the rise of new media in Sri Lanka since the early 1990s. He is active on Twitter @NalakaG and blogs at http://nalakagunawardene.com
Emerging Digital Democracy? Social Media and Sri Lanka’s Presidential Election 2015
This was the topic of a public talk I gave at the University of London on 12 Feb 2015.
It was organised and hosted by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London in collaboration with the Commonwealth Journalists’ Association (CJA).
They lined up the University’s Senate Room for the talk, which was attended by a South Asian audience who engaged me in a lively discussion.
Synopsis of the talk:
A record 81.5% of registered voters took part in Sri Lanka’s presidential election on 8 January 2015 in which incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated by his former health minister Maithripala Sirisena. The peaceful regime change has been widely acclaimed as a triumph of democracy and a mandate for political reform, improved governance and national reconciliation.
The election saw unprecedented use of social media by both candidates as well as by politically charged yet unaffiliated youth. How much of this citizen awakening can be attributed to the fast spread of smartphones and broadband? Did it really influence how people voted? What does this mean for future politics and governance in Sri Lanka?
In this illustrated talk, science journalist and new media watcher (and practitioner) Nalaka Gunawardene shares his insights and views.
With over 10 million others, I voted in Sri Lanka’s sixth Presidential Election yesterday. Today, after the votes were counted and tallied, we were informed that the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been re-elected for another six year term. He has won 57.9% of the valid votes.
Nearly 11,000 polling stations had been set up for this purpose, mostly at temples or schools. A quarter of a million public servants were mobilised to handle this massive operation, while close to 100,000 policemen and soldiers were tasked to maintain law and order. And the whole business of choosing the next leader is costing the war-impoverished nation several billion rupees.
So do the results — basically, more of the same — justify all this cost and effort? Was there real choice for us the hopeful little men (and women) who walked into little booths with little pencils in hand to make a little cross on a (not so) little bit of paper?
Opinion is highly polarised on that last question. The two main candidates not only tried to outpromise each other without coherence or focus, but also made a mockery out of the whole campaign process.
In fact, as I noted in my essay last week titled Open Moment, Closed Minds: “Party politics has always polarised Lankans, but no other election in recent memory has been as divisive…The two main contenders both claim to hold a mutually exclusive key to a better future for our land and people. Their dizzy campaigns bombard us with lofty claims and counter-claims 24/7 delivered through broadcast, broadband, mobile and other media.”
The election results will be analysed and debated for weeks to come. At first glance, it looks as if the voters used this election to express gratitude to Rajapaksa for having provided the political leadership to end Sri Lanka’s long-drawn civil war.
We can argue whether presidential elections should be turned into referendums on individual performance of candidates – or instead, decided on the vision and policies offered by them. I grant this is a bit more serious than American Idol – or its local variations – where we text our preference for the candidate with the best looks or talent.
In fact, I’m still not convinced whether it’s such a good idea to mix personal gratitude with voting for a head of state.
I’ve voted in four presidential and three general elections (I missed some due to overseas travel). With one exception (1994), all have been ‘protest votes’ – I was voting against an incumbent more than in favour of an aspirant.
But there are more things in heaven and on Earth, dear reader, than are dreamt in our messy politics. Albert Einstein said it so well many decades ago: “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”
We can only hope that our votes were properly counted — and that they count and matter to the leader whom we have collectively chosen today. That is, if he can see and hear beyond the cacophony of sycophants who surround him 24/7.
And as I tweeted earlier today: As Sri Lanka re-elects the President, we hope ALL 20 million Lankans can share the promise of a Better Future on which he campaigned and won…