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Hashtag battles

5 December 2018 12:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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There are political moments – like when President Maithripala Sirisena addressed the media after his defection in November 2014 or Speaker Karu Jayasuriya surrounded by police officers without badges conducting parliament seated on the side next to a wall, an act of defiance as powerful as that of Sirisena, four years back.   

These moments, sometimes choreographed, have been catalysts for political movements in Sri Lanka. The campaigns then get coated with catchphrases, slogans and visuals. With the October 26 political drama, we have seen a new aspect of Sri Lanka’s political campaigns – Hashtags.   

The first time I noticed a serious traction on political hashtags on social media in Sri Lanka was during 2014-2015 presidential polls. That was when #PresPollSLgained popularity. Before that Mahinda Rajapaksa had somewhat pioneered the use of social media for political campaigns in Sri Lanka with his interactive Facebook and Twitterengagements. He even did live interviews.   

It took till the next political upheaval here to show how between 2015 and 2018 social media had evolved into a pivot for political campaigns from a sideshow. With six million Facebook accounts of Sri Lankan origin and over one billion content points on Facebook and affiliated platforms

It took till the next political upheaval here to show how between 2015 and 2018 social media had evolved into a pivot for political campaigns from a sideshow. With six million Facebook accounts of Sri Lankan origin and over one billion content points on Facebook and affiliated platforms, this was bound to happen.   
There have been a cluster of hashtags that have evolved around the sacking of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, among which #CoupLK, #ConsitututionalCrisisSriLanka and #ConstitutionalCrisislk have been prominent.   

Take #CoupLK which generated over 70 tweets on December 1 that had the potential to impact over 7.7 million accounts given the reach and engagement of those tweets #ConstututionalCrisisSriLanka was featured in over 90 tweets with a possible impact reach of around 6.6 million accounts. According to researcher Sanjana Hattotuwa there have been over 150,000 tweets with hashtags linked to the October 26 sacking since the event.   

Two of these have had two very interesting evolution = #RiseUpSL and #LetMeVote. The former was the tag line used by civil society groups and others that rose up against the sacking. It had the backing of UNP members, MPs of other parties and various political and civic groups but was not necessarily a creation of any one of them. The latter on the other hand had much more clear political links, it was created by MR supporters who were campaigning for elections.   

A month after the sacking, both campaigns ironically seem to be spearheaded by the same accounts or had merged or one had been hijacked by supporters of the other. By volume #LetMeVote was higher, but several accounts with very clear political biases were among the top most active accounts on both hashtags.   

During the last week of November#RiseUpSL was used in 754 posts while #LetMeVote was used in 692 posts, the former had a potential reach of 331,000 accounts while the latter had around 321,000. What these two movements showed us how easily a political hashtag, for that matter any hashtag, could be taken over or drowned out by another. By the sheer volume of tweets one can overshadow the other. Also, an orgainsed campaign where handles and accounts work in tandem can work far more cohesively than an organic campaign.   

During the last week of November #RiseUpSL was used in 754 posts while #LetMeVote was used in 692 posts, the former had a potential reach of 331,000 accounts while the latter around 321,000. What these two movements showed is how easily a political hashtag, for that matter any hashtag, can be taken over or drowned out by another

Facebook has had a different dynamic since October 26. What was once the unambiguous fiefdom of the Rajapakas and gossip, has seen a significant shift. According to Hattotuwa’s research the interaction and engagement on UNP and linked posts have shown a significant rise since October 26.   

It is not clear why this shift is taking place, but a safe assumption is that the Rajapaksa-centred Facebook activity was part of a planned, long-term political PR campaign which slotted into the echo-chamber effect like-minded users engaging, while the changes since October 26 possibly show a much more organic shift with users seeking out info on their own.   

Another reason could be the lack of UNP point of view and related news on the main electronic and other news channels.   

The author is the Asia-Pacific Coordinator for the DART Centre for Journalism and Trauma, a project of Columbia Journalism School. Twitter - @amanthap

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