How vibrant social media is undermining a politically biased media culture

7 November 2018 12:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Around 2:00 pm on the afternoon of November 2, actor turned politician Ranjan Ramanayake went live on Facebook. He is an artiste, a popular personality at that, and when Facebook launched live, it was celebrities like Ranjan that were the stars.   

In this case, however, Ranjan Ramanayake was wearing his other hat, that of the MP. He went live from within the corridors of parliament. He had just come out of a meeting where MP’s representing the UNP, JVP, TNA, SLMC and other parties had pledged support to reconvening parliament as soon as possible.   

The 19-minute video is an eye-opener at so many levels. It gives an undiluted insight into the democratization of the public information sphere that social media can engineer. The video was partisan, obviously, he represents a political party and an agenda, there was not a shade of doubt on that. Gone was the veneer adapted by news channels to assume that pretense of impartiality .   

Ranjan Ramanayake was interviewing MP’s on the just concluded meeting and their take. Gone too were the sterile stand and deliver of the usual on camera reporting. This was spontaneous and unscripted. You can clearly hear Ramanayake desperately searching for the JVP representative to get hold of him. Some MP’s look stupefied into the phone before being told that they are live on Facebook. Four days after the video was posted – it had been watched over 104,000 times and shared over 1700 times.Ramanayake has around 745,000 following his page.   

Just before Ranjan used Facebook to reach out live, another of his colleagues Nalin Bandara also used the same platform to send out images, including a selfie, of the meeting. Social media has become the main source of information for tens of thousands of Sri Lankans and during the current political turmoil, it has become a cleaning house of info, rumour, political skullduggery and fake news. It is where all this is posted first. 

The 19-minute video is an eye-opener at so many levels. It gives an undiluted insight into the democratization of the public information sphere that social media can engineer 

Politician will use it, unabashedly for his/her own benefit, like they have used everything else. There have been many complaints that state media flipped over on Friday, the 26th night. It did, but there were such flips every time governments have changed. The difference this time was that those who came for the takeover had no idea about subtlety. Private media fare no better. Reliant of algorithms that push for engagements, social media will allow for computated manipulation, though we are yet to see any evidence of such during the ongoing political turmoil here.   

But it also allows for the unfretted flow of info. The cabala-like hold that media groups have on information is no longer sacrosanct. In Sri Lanka’s highly politicized and embarrassingly partial media landscape, what you decide to keep out of reporting is as vital as what is being reported. Social media has made sure that keeping stuff out now is far more difficult than ever before.   

Social media that allows for those like Ramanayake and Namal Rajapaksa (his live feed of the pro-Rajapaksa rally racked over 3000 shares and 120,000 views) to remove the media conduit, also makes anyone with access to the platform come out with his/her opinions, lies and info.   

Social media has become the main source of information for tens of thousands of Sri Lankans and during the current political turmoil, it has become a cleaning house of info, rumour, political skullduggery and fake news

And so, it was that people were calculating the bribes that have been offered for crossovers, calculating that with the number of preferential votes and even calling the MPs and seeking their part of the loot. The recordings were on social media very quickly.   

This is a political backroom drama that is played out in the full glare of social media. Only the super secret now can be kept out, even that with the greatest of efforts – everything else gets on to Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, almost instantaneously. It is a rumbling, raucous argument that is taking place there. Many have tried to control that line, none has succeeded.   

Democracy is a messy business.   

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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