So, we are looking at elections towards end November. The next two and-a-half months are going to be nothing short of full throttle.
Already some candidates are on the campaign trail. Gotabaya Rajapaksa(SLPP) and Anura Kumara Dissanayake (JVP) both have launched their campaign. In the case of the former, he was already the benefactor of a well-oiled social media campaign. The nuts and bolts of that machinery date back to the second tenure as President of his elder sibling Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The elder Rajapaksa was the first high profile Sri Lankan politician to engage on social media. In the years since his defeat in 2015, as he made sure that he was never relegated to a side story on the national political stage, social media was one of the main cogs in the PR effort. Namal Rajapaksa has been not far behind as were his siblings. Among them, especially between the ex-President and his eldest son they have built probably the most efficient social media coterie in Sri Lanka.
- The elder Rajapaksa was the first high profile Sri Lankan politician to engage on social media
- MP Ranjan Ramanayake used Facebook live to broadcast a meeting in parliament and it very quickly attracted over 500,000 views
- MR, Anura Kumara showed signs on how large a role social media is likely to play in the upcoming elections
In bulk of the political discourse on Sri Lanka social media sphere, the Rajapaksa accounts and the hundreds that support them rack up the most number of engagements. On Instagram, the Rajapaksa star power is accentuated by the show-biz personalities that orbit around the name. No other Sri Lankan politicians or a party has been successful in creating such a wide, effective social media web that has come in handy time and time again. If not for anything else the sheer volume can drown out others.
The situation changed somewhat during the constitutional crisis when those linked to the UNP and other parties used social media to circumvent the selective reportage of national media. In one instance MP Ranjan Ramanayake used Facebook live to broadcast a meeting in parliament and it very quickly attracted over 500,000 views. However, the lack of cohesion within the UNP has meant that the momentum fizzled out soon after the UNP leader re-assumed the PM post.
The two candidates who have come forward Rajapaksa and Dissanayake have shown signs on how large a role social media is likely to play in the upcoming elections. Even minor party supporters have now began to run Facebook and Twitter Q&A sessions.
But social media also remains a bugbear for many who seem to think that it is to be blamed for all our current woes. “Social media is like a god of ancient times: Both the creator and the destroyer,” Ranil Wickremesinghe recently told the Maldives parliament. Ironically, little over a year earlier before the government change, social media was one of the main outlets for those fighting extremism in the Maldives, many of whom who operated out of Sri Lanka.
But fake news and social media manipulation is an issue. So much so that Facebook last week held a one-day workshop in Sri Lanka for journalists and media executives on using the platform effectively and dealing with fake news.
During the second session for journalists Facebook officials gave rundowns on using news tools safely and effectively as well efforts to curb fake news.Facebookhas appointed two in-country contact points for Sri Lanka and officials told the attendees that contact points in Singapore would directly deal with fake news.
This is the first time Facebook has held such an awareness building in Sri Lanka for journalists. Since March 2018, when the social media platform was first blocked in Sri Lanka following racial riots in the Central Province, there have been a slew of visits by Facebook officials to Sri Lanka and it has increased its moderation capacity in Sinhala.
The Election Commission has said that Facebook had indicated its willingness to hold discussions with it and the latter has also been keen to work with national partners on fact checking efforts. The first round of discussions between the Election Commissioner’s Department and Facebook officials took place this week.
Facebook’s latest moves to build wider engagement with Sri Lanka media comes in the backdrop of series of such awareness campaigns, at a much higher level, in the run-up to Indian elections. The Sri Lankan elections will likely be followed by those in Myanmar, another country where Facebook has had a tough time.
The problem with fakes is not that you can’t detect them, most get caught eventually. But the time lapse between posting and detection and the traction it can gain within that time.
Last week there was an example on this, when a picture of a lion on the road, purportedly in Dehiwela appeared on several social media groups. There was suspicion that whether this was fake, but it still was circulating. Some journalists started verifying the story and at least two got the answer “î,o bkafka?”
The picture dated back to 2016.
But on the positive side at least some Sri Lankan journalists are now wary of posting what they get on social media, even through trusted groups without verification.
The author is currently pursuing a Masters by Research at CQ University, Melbourne on online journalism and trauma and he can be reached onTwitter- @amanthap