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Emerging Digital Democracy? Social Media & Sri Lanka's Presidential Election 2015: by Nalaka Gunawardene

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Emerging Digital Democracy?
Social Media and Sri Lanka's Recent Presidential Election

Talk by Nalaka Gunawardene
Science writer, columnist and new media watcher

At the University of London, 12 Feb 2015
Organised and hosted by:
The Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London & Commonwealth Journalists’ Association (CJA)

Synopsis:
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?

Trained as a science writer and working for over 25 years as a science journalist, Nalaka Gunawardene is a multimedia journalist with many outlets for his work – national and regional newspapers, magazines, radio, TV and the web (where he is active as a blogger and on Twitter: @NalakaG). He is also published in trade, academic and technical publications.

Published in: News & Politics
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Emerging Digital Democracy? Social Media & Sri Lanka's Presidential Election 2015: by Nalaka Gunawardene

  1. 1. Emerging Digital Democracy? Social Media & Sri Lanka's Presidential Election 2015 By Nalaka Gunawardene Science writer, columnist & new media watcher Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London & Commonwealth Journalists’ Association (CJA) London 12 Feb 2015
  2. 2. My Perspective…  Science writer & journalist for 25+ yrs  Exploring technology-society nexus…  Chronicling (since 1990) how new comm technologies are reshaping Lankan society  Blogger since 2007: nalakagunawardene.com  On Twitter since 2009: @NalakaG  Ranked among Top 10 tweeps during #PresPollSL
  3. 3. My limitations…  Not a political scientist or analyst  Not affiliated with any political party or lobby group  Views here entirely my own  Have more questions than answers right now! Images used in good faith, non-commercially
  4. 4. Sri Lanka Presidential Election 2015: A Brief Chronology  20 Nov 2014: incumbent President Rajapaksa issued proclamation calling for a presidential election 2 yrs ahead of schedule  21 Nov: Rajapaksa’s Health Minister & Party Gen Sec Maithripala Sirisena defects, becomes Common Opposition Candidate  8 Dec: Nominations given by 19 candidates  8 Jan 2015: Election Day: 81.52% voter turn-out  9 Jan 2015: Maithripala Sirisena declared winner, sworn in the same day
  5. 5. #PresPollSL Results in summary Full official results at: http://www.slelections.gov.lk/presidential2015/AIVOT.html
  6. 6. A very close contest… Result that surprised many…
  7. 7. More than a change of guard: A new political culture emerging?
  8. 8. Rajapaksa vs Sirisena: MR vs MS Contest in physical & cyber worlds…
  9. 9. Election campaigning period: All typical factors were seen… Elections happen in rough-and-tumble world of politics. During 50 days of #PresPollSL, we saw:  Political parties realigning  Some Members of Parliament crossing over  Large volumes of money being spent  (minor) ideological differences  Some physical violence (but not as feared)  Issues eclipsed by personalities
  10. 10. Key campaign issues: Structural changes dominant  Abolition of all-powerful Executive Presidency  Constitutional reforms  Need for genuine reconciliation (civil war ended in mid 2009)  Good governance, specifically:  Ending widespread corruption  Ending nepotism and cronyism  Ensuring independence of the Judiciary  Guaranteeing freedom of expression  Cost of living & state of the economy
  11. 11. 2 important trends this time  Stronger civil society participation:  NGOs, professionals, progressive clergy  Framing political debates  Presenting demands & priorities to candidates  Shaping manifesto of Common Opp Candidate  Unprecedented use of new media  Mobile phones (esp smartphones)  Social Media (esp Facebook, Twitter, YouTube)  Politically unaffiliated cyber-activists vocal  Candidates’ using new media (but not engaging)
  12. 12. Emerging Information Society? Is Sri Lanka’s information society reaching maturity?  Mobile phones for 25 yrs (since 1989)  Commercial Internet for 20 yrs (since 1995)  Progressive telecom regulation  market competition  affordable telecom services  No longer limited to cities, English speakers or middle class demographics  Game changer: Mobiles & Smartphones connecting to the web
  13. 13. Mobile phone subscriptions growth: 1991 – 2014 March  This is the way Source: Telecom Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka 0 5000000 10000000 15000000 20000000 25000000 19921993199419951996199719981999200020012002200320042005200620072008200920102011201220132014 Mar Subscribers
  14. 14. Internet subscriptions (accounts) 1995-2014 (No of users: x 2 or x 3) Source: Telecom Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka 0 2,00,000 4,00,000 6,00,000 8,00,000 10,00,000 12,00,000 14,00,000 16,00,000 18,00,000 20,00,000 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 Mar I& E-mail Mobile BB
  15. 15. New Media Use in Sri Lanka Headline figures to note  Sri Lanka total pop: 21 million  105 mobile subscriptions per 100 persons  Allowing for multiple SIMs, approx most adults use or have easy access to a mobile  Est. 2.5 – 3 million smartphones in use  Around 22% of pop using Internet regularly  Most web access thru mobile devices  Costs of connection & use among lowest in world (smartphones from £50 up; data packages from £1.50/month)
  16. 16. Still not clear…  WHEN does an emerging information society reach critical threshold when connectedness influences voter behaviour significantly?  Internet use rate: 20%, 25% or 40%?  Mobile penetration: 50%, 75%, 100%?  Which are the enabling or mitigating factors in such scenarios?  More social science research needed!  Pity Lankan universities don’t study this
  17. 17. My analogy on what’s going on: Umbra + Penumbra during eclipses!  Something similar happening in LK with 22% Internet users’ access casting a wider shadow in society: needs more research to understand
  18. 18. Leading political commentator & blogger agrees… “This election saw an unprecedented use of social media in Sri Lanka. Over 80% of our youth is computer literate - many have smartphones and regularly log in to social media. Political content they absorb from online sources spreads fast to (offline) communities in villages.” Ajith Perakum Jayasingha Blogger & Tweep @ajithperakum
  19. 19. Social Media and Elections: What is happening in Asia?  Social Media and Elections in Asia-Pacific – The Growing Power of the Youth Vote  Pub: Konrad-Adenauer- Stiftung’s Media Programme Asia in Singapore; Nov 2013  Editors: Alastair Carthew & Simon Winkelmann  Full book for free download: http://www.kas.de/wf/doc/kas_ 35939-1522-2-30.pdf? 131105090233
  20. 20. Sri Lanka Case Study: Colombo Municipal Election Oct 2011  Chapter by Nalaka Gunawardene & Chanuka Wattegama: Did youth vote & social media make a difference in CMC (local govt) Election of Oct 2011?  Our conclusion: Not quite -- but a new trend is emerging: Watch This Space!  Full chapter download: http://goo.gl/a8ByOs
  21. 21. #PresPollSL 2015 (38 months later) Trends clearer & stronger  Political parties still in ‘broadcast mode’: centrally produced messages & materials disseminated thru media, outdoors  For party campaign managers, web & social media just another outlet/medium?  Neither MR nor MS campaigns really engaged voters much online  Tech-savvy citizens used social media to deepen & enrich public debates  Had a ripple effect on society as a whole
  22. 22. Most vibrant discussions online Also a lot of noise (unavoidable) Hashtag #PresPollSL was used by thousands as common denominator in Twitter & Facebook
  23. 23. Arise, tech-savvy citizens! During #PresPollSL campaign period, numerous citizens used social media to:  Question candidates on specifics  Advocate public interest and/or reforms  Counter misinformation from campaigns  Ridicule excessive campaign practices  Mobilise all voters to turn up  Protest against election violence  Lobby for ignored but vital issues
  24. 24. Online conversation topics (Different to mainstream media’s) My impressionistic listing is based on many observations during election campaign period:  Racial & religious harmony  Excessive militarization of society  large scale corruption & lack of law enforcement  declining rule of law  lack of media freedom  state of the economy  Rise of ultra-nationalism and superstition
  25. 25. Role of social media during election: as seen by cartoonist of Ceylon Today
  26. 26. Mainstream media cautious, flooded with paid campaign advertising All newspaper frontpages bought by Rajapaksa campaign on nominations day, 8 Dec 2014
  27. 27. Gross misuse of state power, esp state media by the incumbent
  28. 28. Outdoor promotion frenzy by MR campaign
  29. 29. Maithri campaign more subdued, promising Unity & Real Change
  30. 30. Ethnic minority voters initially uncertain of what it means Daily Mirror cartoon by Awantha Artigala
  31. 31. Mahinda ‘Brand’ promotion Incumbent was promoted on these factors:  Tried and tested leader  Winning the 26-yr war  Economic growth & infrastructure dev  Patriot who stood up to the West & rest  Only he can safeguard territorial integrity of Sri Lanka  Give one more term ‘to finish what he started’
  32. 32. Rajapaksa campaign: showcasing post-war growth & rebuilding
  33. 33. Maithri ‘brand’ promotion  Grassroots politician, man of the people  Unifying figure for a broad political alliance  Vote for him to end corruption & family rule  He will abolish (or dilute) Executive Presidency  Restore rule of law  Respect rights and dignity of all citizens  Unitary state, but a multicultural society
  34. 34. Uncluttered imagery: candidate and his rainbow alliance Play on his name which means compassion
  35. 35. MR & MS Mainstream Media campaigns: Total advertising spend?  Rajapaksa: LKR 2.03 billion = GBP 10.12m All came from public funds and budget for president’s office and other ministries  Sirisena: LKR 676 million = GBP 3.42m  Airtime and print space buying only (not covering production costs) Source:  The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka): 15 Jan 2015 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/150118/business- times/former-president-spent-over-rs-2-bln-in-state-funds- on-election-ads-130623.html
  36. 36. Political campaigns online…  Official websites  Official Facebook pages  Official Twitter accounts  Fan/supporter efforts ORCHESTRATED, MOSTLY ONE-WAY CONTRASTED WITH CONTESTED SPACE ON SOCIAL MEDIA
  37. 37. Indian cyber factor in #PresPollSL 2015?  Rajapaksa campaign reportedly engaged Arvind Gupta @buzzindelhi (key social media advisor to Narendra Modi in 2014)  The Hindu & other media reports not fully confirmed  MR’s online presence far stronger than Maithri’s  However, it’s not only a numbers game… Cartoon by The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka
  38. 38. Sirisena social media: A small miracle?  Seemed to be driven mostly by volunteers (not necessarily party supporters)  Passionate – but not always well coordinated – individuals  Helped to rebalance huge asymmetry of resources between two campaigns  Underdog sympathy enjoyed
  39. 39. Trend 1: Web memes come of age!  Words, images or combination  Some funny, others serious  Creators unknown (or stayed anonymous)  Ideal for quick sharing on social media  Spurring much discussion  No ‘Sacred Cows’! (monks & military included)
  40. 40. Memes galore! (most in local languages)
  41. 41. Adapting existing memes…
  42. 42. Two of the most widely shared citizen icons/memes during election
  43. 43. My own simple meme: Widely shared on The Day After
  44. 44. Trend 2: Big PR & Advertising trumped  Unpaid, unknown citizen creations more appealing & widely shared online  Officially engaged (and highly paid) PR firms & ad agencies had competition!  “Rough & Dirty” wins over slick & costly  Most jibes were aimed at incumbent, e.g.  “Modern proverb: Borrowing from China; donating to Palestine!”
  45. 45. Pro-incumbent creation: “Criticise him, but don’t forget we breathe today thanks to this brave leader!”
  46. 46. Shortly after Sirisena defected to the Opposition and became Common Presidential Candidate…
  47. 47. Salman Khan’s role in MR campaign: Lampooned avidly in social media!  Brief campaign appearance for Rajapaksa in late Dec
  48. 48. Trend 3: ‘Long tails’ of politico words & videos  Politicians’ past words & deeds located & showcased online by cyber activists…  Video clips of campaign gaffes shared on Facebook & YouTube  Having to EAT THEIR OWN WORDS?  Indiscretions can no longer be played down or wished way: They live online!
  49. 49. Loose Talk, amplified online!  Daily Mirror front page report on remark by Rajapaksa govt’s minister: “We have plundered enough!”   Immediately seized & very widely shared by social media users  Such unguarded words achieved long shelf-life on YouTube, Facebook
  50. 50. Trend 4: Social Media as a networking space  Provided space for activists, artistes, university students & public intellectuals to network, collaborate & disseminate political info & opinions  Critical political websites were blocked within Lanka - BUT not social media platforms!  Vital in view of mainstream media’s self-censorship + widespread repression of dissent Anti-govt street protest notice, shared online
  51. 51. [Left] Transparency Int call to citizens to protect public property being misused during election campaigns [Above] Countdown to Maithri Era
  52. 52. Trend 5: Civil Society is web-savvy & creative!  Going beyond statements, press releases, placards, physical marches, rallies, etc.  Innovating online for political advocacy:  Infographics (e.g. making sense of numbers)  word-clouds (e.g. visualizing manifestos)  interactive maps (e.g. geo-referencing election violence)  Online surveys showcasing citizen sentiments  Online petitions on specific reforms
  53. 53. Rajapaksa manifesto Keywords captured in word cloud By Groundviews.org on 27 Dec 2014 http://groundviews.org/2014/12/27/mahinda-rajapaksa- maithripala-sirisena-2015-manifesto-wordclouds/
  54. 54. Sirisena manifesto Keywords captured in word cloud By Groundviews.org on 27 Dec 2014 http://groundviews.org/2014/12/27/mahinda-rajapaksa- maithripala-sirisena-2015-manifesto-wordclouds/
  55. 55. CPA’s online survey: 12-16 Dec 2014: based on 1,394 respondents
  56. 56.  Campaign by Groundviews.org urging every voter to turn up on Election Day  81.52% registered voters did: highest in any LK Presidential Election
  57. 57. My finger ‘selfie’ shared online 8 Jan 2015 (just after I voted)
  58. 58. Trend 6: Citizens talk back on Social Media!  Orthodoxy, sycophancy and sometimes gross misinformation in sections of mainstream media countered by bloggers, tweeps and other social media users  Many alternative political discussions unfolding online  Leading local language bloggers have bigger readership than some mainstream daily newspapers!
  59. 59. Rare instance of citizen engagement: by Maithri campaign heavyweight
  60. 60.  JHU (Buddhist monks’ party) became key supporters of Sirisena. But their leader avoided my questions on multiculturalism, 13th Amendment to Constitution (devolution)  QUSTION NOT ANSWERED!
  61. 61.  QUSTION NOT ANSWERED!  Also avoided: Questions on 13th Amendment to the Constitution that devolves power to Provinces
  62. 62. Trend 7: Social media amplifying Mainstream Media  MSM+SM came together at times  Some news, analysis or cartoons in mainstream widely shared on social media…  Inspiring discussion & debate  Assuming momentum of own  Adding to citizen demands for clarity on manifestos, for non- violent campaigning, etc.
  63. 63.  It is our democratic right to cast our vote to any candidate of our choice, without fear or influence  Wijeya Newspapers cartoonist Awantha Artigala’s creation widely shared in social media
  64. 64. Mainstream news photos going ‘viral’ on SM  Protesting university students attacked by police in Colombo  This police officer’s son condemned dad’s attack on Facebook  It went viral!
  65. 65. Thousands of Voices online… Top 10 Tweeps using #PresPollSL Eclectic mix comprising:  2 main candidates’ official accounts  2 foreign corrs (BBC Sinhala, BBC corr in Colombo)  3 mainstream journalists (tweeting personally)  1 daily newspaper (Daily Mirror official newsfeed)  1 automated bot (Siripala)  4 citizen journalists  1 hybrid journalist (myself!)  Full analyis on Read.Me online IT Magazine: http://readme.lk/running-prespollsl/
  66. 66. This is a highly visualized map of the flow of information along the #PresPollSL hashtag, dating from now to the 10th of January. Each twitter account is represented by a circle (node). The size of each node directly corresponds to the number of tweets it’s pushing out. Details: http://readme.lk/running-prespollsl/
  67. 67. Archive of tweets on 2015 Presidential Election  Every single tweet with hashtag #PresPollSL, used by mainstream media, leading civic media & citizen journalism initiatives in Sri Lanka to post updates around Presidential Election 2015  http://groundviews.org/2014/ 11/27/archive-of-tweets-on- 2015-presidential-election/
  68. 68. Elections & Social Media: Rapidly evolving nexus “Tactics such as owning, controlling and displaying media (e.g. posters & large cutouts) that would have worked 6 yrs ago, don’t seem to work anymore. Even the social media we think we know and understand is changing rapidly…” - Angelo Fernando technology columnist; author, Chat Republic (2013) @heyangelo
  69. 69. Was #PresPollSL 2015 Sri Lanka’s first Cyber Election?  We have more questions than answers for now!  Worth probing further, as I said in my essay capturing impressions & examples  Groundviews.org: 15 Jan 2015  http://groundviews.org/2015/01/1 3/was-prespollsl-2015-sri-lankas- first-cyber-election/
  70. 70. Unanswered Questions!# Attn: media & info society researchers!  Did myriads of open, public conversations raise level of public awareness of key political issues relevant to this election?  How much of citizen awakening can be attributed to the fast spread of smartphones and broadband Internet?  Could such fleeting communications really have influenced how people voted?  Did cyber-savvy Lankans play a decisive role in the peaceful regime change that happened on Jan 8/9?
  71. 71. Thank You! Blog: www.nalakagunawardene.com Column archive: https://collidecolumn.wordpress.com Twitter: @NalakaG This is a contested space: Always open for debate!

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