A presentation of my doctoral research to colleagues at CPA afforded the chance to talk and think about what social media means for those not on and the least aware of it. Conversations and commentary over 2018 posit to social media powers, responsibilities and roles that grossly simplify more complex, dynamic relationships. For the readers of this newspaper, from a demographic who hears more about social media than actually uses it, it is important to understand how the millions using these platforms daily, creating in the aggregate a mind-boggling wealth of content, shape society, polity, governance, institutions and electoral processes.
At scale and at present, occasionally violent but always vigorous social media dynamics anchored to just Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, constitute the warp and woof of how a demographic between 20 to 40 perceives and engages with politics. This is important, because what’s called platform affordances – what a user can and cannot do depending on what social media platform they choose to use – in turn defines how they interact with political frames. Negotiating difference, countering ideas, civil engagement, social currency, proposing alternatives, encouraging others, showing partiality, engineering dissent, showing solidarity, masking or making identity, envisioning a better future, analyzing the present, holding others accountable, championing a cause or person, soliciting votes, expressing the love of or opposition to individual or idea, debating difference or celebrating diversity – the many affordances of social media provide frames through which a larger world is perceived, captured or rejected.
Social media platforms are both inter-dependent and often self-referential. This is hard to understand, but a gardening metaphor can help. One’s own garden, weeded and well-tended, is a space that others can be invited into and cannot otherwise gain access. A walled-garden is not unlike Facebook, where communities of users congregate around or are invited into specific groups, where the conversations of like-minded individuals reinforce norms, attitudes and practices. One looks around and anchors conversations to what’s around or proximate. You can catch glimpses of other groups, but they often only serve to reinforce the belief, trust in and love for groups one is already part of or party to. And yet, Twitter for example points to content on Facebook, which in turn can also host content off YouTube. Responses to a single piece of content often span multiple platforms. A phenomenon called going viral – when content is spread, promoted and featured widely over a very short-span of time – is now a feature of any political moment or process.
All this aside, anecdotal evidence coupled with episodic data collection indicates instant messaging – like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger – are pillars of a myriad of conversations numbering in the millions, entirely hidden from academic study and public scrutiny. How these frames, created, cemented and contested daily, impact or influence young voters is a field of growing, global study. The reason for this is because politics as we love or hate it is changing.
Take the constitutional coup of last year. I have heard very senior journalists claim in public fora that a central reason for the coup’s failure is social media. And they leave it at that, giving the public the impression that social media is somehow inherently democratic and decent. Earlier in 2018, journalists including from the New York Times looked at the violence in Digana and flagged how much social media had contributed to it. The submission here was that if it wasn’t for Facebook and other apps including WhatsApp and Viber, the violence would not have been so bad or even broken out. Elements of truth in each thesis mask an overall ignorance or disinterest around what’s far more complex.
Algorithmically or computationally, social media at scale captures our attention by providing fields of view that feed our bias. So over time, the risk is that communal or prejudiced opinions either tend to get strengthened or go unquestioned by others. Serendipitous encounters with difference or diversity are rare. Conversely, at certain times, this tango of technology works in ways that promote a specific set of ideas, individuals or institutions that in the fullness of time, can be said to have contributed to a net positive, or social gain. Both dynamics co-exist, over each platform and between them. The technology reflects us, and how we respond critically or react emotionally, in turn shapes our use of social media.
Given the overarching dynamics of political communications on social media I study at scale and some depth, much is changing – rapidly and inexorably. The emergence of partisan fluidity means that social media users rally around a specific political party or politician in opportunistic ways, with affiliation pegged to process, event or idea, often time-bound. In other words, the demographic of voters who vote for a specific party no matter what, and also a caste vote, are contested in ecosystems where partisan loyalty changes dynamically. How politicians need to and will engineer electoral gain will shift to hybrid models where the face to face and mass rallies will be supported and occasionally supplanted by sophisticated social media based political communications campaigns, not above the strategic spread of misinformation.
Complex media ecologies have emerged, blurring or even erasing neat boundaries and definitions. Data collected just during the constitutional coup indicates clearly the high degree mainstream media was featured, shared and engaged with on social media, in addition to citizen-generated civic media content. Powerful media owners with their political paymasters are learning to shift content strategies to fit this digital first demographic. Politics is seen as digital engagement, which doesn’t necessarily translate into footfall at rallies or the exercise of franchise. Even though in 2015, the very high turnout at the Presidential and Parliamentary Elections can be somewhat attributed to social media campaigns around voter mobilization, the anxiety, anger and apathy around the political culture since, accentuated by social media, may have resulted a considerable number of those in first or second time vote base to be disenchanted with electoral processes. This is dangerous, because engineering this apathy so as to result in a drop in voter turnout helps authoritarianism’s steady creep.
The great lesson of Namal Rajapaksa’s unprecedented digital mobilization around Jana Balaya was that tens of thousands talking about an event, doesn’t result even a fraction attending it. An equally important lesson from the constitutional coup is that specific individuals command and control more attention than democratic institutions, with social media favouring the episodic over the systemic, and the emotive over the substantive. In other words, the characters and conditions for another debilitating crisis respectively thrive and persist, though social media conversations have moved on. Populism, or the digital evolution of the cult of the individual (which is a defining characteristic of our local political landscape), strongly favours those who exploit their charisma over social media. The meek will risk everything and not inherit anything.
Simplistic captures of social media don’t help society robustly debate or discuss any of these evolutionary trends. Worse, how inextricably entwined social media is with social and polity writ large isn’t communicated. A like is not a vote. But at scale, and in the tens of millions, popular and public sentiment can be nudged and ascertained as a consequence of what is digitally produced and shared. This nexus, no longer new, is fertile ground to harvest the worst of who we are, and the best of what we can be. The choice of which to strengthen isn’t social media’s to make. It is ours to take