By Sanjana Hattotuwa
While data isn’t destiny, the study of how individuals capture attention on social media gives both indication and insight into their electoral prospects. Nearly a decade ago, in the sixth Presidential Election of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka – the two leading candidates – each set up Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr accounts for their campaigns.
Now dead, dormant or deleted, those accounts were a harbinger of what is now entrenched in electoral dynamics. Flickr, no longer a dominant platform, was at the time the leading repository for images. Facebook had a fraction of the accounts it commands today. Twitter was less than four years old as a platform. YouTube was popular, but again, nowhere near what it is today.
It is extremely unlikely either of the candidates ever saw what went up on any of these platforms at the time, much less interacted with or published directly on them. But in the focus of photos, tone of tweets and framing on Facebook, one could see how one candidate’s charisma and charm were evident and welcomed by followers or fans, while the other candidate both struggled to adroitly manage the accounts or put out comparable ego-centric content.
What’s changed over the past decade is not just how central social media is now to politics and elections, but how leading platforms are in a mode of constant campaigning. During the constitutional coup in October last year, those who supported the unconstitutional PM wanted elections no sooner than they realised the courts wouldn’t uphold the President’s actions. This was distinct in the data.
How the rallying cry for general elections was born, who was responsible for it, how it grew and which accounts were responsible for its growth were as evident in the study of data on social media as the microscopic examination of a blood sample by a lab technician for the strain of a common virus.
Social media allows populist politicians to reach new audiences as well as keep a core vote base occupied. It allows specific messages to be transmitted as code. A cartoon, word, phrase, idea, hint or photo can signify different things to different voters. A floating vote base can be serenaded as much as a confirmed vote base can be motivated
Today’s landscape is many times more complex and more strategically managed than in 2010. But like the internal combustion engine, all this explosive propulsion of propaganda leaves behind what’s called a ‘data exhaust’, which can be picked up on and studied to ascertain, with varying degrees of accuracy, what was done by whom and with what intent.
The forensics of looking at social media use during, for example, electoral campaigns, is always behind sophisticated strategies around everyday propaganda. From rallies organised to disrupt traffic or strategically designed to increase the risk of confrontation with another group’s gathering close by, to ad campaigns designed to raise the anxiety of specific voters, in specific geographies, the toolbox for manipulation is astonishingly complex.
Not unlike a supermarket, all the budding populist or established authoritarian needs now to do is to go shopping for what works best within an available budget.
My column last week gave a hint of what’s on offer. Using the announcement of the SLPP’s presidential candidate last Sunday, I want to use the data around just what I study on social media – a small fraction of what’s out there and going on – to showcase how the digital can impact or influence franchise dynamics. And at the outset, I don’t know, and it’s complicated.
Those are always the answers I give to the two most frequent questions I am asked – do I know who will win, and can I say who has the advantage.
Electoral campaigns are moments on social media, as much as they are in the country, that galvanise public attention in ways that between elections, one doesn’t see. Academics call it a multivariate or wicked problem, where there are so many variable influencing even the frames of study, it is impossible to determine with any precision how things will turn out. But not unlike a weathervane turning to whichever way the wind blows strongest, data in the public domain indicate where things are and will head in the direction of.
Looking at over 500 pages anchored to leading politicians from the UNP and SLPP, it is clear that all the support and interest, for whatever reason, the UNP generated during the 52 days of the constitutional coup, has evaporated. Whether this organic, rapid and heightened engagement with the UNP’s social media at the time was because of partisan support, a more cosmopolitan liberal sensibility, non-partisan concern for constitutionalism or taking recourse to social media to engage with coup dynamics at a time when mainstream media was restrained or constrained, it is gone today.
As with empty petrol tankers, the fumes are more explosive than the fuel. The anger and disenchantment evident in the data around the inability or unwillingness of the UNP to live up to promises made during the coup will have an electoral consequence.
On the other hand, the ego-centric networks of a father and son are, up until last year, individually and together far wider and deeper in their reach than the Presidential aspirant’s appeal. This is why, even in Kandy, the elder brother has to accompany the younger candidate. Political optics and appeal haven’t, yet, migrated or settled down in a new harbour of populism. And it is clear in the data how a former President is surrounded by vociferous, powerful accounts pegged to individuals who were all pushing for a nomination that until last Sunday, there was near-total silence around.
The data also suggests competing centres of authority within a family, in flux. While the new candidate’s appeal and reach unsurprisingly increased over the week, the live broadcast on Facebook of last Sunday’s event was tellingly hosted on the former President’s account. This was intentional. Instagram is emerging as a key platform in the upcoming election, albeit for one party. For that party, the near complete capture of so-called ‘influencers’ on Instagram means that the appeal, endorsement and optics of their candidate, statistically, completely eliminates everyone else.
Conversely, the arguably leading presidential candidate has never, in all the data captured and studied to date, appealed to a fan-base beyond a frighteningly and frothingly racist, Islamophobic, conspiratorial, extremist Sinhala-Buddhist mindset. This may change with the family’s now public endorsement and through resulting campaign dynamics in the near future.
It’s clear that apps like V-Can developed and deployed by the SLPP, already downloaded over 10,000 times, will change how party-political mobilisation occurs. Data from devices the app is installed on and generated by party cadre as users will be leveraged to capture a floating vote base. This content, and whatever happens on influential and far-reaching instant messaging networks, are beyond the reach of any rigorous academic study, but impact political engagement.
During the constitutional coup, three leading TV broadcasters were overtly partisan in their programming, absolutely dominating Facebook video engagement. In how this presidential election is shaping up, two leading broadcasters, at the time opposed to the UNP’s leadership more than party, will now diverge, resulting in a battle on social media for audience capture and retention, obviously with the intent of shaping electoral dynamics.
And finally, on social media, political content is even today hugely prevalent, pushed and pursued on overtly non-partisan Gossip, meme and Sinhala-Buddhist religious pages. These pages have historically supported the SLPP, or with varying degrees of sarcasm and venom, opposed the UNP. Either way, the political messaging is clear and biased.
The hundreds of thousands who religiously follow these pages for whatever reason are through humour and wit directed towards a certain political ideology.
Keep in mind that all this is just in the past week or leading up to it. In speed, scale and scope, as well as volume, all these competing and complex dynamics will grow in the coming weeks – organically, as more and more are tuned into the election, and because of campaigns paid for by politicians, their hidden proxies or traditional media stooges.
One can only hope institutions and individuals entrusted with safeguarding the integrity of Sri Lanka’s elections keep pace with this already mature landscape of digital campaigns which are inextricably entwined in the manufacture of propaganda, popularity and Presidents.