By Ranga Kalansooriya –
The role played by the internet and social media during the January 08 Presidential Elections was repeatedly highlighted and widely discussed in many platforms that included both main candidates – Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa – making comments in different tones on its impact on their respective successes and failures.
These discourses based highly on assumptions and hypothesis without in-depth empirical evidence. Of course the internet, mainly the social media was exceedingly active and it sometimes challenged the conventional media by its mere outlook. Noticing this extra-ordinary trend within the media landscape, predominantly the information sharing domain, this writer embarked on a primary survey research exercise two weeks before the elections day with a view to determine the usage of media by the general public during the electioneering process. This exercise precisely was an engagement with the media end-users.
It further intended to ascertain whether media content has impacted the decision of the voters, what was the most impacted media on the public in decision making – if it had done so, what was the most consumed media by the public during the elections period and to determine the public perception on the (ethical) conduct of the media.
The primary results shows that the internet, mainly the social media, is becoming game changer within the paradigm threatening the conventional media in a considerable way.
A structured questionnaire was distributed in Sinhala and Tamil languages among 250 persons in 14 districts and received 176 responses. The sample was randomly selected and the distribution of questionnaire was also conducted on random basis. The random selection was justified as the entire country becomes one single electorate during Presidential Elections.
The respondents were encouraged to provide their feedback during the electioneering process as their mindset was predominantly occupied by the campaign and polling related matters. Questionnaires were distributed in Badulla, Matara, Kalutara, Gampaha, Galle, Moneragala, Kegalle, Mahanuwara, Kurunegala, Ratnapura, Ampara, Jaffna, Colombo and Matale districts between Jan 01 and 14 and collected within a period of two weeks thereafter.
It is well understood that given the gap between the real numbers and the sample, the selected sample (176 respondents) could not make a proper representation of the total vote base in Sri Lanka. However, the results would provide a comprehensive reflection of public perception on the media consumption and conduct, it was assumed.
However, the analysis of data proved that the hypothesis and assumptions were correct to a greater extent. Some 95 percent of respondents have used media as their primary source of information during the electioneering period. The highest consumed media was television which had three out of every four respondents and the internet became the second with almost half the amount of television viewers. Newspapers were third and the radio was the last.
Almost half of the sample feels that the media content impacted on their decisions to some extent at the elections while, interestingly one thirds feel there had been no impact at all. The most impacted media was the television for almost 60 percent and then it was the internet for a group closer to 25 percent. The newspaper impact for less than 10 percent and radio impacted on only 5 percent, the results says. More than two thirds feel that the election reporting was unethical and almost half the respondents say both state and private media lacked ethical standards in their reporting.
Of course, though in primary standards, this small survey reveals the fact that the social media platforms are becoming a challenge to the conventional media outlets. We have seen the impact of the social media through the Arab Spring that played the role of social activism in regime change exercises. One could argue on the fact that the same phenomenon was replicated in Sri Lanka, may be in a different scale and context.
It was interesting to see how the Facebook and Twitter campaigns dominated the information paradigm during the elections period – predominantly the Facebook. With Maithri’s cross over individual and collective activism on social media got a new paradigm shift and most of these efforts were pro-Maithri. “We could not even match the scale of social media campaigns of Maithree,” said one of the leading Rajapaksa campaigners who wanted to be anonymous. “It is entirely a social mobilization and we have nothing to do with these social media campaigners,” one of Maithree’s campaign front runner, current media secretary Karu Paranawithana told this writer during the campaign.
One of such collective efforts – as a classic case study – was the Facebook page “Rajapaksa Api Soodanam” (Rajapaksa, we are ready) launched by a group of small online activists that later became one of the most viewed and shared information platform for Maithri campaign – but rather ran as an independent collective effort totally out of Maithree’s campaign mechanism. “We were a group of unknown individuals who used to chat on socio-political issues on Facebook. But a few of us gathered at a bar on the night of Maithri’s cross over and thought we should do something. When we finished a couple of beer bottles, the Facebook page was already up and running,” said Raveesha Thilakawardhana who was among the initiators whose age ranged from 19 to 45.
The Facebook page attracted a network of volunteer content providers from all over the country. “Whenever there was a Rajapaksa rally – even in remote areas like Moneragala or Hambantota, we may receive pictures of CTB bus convoys or something or the other from unknown people. Sometimes they would be three-wheel drivers uploading the pictures from their smart phones. We were shocked with this kind of response from rural areas. But we would double check the content before uploading them,” says Raveesha. “We tried our best to avoid hate speech and malicious uploads, though there could have been a few exceptions.”
The page has uploads at least once in every two hours and some uploads may get up to 2000 shares a day. Several individuals in Europe had volunteered to keep the page alive when the Sri Lankan team goes to sleep. Some key persons would take leave from their respective offices and dedicated full time to the course.
“We were from different political backgrounds – just like Maithri’s political camp. So we may have different political perceptions and thick political debates before making a post. But at the end of the day we had one goal, establishing democracy in the country.”
The most interesting part came after the elections, with the decision of the group to disband itself through a public notice on the very same FB page. “We decided that our mission has accomplished and no need to continue anymore. Therefore, we decided to disperse.”
But the disbanding notice provides a strong signal to all concerned parties. While divulging the identity of the individuals of the group it says;
“The time has come to disperse ourselves – the team “Rajapaksa Api Soodanam” who mobilized at a time when the motherland was yearning for a change. Thanks to all those who contributed with information and creative work by trusting us – a group of unknown. Let us meet in another battlefield for the sake of motherland.”