All media is social


by Sanjana Hattotuwa

My Editor, and the general readership of this newspaper fall into a demographic that doesn’t quite understand the media landscape in Sri Lanka today. As long as this demographic doesn’t go on to propose and make laws or regulations that seek to govern for tens of millions what they cannot or do not understand, I empathise with their confusion and discomfort. Because of sheer complexity as well as the speed of evolution, we can no longer clearly explain what we see or study in contemporary media landscapes. It wasn’t this way growing up.

Today, the very act of tuning into a channel or turning a page to access the news is quaint in a world where boundaries between terrestrial broadcast, print media and content consumed online are indivisible and invisible. It used to be the case – as recently as a decade ago - that agile, responsive campaigns anchored to civil society were best able to leverage the affordances, power and reach of new media platforms. I should know, having created Groundviewsas an entirely web-based operation and platform in 2006 to carry what at the time, print and broadcast media would or could not. A year after, I created the first official Facebook Page and Twitter account for any media institution in the country. They were respectively the first accounts in South Asia for a civic media platform. Neither Facebook nor Twitter remotely resemble what they are and look like today. There were far less than a hundred thousand on Facebook at the time in Sri Lanka. There was no like button. There were no responses through emoticons. The mobile app was rudimentary. You couldn’t upload photos or videos. There was no misinformation produced by anyone active at the time, from any political or partisan perspective, in the way it is understood, treated and studied today.

I saw in both platforms the ability to bypass authoritarian censorship, reach new audiences quickly, create and sustain engagement around inconvenient truths and publish in the public interest content that on these platforms, created a new, resilient engagement economy that contested or bypassed traditional media’s stranglehold on framing the news. I was right to identify the potential to change the way society speaks with and sees itself, and political communications are conducted. I was profoundly naïve in my idealism that it would be a tool enduringly employed for public interest media, or in the service of civil society output bearing witness to human rights in a context of violent adversity.

It was impossible to foresee the use, abuse, adoption and adaptation of social media today by powerful political and media actors a decade ago. In May and June 2009, posts on Facebook that in turn linked to content on other sites like Flickr or YouTube captured horrific ground realities as well as propaganda from the Government and the LTTE. Leading up to 2010’s Presidential Election, the two leading contenders – Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka – created Flickr, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook accounts anchored to their campaigns. It was the first time a Presidential election featured online media as an extension of traditional campaign activities and propaganda. The General Election later that year featured party leaders as well as political parties signing up to Facebook. The Municipal Elections in Colombo, a year later, was when from the Western Province and beyond, political communications on social media, distinct from communications in other media, platforms and fora, sprang to life. In late 2013, Mahinda Rajapaksa launched his official Twitter account. The one used for his Presidential bid in 2010, by then, was long discontinued. By 2015’s Presidential election, social media was central in the organic online campaigns to champion the current President as well as sophisticated, slick propaganda campaigns of the Rajapaksas, by then treating engagement in digital domains as a seamless extension of hoardings, posters, mugs, caps, pens, wall clocks and other more common debris of campaign freebies handed out at rallies. This was also when the clear distinctions between traditional and social media started to break down.

This brief history, as with any brief history, glosses over competing trends and a more nuanced appreciation of the media landscape’s evolution, even just since 2015. It does, however, serve as a warning for those who seek to weaponise the fears of an older demographic around the dangers of the current media landscape to support policies and regulations that ultimately help censorship. The careful capture and preliminary study of data from the local government election in February 2018, the Digana riots last March, new forms of political campaigns like Jana Balaya led by Namal Rajapaksa that used digital content to mobilise footfall, the unprecedented 52-day constitutional crisis late 2018, the aftermath of the Easter Sunday terrorism including repeated and increasingly devastating riots against Muslims, the coverage of the PSC on the Church attacks, the release of Gnanasara Thero late May and mid-2018, his incarceration, major civil society initiatives and campaigns, the commemoration of a decade after the end of the war and the volume of content uploaded to YouTube by every single major TV broadcaster since 2015 all suggest – unequivocally and indubitably – that social media is now populated the most by content produced by traditional media.

So what does the term social media mean today, if anything? To many, it continues to conjure up a domain inhabited by anarchic voices, uninterested in or divorced from truth, producing hate and hell-bent on destroying everything good or great about our society. However, the data strongly suggests the greatest producers, by far, of content that incites hate and violence online are, in fact, traditional TV channels. The data indicates that during the constitutional crisis, credible journalism produced by trusted journalists was in high demand on Twitter. The data clearly shows that though the most amount of political commentary happens outside the official pages and accounts of political parties or politicians, first time and young voters are anything but apathetic or disengaged. In the myriad of conversations I track daily, quality, civility, expression, intent and perspective may leave much to be desired, but is this not a valid critique of media the pre-digital generation grew up with and still like to romanticise?

I believe leading politicians know this, but in their pursuit of power see greater appeal in whipping up anxieties to ultimately help secure their control of all media. But to know and realise this helps resist it. The greater the appeal of a president’s or politician’s proposal to fight misinformation, the more sceptical we should be. The simpler the solution proposed, the greater the risk of censorship and abuse. The greater the paternalism overtly, the stronger the parochialism covertly.

Shutting down or blocking Galle Road because of a higher volume of bad drivers in recent years, contributing to many more offences, accidents and deaths, is not an option. Instead, we stress the stronger application of existing road rules and question why they aren’t enforced. Why should a conversation on media regulation be any different?

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