Media and Communications, Politics and Governance

Online election campaigns in Sri Lanka: The way forward

As the presidential race heats up in Srilanka, the sheer volume of content and Ads that burst forth about this election is astonishing. The Internet is now a gateway for millions of ordinary Srilankans to participate in the political process.

Mahinda Rajapakse has made an early splash. But every presidential candidate has a presence of some kind online regardless of how well they actually used it, though none built anything as comprehensive as Mahinda’s. At least not yet.

Growing up in the paradise that is Srilanka, the first political campaign I paid close attention to was in the 90’s, when I was right out of college and still had my Srilankan citizenship. My information sources were limited back then. We didn’t have broadband access. The Internet was a luxury, in fact you could brag about it and be an authority on all things computers if you had ADSL at home. Old media was essentially it for substantive political coverage.

Now? Anyone can check dozens or hundreds of news sources every hour, both formal and informal. Online news portals, advocacy sites like Groundviews (whose views I respect though I may not necessarily agree), blogs, emails, forums, local content aggregators, podcasts and vodcasts bombard us with information to the point that the problem isn’t too little, but too much.

Online campaigning is no longer seen as an optional extra; it is now a crucial political tool. But no candidate is immune. Fake Facebook and Twitter profiles have been created. Election parody blogs provide good entertainment, and more. I am thrilled by the way Srilankan parties are currently approaching new media for I see online organizing and campaigning as a way in which parties can change and renew themselves.

Of course this is obvious, Sri Lanka is progressing. Mahinda is sending the signals that he isn’t the “Goviya’s man” anymore, but rather prepared to take Srilanka forward in this modern age. Despite the online efforts, he keeps stealing the spotlight from the community. Online interactions are about communities. The campaign lacks this critical element.

Fonseka on the other hand has a particular need to convince voters that he is a safe choice, which allows him to convince enough Srilankans (in particular the minorities) that he isn’t a crazed bomb-thrower in a military uniform. In fact it is he who should be speaking to the diaspora. This burden of reassurance is even heavier for someone young in politics.

Other candidates face this problem no less, and many haven’t a clue. But Mahinda seems to have acknowledged the potential of technology to translate the enthusiasm of millions of people into decisive action in the real world.

The Internet can give rise to a new form of machine politics. This model contrasts with Mahinda’s classic Goviya style political machine, which was locally based. Good for him.

But, hang on. Mahinda’s campaign is fundamentally flawed. And I am not even referring to the alleged spam they send. That’s OK. I can put up with it. I love those Presidential New Year wishes as much as I love the juicy scandals in Hollywood. So spam, by all means. Granted, you don’t need my permission.

But the Internet is a different kind of medium. It is back-and-forth rather than broadcast, and the use of such a participatory public space should completely change the political media ecology, opening new dialogue. The Internet is an even better mobilizing tool. It’s a recruiting tool, not just messaging tool.

Mahinda’s online campaign has the technology, not the vision, not because they don’t understand computers, but because they don’t understand how to make technology harness the passion of their supporters. His campaign team is everywhere online, but they don’t mobilize voters and organize communities. They don’t build a consensual database of mobile numbers by promising that in return, supporters would get campaign news before the media.

The web is built on technology that is primarily for communication, and not publishing. That dynamic is the source of its power and, crucially, its intimacy. What social media represents is a direct engagement and communication.

The web should help to inspire and empower a generation that has rejected political apathy. They should use technology to make issues personal and relevant by giving people ownership of the campaign. It isn’t a complicated strategy.

I am yet to see Fonseka’s online strategy. He shouldn’t confine himself to an amateur website and a few Facebook Ads. It shows one’s capacity or the lack of it.

But all of them seem to have forgotten one simple fact, Interactions mattered more than mere technological brilliance. Personally I would like to see better use of the WWW.