Photo courtesy of NewsBytes

Will the regime fall? Will the Rajapaksas cave in? Will Gota actually give up? Or will there be a military coup to protect the regime? These and similar queries and speculations and rumours flooded cyberspace during the past week as the countdown quickened for the social media engineered public street protest campaign called anonymously for last Sunday, April 3.

The flood of queries thickened in online messaging once the public protests went ahead last Sunday and did so in many places long before the scheduled 3 pm time. Last Sunday has turned out to be a poignant moment in contemporary Sri Lankan history after crowds of ordinary citizens of all classes both urban and rural poured on to the streets in complete disregard for the state of emergency and violating the 36-hour curfew slapped for the duration of the weekend. Across the island from north to south and east to west ordinary citizens of all social classes (except perhaps for richest one per cent, some of whom gave quiet support) thronged junctions large or remote, either standing silently with hurriedly hand drawn placards or marching along shouting slogans, blocking roads.

It was ordinary citizens, simply participants and not leaders of parties or organisations, who spoke into TV news cameras, emotionally calling out their slogans, some angrily or stridently, some even tearful as they explained to the world their sense of severe betrayal by the government and especially the ruling family including President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.  “Go Gota Go!” has turned out to be the dominant slogan across the country whatever the mother tongue of the crier, in our new Singlish linguafranca.

Actually, world attention became seriously drawn to Sri Lanka some days before the current storm of public protest broke out on Sunday. Clearly in anticipation of the Sunday protests initiated by that anonymous non-party and non-political call circulated last week on WhatsApp and other social media platforms, the government last week declared a state of emergency and imposed an island wide curfew throughout the weekend.

When a government declares a state of national emergency and also imposes a countrywide curfew, the world sits up and takes notice. The international news media reports it worldwide. That automatically creates an alarming impression of national instability in the world community and, helped by easy telecommunications, Sri Lankans locally heard from friends, relatives and business contacts abroad about this projection of national instability.

Not only does the local population learn about the emergency and curfews from domestic news media (and social gossip) but it also simultaneously learns about international impressions of, and reactions to, their own lived situation. This double effect greatly enhances the sense of importance of the public protest campaign.

There is an immediate audience for Sri Lankan affairs globally in both the over one million strong diaspora and also the nearly million strong migrant worker communities in the Persian Gulf, south east Asia and elsewhere. Thus, a few million Sri Lankans at home are locked into ongoing conversations (sometimes by the minute) with trusted, intimately linked people overseas.

It is very likely, that encouraged by concerns and endorsements expressed by friends and relatives abroad, as well as organisational (including political) diaspora support, more people turned up for Sunday’s anti-government protest campaign than if there had been no declared emergency and no curfew.

In that sense, that anonymous Go Gota single initial social media messaging last week has had a bigger impact that is beyond the direct public response to that message alone. Clearly the public, angry as they already are over their economic hardships, were additionally angered by the use of the emergency powers and a curfew to attempt by the government to stifle their protest. Sunday was politically far hotter than expected.

Following Sunday’s explosion of public agitation across the country and the clearly successful defiance of governmental authority, the government began to make pronouncements and hint at moves ostensibly aiming to address the public’s anger. This can be construed as a further spiral effect on the national political establishment arising from that original anonymous social media call to protest.

Thanks to both the cyber media networks as well as the traditional news industry communications on radio, TV and the web, the public, local and diaspora, have a real time, ongoing live coverage sense of their own actions. On this scale, this is something entirely new in Sri Lankan society and polity.

The governing party, due to its ineptitude, seemingly fell into the trap set by the originators of that April 3 protest social media message. Their over-reaction in declaring an emergency and imposing a curfew has clearly enhanced the conditions of social-political confrontation between rulers and ruled. As many placards expressed it (in different ways) “For the first time emergency is used to protect a ruling family”. That impression only served to worsen the hostility to the Rajapaksa ruling clan.

The sense of regime insecurity indicated by the heavy-handed emergency and curfew impositions also likely emboldened the public to intensify the protest campaign.

This also may be seen as successful psychological warfare by some opposition elements – we don’t know who. Military and political analysts are sure to be studying this information warfare first in this country.

The political manoeuvres by the ruling party, watched by an angry public even as they happened following the Sunday protests, only intensified the anger and intensified the protests. Monday was even noisier and agitational with even larger crowds on the streets. Tuesday slackened somewhat during the day but evening saw people get on to streets and junctions after work.

Significantly, running right through this almost hysterical spate of protests is an unfortunate thread of a lack of coordination. Thanks to cyber media there is localised coordination, highly effective in mobilising local participation and spontaneous voluntary activism. But coordination between localised groups (hundreds of groups across country) was and is rare. Upset as they were by their hardships and sense of betrayal by the regime, people in one locality did not wait to hear from other places before protesting. Equally importantly, coordination between the bulk of the protesters and political organisations is starkly missing. Of course, in several places, various political organisations themselves, parliamentary and non-parliamentary, also led their followers in parallel protests on the very same issues and much the same in tenor (if less hysterical).

In fact this lack of coordination is perhaps the most significant aspect of the current situation with several layers of non-coordination: within social sectors, between social sectors (urban vs. rural), between public protesting crowds and political organisations, and between political organisations.

Today, as the country moves into a situation of political institutional paralysis, there is yet to be seen the emergence of not merely a coordinated political alternative but also of an agreed political path forward (which only comes with inter party coordination).

But that is not the principal focus of this article. The main focus is on the new and dominant social communications system and it good and bad aspects.

It must be noted that the vast majority of protests, as well as protesters, were from the Sinhala community and in predominantly Sinhala populated areas. Significantly, that first instigative island wide cyber message was only in the Sinhala and English languages and not in Thamil although Jaffna was listed among the dozen or more places of intended protest with its own WhatsApp group link provided.

And from the spate of You Tube messaging both locally and from the diaspora, this large scale protest is primarily from the Sinhala community, of most classes (the very rich rarely say anything public) and both rural and urban.

If one looks back at recent history, the very first occasions when social media was used on a mass scale to mobilise people in to action was the vanda pethi false messaging in February 2018 that instigated a spate of anti-Muslim violence by elements in the Sinhala community. There were videos uploaded to YouTube and circulated on WhatsApp that featured young, saffron robe clad men, seemingly monks, exhorting Sinhalas to launch violence against Muslims. There was one in which a possible Samanera called on people to use their kitchen knives, if nothing else, in action to defend the race.

The whole world knows of the ensuing violence in which, while not very many people actually died or were killed, many were injured and businesses and homes in a whole region were destroyed or damaged. The Kandy tourism industry lost hundreds of millions of rupees worth of lost business due to the violence, which raged through that part of the hill country having begun in Amparai.

Significantly, the government shut down social media systems. Later Facebook, in an attempt to appease global disapproval of the platform’s use for such social violence and hatred, made an assessment of the racism and violence instigation posted on Facebook but did not release full details to the public.

Hate messaging against Muslims has remained part of the content of social media right up to date as also much other alarm mongering, including a spate of disinformation and misinformation about the COVID pandemic and its vaccination campaigns.

The Amparai-Digana violence, entirely sparked off by social media messaging, was the first time that Sri Lankans saw the dangerous fangs of cyber power. That was to very negative, harmful effect on our society.

Today, we see social media baring its dangerous fangs again. This time, many will argue, it is for a positive change in our polity, perhaps in our whole political system.

But social media needs careful analysis before we can conclude how far the impact of messaging has gone in prompting social and political reactions.

The volume of current anti-government messaging is indeed far greater than pro-government messaging. For now. What happens when the hundreds of thousands if not millions of bots created by various pro-government political elements get going?

Right now there are indications that the crucial vote bank of Sinhalas is shifting its loyalty away from the current regime. That is precisely why several regime personalities outside the ruling family have distanced themselves from family politics, although not moving fully out of the governing coalition. This is a clear indication of the political impact of cyber communications so far.

But exactly how much of that 6.9 million vote bank has shifted its loyalty away from President Rajapaksa? We cannot really know without a vote in Parliament against the residency or a vote in a general election. Judging from ongoing manoeuvres in the national legislature, this is yet to show itself.

Of course, if the intensity of the protest is sustained and Members of Parliament get convinced that they stand to lose in a general election in the future, then there can be movement in Parliament against the presidency. That remains a big if. For now, we know that the fangs of social media can bite different enemies of society some real and some imaginary.