Let the people meme

ECONOMYNEXT  – A year is a long time. This year has been longer than most. While that is not an indictment of the incumbent government or of its leadership per se, few would disagree that 2020 has cast the powers that be in a less than flattering light. A historic parliamentary election victory notwithstanding, the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) has been at the receiving end of some unexpectedly harsh criticism, not from opposition lawmakers or partisan pundits, but from ordinary citizens of different political hues including maroon. Nowhere has this apparent frustration been expressed more keenly than in the online space.

Memes, rants and videos that poke fun at the administration are increasingly irreverent and daring, and if the number of shares, comments and ‘haha’ reactions observed on Facebook and elsewhere are any indication, the virality of anti-establishment posts only seems to be growing with each passing day. Of course, how much of what transpires on social media is an accurate or even an approximate reflection of ground reality is up for debate. But if one assumes that internet penetration and digital literacy levels in Sri Lanka make for a sufficient sample size to draw from, then, several possibilities can be considered or at least speculated on.

The most obvious would be that the popularity of the government is on the decline. Personally, I would hesitate to draw this conclusion with any kind of certainty as, despite an apparent upward trend in anti-SLPP sentiment observed online since March, an alliance led by the party secured a stunning near-two-thirds majority at the parliamentary polls in August. It is entirely possible that voters saw the humour in the status quo and still voted for what they believed the SLPP stood for (the government’s initially successful containment of the pandemic couldn’t have hurt its chances either). It is just as likely that a majority of people who express such resentment and derision online are ardent opposition supporters predisposed to disliking the government, though anecdotally this does not seem to be the case. In the absence of a demographic breakdown, it is also possible that many people relentlessly reacting to and sharing these posts don’t or can’t even vote. Yet another possibility, though one that verges on conspiracy theory, is that the government actually stands to benefit from the handy distraction that this social media frenzy inevitably causes and therefore actively encourages some of it some of the time. Or it could just be that we’re all over-analysing it and social media really doesn’t reflect reality at all.

Regardless, a party as savvy as the SLPP when it comes to branding and mass communication, cannot be unaware of what’s going on online and it must have noticed that, at least on the internet, things are not looking up for them a year after their arrival.

With the caveat that these conclusions are far from scientific (this writer is not a statistician or data analyst, professional or amateur) and, crucially, that online sentiment is all too temperamental, it would not be unwise for those in government tasked with shaping the narrative to take matters into their own hands. And, going by some media reports, it appears that the ones with real power indeed have. Unfortunately, however, (and perhaps predictably) they seem to have taken the fight offline.

Earlier this week, as reported by News1st, opposition leader Sajith Premadasa accused the government of resorting to undemocratic means to intimidate people who voice their concerns on social media. Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) MP Dr  Harsha De Silva echoing his party leader’s remarks called for a halt to this alleged intimidation. News1st also reported that an activist was arrested on Tuesday over a comment made on social media and was subsequently released on a personal bail of Rs 100,000.

While the SJB’s spiritual parent the United National Party’s record on respecting free expression is not exactly squeaky clean, it is undeniable that media freedom thrived in the Yahapalana years, in a way it never really had before. Despite – or indeed because of – that administration’s gross and costly incompetence, practitioners of media, both new and old, were able to freely and sometimes unfairly lambast the government. Although, one suspects that this forgiving nature might be attributable more to then President Maithripala Sirisena than to the UNP, whose tightly packed late 1980s closet never quite stopped threatening to burst open. One struggles to think of a single Sri Lankan leader who was as openly mocked as Sirisena was on any media and was as forgiving. His flaws could fill several volumes, but Sirisena’s magnanimity in the face of constant ridicule and mockery was unprecedented and, dare I say, underappreciated. Although, one also notes that the ICCPR Act was selectively and perplexingly used against at least one creator towards the end of his government.

Fast forward to 2020, in the middle of a worsening pandemic and on the verge of a possible mother-of-all economic crises, Sri Lankans with access to a smartphone have taken to the internet to cope. Viral social media content has reached an all-time high, possibly helped by the work-from-home new normal and almost certainly helped by the meme-fodder antics of politicians in both government and opposition (which may or may not be pre-planned and well coordinated).

In his address to the nation last night, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said that the best yardstick of the success or failure of his presidency is public opinion and not the “organised propaganda spread by political opponents on social media platforms”. This is not without merit. It would be dishonest to suggest that all of the content out there is organic. Some of it must indeed come from concerted campaigns that work to discredit the establishment purely for political gain. The weaponisation of memes is a well documented phenomenon the world over. One recalls Facebook pages that seemed dedicated to attacking the previous government round the clock – pages that, as one particularly snarky comment put it, now post recipes and sunset photos. However, to that government’s credit, none of it was curtailed. Journalists, content creators and ordinary citizens were given free reign to express themselves online and elsewhere, in whatever language or tone.

Without getting into the politics of this government’s performance in terms of the economy and its handling of the pandemic, without getting into its darker past, without even getting into the usefulness or lack thereof of our infighting-riddled opposition, the importance of free expression being “allowed” to continue cannot be overstated. At a time when ordinary citizens are struggling to get by, at a time when the ruling party’s commitment to democratic values is being questioned by some of its own supporters, perhaps the best thing it can do to win back the favourable public opinion it covets is to let the people speak their mind. (Colombo/Nov19/2020)

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