Amantha Perera sees social media as a real game changer vide popular protests in Sri Lanka

There was a time not so long ago when dissent in Sri Lanka was mostly secretive… sometimes with deadly consequences. Now it’s open and comes mainly in the form of memes. Those cartoonish creations have become a mainstay of public expression and can range from disgust to falling in love.

No one is spared since ‘the age of the demigod’ has ended. During those turbulent 50 odd days between 26 October and 13 December, memes were one of the main forms of public commentary, which expressed dissent and promoted political mobilisation.

Sri Lankan politicians had got used to being cocooned in an artificial echo chamber of acolytes singing hosannas. Now a simple click on their smartphones will show them how much of those sky-high praises are actually echoed by the general public.

Those 50 odd days of political despair showed how far social media has evolved. I’d not pigeonhole it as an alternative information platform because social media is now on an equal footing with legacy media – but with more versatility, options and of course, dangers.

For instance, take what transpired when Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as prime minister on 16 December. Heavy restrictions had been imposed on media attending the ceremony and the reasons for this have never been explained.

It was a futile attempt made by those who don’t have a real grasp of how information flows in this day and age. As soon as the swearing in ceremony was over, images appeared on Twitter thanks to United National Party (UNP) MP Dr. Harsha de Silva – and those snapshots probably attracted more views because of the restrictions in force.

Three days later, the same restrictions were imposed on the media when the new cabinet was sworn in even though the utter uselessness of such a move was quite evident. As that event progressed, the sheer disgust of the population – at least those citizens who are active on social media – was palpable.

Less than a decade ago, such utterances would have been made in hush-hush tones; most certainly not on social media, which was not as much in the news then. It is obvious that Sri Lankans nowadays feel far safer to be critical of those in power than in the past. With its veneer of anonymity, social media makes the user much more relaxed.

President Maithripala Sirisena’s term will be remembered as the period during which social media became a force in shaping Sri Lanka’s political path. His predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa, who pioneered the political use of social media as a PR tool, has been much more at ease using it. However, it has only been since 2015 that social media has really turned into an instrument in the hands of ordinary citizens.

If not for social media, the UNP would have found it impossible to counter what it saw as an acute bias in the manner that private electronic media outlets covered the news. Social media not only enabled it to vent its anger but also create its own dissemination channels at very little cost.

The next election cycle will see platforms like Facebook and Twitter used as integral campaign tools.

Even in 2015, we saw those signs but they were not organised and probably didn’t play a pivotal role outside the urban milieu. But by the next election, we will see social media at its full potential. There will be organised campaigns, paid operators and of course, manipulations.

At the end of last year’s political impasse, we saw clone accounts making an appearance in the orbit of social media. These are created by someone to reflect the opinions of other accounts, mostly those of influential people.

The clone would look the same as the original with one or two minor variations – look more closely at the user name, for instance. However, the clone would not behave in the same manner as the original. This was an attempt to disrupt the information flow so the clone will act to counter the content of the original account. By the time the clone is taken down (if at all), the impact that its creator had intended would have been made.

While the effect here in Sri Lanka has been negligible so far, in Bangladesh it’s been different. As elections closed late last year, authorities slowed down internet access speeds. However, dozens of clone accounts of popular news platforms and others had sprung up by then.

What we have seen in Sri Lanka is how political organisations and operatives can use social media to disseminate their agendas. It’s similar to groups with the deepest pockets or best connections to legacy media gaining an advantage.

There is also the much more dangerous use of bots and fake news farms, the impact of which was seen during the last US presidential election. Both Facebook and Twitter have taken action on this.

Since the Kandy District riots in March last year, Facebook has been paying more attention to Sri Lanka; it has since set up a country contact point and Sinhala content moderators. However, it’s still unclear whether these measures would prove to be sufficient if a party paid large sums of money to deploy a bot with fake news potential in a highly organised fashion using technical expertise.

Facebook officials have privately said they’re prepared to meet any challenge akin to what was seen during the Kandy riots and that Sri Lanka is no longer a blip on the screen.

We will soon find out what all this really means.