SRI LANKAN POLITICS AND THE ART OF LYING ON THE INTERNET

10 minutes. That’s how long you get to delete a Whatsapp message. 1 hour. That’s how long Maithripala Sirisena said it would be before he resigned from politics if Ranil Wickremesinghe was reappointed as Prime Minister. 2 weeks. That’s the memory span of the average Sri Lankan or so the saying goes. But on the internet? Everything is eternal and you can’t tell a lie…. or can you?

The weakness of traditional media

Throughout recorded history, we’ve seen those with power attempting to rewrite the truth. Joseph Stalin – the dictator of the Soviet Union was famous for doctoring photos. And he did that before Photoshop was even in anyone’s imagination. Fast forward to today and we can still see our leaders trying to pull the same.

Long before the internet politicians and dictators have sought to manipulate the truth (Image credits: History.com)

When #CoupLK began, it was reported that SLPP unions had occupied the offices of state-owned newspapers and TV stations. Almost immediately these media organizations published stories supporting the actions, which the Supreme Court has now proven (as we all knew back then) illegal. As with any dictatorial regime, the media became the first targets to be silenced by its leaders.

And in the past, this was quite easy. Not everyone had a voice that could reach thousands. All a dictator had to do was threaten, blackmail, bribe, or coerce a few key people. Control the people that control the printing press or the airwaves. Then you can lie with impunity and have a secure career in politics. All that’s required was a few thugs, promise them a ministerial portfolio, and have them target a few key people.

When dictators want to take control, one of their first targets are journalists (Image credits: Global Issues)

This is the weakness of traditional media. Of course, digital marketers would love to tell you that there’s nothing to worry about. “Print. Radio. TV. They’re all dead. These problems are why,” they say. But according to the TRCSL, we live in a country where only 32% have access to the internet. Thus, one could easily argue that the above methods are still applicable and terrifying.

The power of the internet

What makes the internet so powerful ever since its inception is connectivity. Across mountains, deserts, and oceans, it has the power to connect people. This power has resulted in every person is using it to have a voice that can reach thousands. And social media has made that even easier in recent times.

A very tiny glimpse of what unfolded on #CoupLK on Twitter

For proof, we can once again take the example of #CoupLK. This was the hashtag that became the symbol of resistance. Every waking moment of the crisis was documented under this hashtag. Whatever was said by any Sri Lankan politician was etched in digital stone. Any weak lie was almost instantly called out.

So is it really all that surprising that we saw a barrage of memes on Sunday? Throughout the crisis, President Maithripala Sirisena was vocal that he would never work with Ranil Wickremesinghe. But on Sunday, despite his efforts to ignore this, the news was still fresh in everyone’s memory.

The President wanted everyone to forget. Azzam Ameen gave everyone a reminder (Image credits: Azzam Ameen)

Those that forgot were instantly reminded by Azzam Ameen’s tweets. Similarly, during the crisis, he was reminded of what he said during the 2015Sri Lankan presidential elections. In response, he said those were merely gallery comments. The only comments we heard were from a President assuming his people were fools.

As the saying goes, “Once it’s on the internet, it’s there forever.”  So you can hit the delete button, but people will still remember. That’s the nature of the internet where every single webpage of it is archived. And in an ideal world, that would mean accountability in politics would be enforced. But evidently, that’s not the case.

Why do politicians lie with impunity?

Despite the internet recording Maithripala Sirisena’s wild statements, nothing is likely to happen. Yes, the Sri Lankan Supreme Court ruled his actions were unconstitutional.  But is anyone going to hold Maithripala Sirisena accountable for the lies he spread during this crisis? At the moment, the answer seems to be no.

Sadly, this is the case across the world. Despite Donald Trump’s wild claims on the campaign trail, he was elected as President. Similarly, the Saudi government constantly changed its story regarding the death of Jamal Khashoggi. The worst thing that happened to the Saudi’s after these lies were a few European nations suspending weapon sales to the kingdom.

Despite making exaggerations and lies, Donald Trump was elected President (Image credits: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

This the other side of free speech. At its very core, free speech means you can say Santa Claus drives a Suzuki Swift instead of a sleigh. It’s obviously not true but you have the freedom to say it. That doesn’t mean you’re safe from an angry 4-year-old that likes Santa’s sleigh. As the saying goes, “Free speech doesn’t mean free from consequences.”

But what are the consequences of a politician lying? What are the consequences of those lies being recorded in history? In the short term, mostly a bunch of memes. In the medium term, absolutely nothing. As every Sri Lankan saw in broad daylight, even when the President himself admitted to bribery on national television. While investigations are taking place, it’s unlikely to result in any politician being arrested.  Yet, in the long term, it could potentially mean a lost election.

Even though they admitted bribing MP’s, they’re unlikely to face any consequences (Image credits: The National)

It’s a running joke that anyone involved in politics is a liar. But as some elections in 2018 showed, it’s a joke that’s getting very old. Incumbents in countries across the region such as MalaysiaPakistan, and the Maldives were voted out. Their replacements were voted in on the promise of bringing honest change to politics. This was also the case in Sri Lanka in 2015 when Maithripala Sirisena was voted in.

It’s harder but not impossible to lie 

But if the US presidential elections taught the world an important lesson. In a digital world, it is possible to hack an election. According to the New York Times, the methods don’t vary too much from the those the Soviet Union adopted during the Cold War.

The lies just take on a different form. But the effects can be deadly, which we learned only six months ago. One could argue that the only saving grace for Sri Lankan politics might be that these methods can be expensive. Yet Groundviews has documented Namal Rajapaksa’s extensive Twitter bot operation.

Furthermore, during the crisis, MP’s were offered as much as Rs. 500 million to cross party lines. Therefore, we can see that money is no object. For the ambitious Sri Lankan politician, no price is too much to get away with telling the right lie.  Nonetheless, one could still argue that the old traditional methods are simpler.

After all, it’s a lot easier to control a TV station. Especially when its run by the same person that did the advertising for your campaign. But controlling an army of bots on a platform that’s trying to take them down? A lot harder. But the bots are still a handy tool when the platform itself isn’t too serious about stopping them from lying.

At the end of the day, whatever you say on the internet will be there forever. Will it be remembered as fact or fiction? Depends on how much effort you put into it.

 

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