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Sunday, June 16, 2024

The End of Free and Fair Elections in Sri Lanka – Sanjana Hattotuwa

The proposed 20th amendment will be the death of free and fair elections in Sri Lanka. The study of political communications and digital propaganda for over a decade leaves no room for doubt on what will follow if (when?) the 20th Amendment, in its current form, is passed in Parliament. Worse, if the proposed amendment is a harbinger of what is expanded and entrenched in the new constitution, Sri Lanka will enter a new dream state. Elections will be bereft of physical violence, but so thoroughly one-sided, the country will be a one-party state. More frighteningly, the absence of alternatives will drive all political actors into a new digital propaganda arms race. Our attention is what political parties seek to capture and retain, and they will use increasingly sophisticated ways to hijack it. Our engagement informs our franchise. Those who know this best are behind the 20th amendment.

A flurry of articles critical of the proposed amendment have appeared in the past week, flagging dire consequences of a new chapter in hyper-presidentialism. The focus here is on the set of recommendations that dilute the powers of the Elections Commission in light of the country’s propaganda landscape. The best test of what’s proposed isn’t academic or technical. It involves imagining someone who isn’t the incumbent President or the majority party in government inheriting and using the powers granted by the 20th amendment. If one only feels uneasy by absolute power wielded by a disliked or feared political figure, that power should not be allowed to exist in the first place.

There are lessons from recent political history around how this may play out. On 20th November 2014, no one knew that by the first week of January the next year Sri Lanka would, despite seemingly insurmountable odds, have a new President. No one in January 2015 knew that by February 2018, a party roundly rejected twice in 2015 would be resoundingly back in favour. In May 2009, the General who directed the Army didn’t realise that by February the next year, he would be beaten up and dragged away by soldiers from the heart of Colombo. Aside from rapidly changing political fortunes, there’s the question of age and health – both explosive to even mention, but necessary considering what this amendment will inspire as a political legacy. The President and Prime Minister are both over 70. One was in hospital in Singapore for major surgery last year. The other, in public and undoctored video clips, has trouble navigating steps and uneven terrain. Amendments created to benefit who the drafters had in mind may not be the ones who end up inheriting absolute power. Therein lies the rub.

The proposed 20th amendment dilutes the powers of the Election Commission. Further, appointments to the Commission by the President will undermine all credibility in the independence of the institution. The amendment guarantees the government an insurmountable advantage in every future election campaign. To understand just how much, we need to go back a decade. The Presidential Election on 27th January 2010 saw, for the first time in Sri Lanka, the two leading candidates launch campaign-related websites as well as Facebook, Flickr, YouTube and Twitter accounts. Tellingly, the first website attacking and undermining a presidential candidate, was also created in 2010, set up to look like an official one. By 2015, social media content was integral to both the Presidential Election and General Election held that year and when things start to get complicated.

On the one hand, physical violence linked to elections started to decline. On the other, digital propaganda’s sophistication, speed of production, scale of distribution and volume of engagement started to increase rapidly. By 2019’s Presidential election, propaganda had moved on from rallies and printed material. Campaign material was distributed across YouTube, Facebook pages and groups, Twitter, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, Instagram, Viber, Facebook Messenger, email, SMS, robocalls, official websites, proxy websites and even websites falsely registered under the name of opponents to make it appear as if they endorsed the content. For the first time, mobile apps were part of official campaigns. These apps hoovered voter information voluntarily provided, including NIC and phone number. More dangerously and without user intervention, these apps also accessed, amongst other data, the phone’s location 24/7, onboard storage and all stored contacts. This information fed partisan databases more comprehensive than anything legally held by the Elections Commission. Coupled with the inability and unwillingness of social media companies to meaningfully regulate propaganda on their platforms, the situation leading up to the General Election this year was even worse. Mobile apps with hidden malware (i.e. harmful code) were launched during the campaign by leading parties. Thousands installed them. A dozen disturbing new trends in digital propaganda emerged that were either entirely new in the country, or in the space of a few months, showed rapid evolution from what was tested first in the Presidential election. The partisan bias of private TV stations in Sri Lanka is an even more significant problem on social media, with broadcast content engaged with far more on Facebook long after it was first aired. Candidates with at least one TV station or media owner backing them have a clear advantage over those who do not.

To be clear, the Elections Commission as it stands today is not fit for purpose, alongside electoral laws and regulations in Sri Lanka which are antiquated, reflecting a media landscape that no longer exists. What the proposed 20th amendment does is the very opposite of the urgent reform needed to address these emergent, entrenched and expanding challenges. The amendment intentionally centres and cements the most toxic, harmful dynamics around propaganda in the hands of the government, while completely erasing any meaningful oversight and regulation. The net effect is that the government will enjoy, in perpetuity, an unrivalled dominance of the country’s media landscape.

Let’s not mince words. The 20th amendment in its present form is an act of electoral sabotage intended to undermine democratic outcomes. The danger of this cannot be overstated. There is no alternative reading, silver lining or a more charitable outcome to this. The amendment forces all political parties – directly and through proxies – to invest in the weaponisation of social media to fit propaganda production better. Citizens will lose out, no matter whom they voted for.

What sounds like hyperbole is not. The complex nature of contemporary political communications I study as part of doctoral research is more disturbing than what is noted here. Imagine if by just visiting a website, one is profiled for political ads. Imagine if, through sophisticated algorithms, one is identified as having a proclivity to vote a certain way and based on this discriminated against or targeted even more by frames that demonise alternative perspectives. Imagine if the most potent political propagandists aren’t political parties or politicians, but popular Facebook pages that entertain millions daily. Imagine if the power to shape public perceptions isn’t overtly linked to President, PM, or party, but a popularity that is mistaken for veracity and authenticity. Imagine seeding perceptions amongst teenagers they don’t realise are partisan in nature yet seek to influence the exercise of their franchise years hence. Now imagine a country where all of this is already happening, every day. The 20th amendment is an accelerant to all this and more.

Challenges around electoral integrity are not unique to Sri Lanka. A quick scan of news headlines reveals the degree to which democratic institutions and processes in the West are crumbling in ways eerily familiar to us. Instead of meaningful policies to avoid the most illiberal outcomes, Sri Lanka is now a cautionary tale in audacious authoritarian creep. However, it is perhaps too much to expect from the same skilled engineers of propaganda, constitutional amendments to check and curtail their grand designs. Citizens must prevail where politicians and political parties have failed. The inevitable result of the 20th amendment will be a country where only limited, pre-approved variations of a single political, social and economic narrative will be tolerated. Total information dominance means precisely that. The violence of this amendment is very different from the repression, censorship and suppression of dissent in the past. It is a more pernicious development because the violence engendered will be systemic and thus hidden from easy scrutiny or study – digital yet with real, immediate and lasting electoral and political implications.

Opposing the 20th amendment goes beyond partisan critique. It is a matter of civic duty. Either we do it now, or we all will suffer the horrible consequences it will unleash, for many governments and generations to come.



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