Politicians and Twitter in Sri Lanka and the elsewhere

Image courtesy the Economist, Sweet to Tweet

The Presidential and parliamentary elections held this year in Sri Lanka saw a number of candidates, in the run up to election, open accounts on Twitter. Leading politicians like Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sarath Fonseka, Champika Ranawaka, Sajith Premadasa and Milinda Moragoda, amongst others were extremely active on Twitter.

Save for Sarath Fonseka’s and Sajith Premedasa’s accounts, they are all now defunct.

Milinda Moragoda’s account, in the short time it was active, demonstrated more engagement with his followers than all the other accounts combined. This is captured in a tweet of his, noting that though he was new to Twitter, Moragoda believed “it should be used constructively”. Debates with @Nishan73, @Naleendra123 and @NalakaG for example shows Moragoda’s use of the platform to engage voters on key issues, even if the end result was to agree to disagree.

Tellingly, for Moragoda and others, Twitter was ultimately more a vehicle for propaganda than a means of sustained and meaningful engagement with voters post-elections. Premadasa’s and Fonseka’s Twitter accounts serve more as a one way broadcast of activities and updates, and no engagement at all with critical debate or dissent.

One counterpoint is the Twitter feed of Groundviews, which I curate along with one other, that regularly engages followers who ask for clarifications, contest our viewpoints, feed us with information and post their own opinions.

Screenshot of exchange between @groundviews and @prakashism via Echofon.

On the other hand, Sweet to tweet, published in the Economist recently, notes,

As well as boosting the profile of individual politicians, Twitter may be better designed for campaigning and opposition than for governing. “We’ll change Washington” is easy to fit into 140 characters. Explaining the messy and inevitable compromises of power is a lot harder.

And the article goes on to suggest,

The days when tweets involved a sweaty-thumbed real-life politician giving candid thoughts on the day’s events may be passing. Risk-averse politicians are likely to make their tweets bland, and bland tweeters may be less likely to be followed. Once politicians understand that everything is public, they are much less likely to offer the unadorned truth, at least to ordinary voters.

The article in the Economist is interesting reading, for it analyses differences in the behaviour of politicians on Twitter in the run up to and after elections, as well as in opposition and in government. We can see these general observations play out in Sri Lanka as well. With Twitter now supported on Dialog via SMS (and perhaps other mobile phone networks) one can expect to see a growing number of those seeking public office use the medium in the run up to election to reach to, though not necessarily engage with, their prospective vote base.

Whether the use of social networking and media will, in any way, help transform the culture of politics in Sri Lanka from a corrupt, nepotistic and clientelistic model to a more deliberative, participatory and responsive framework will be a question I will continue to engage with, as will I am sure, many others.

3 Comments on “Politicians and Twitter in Sri Lanka and the elsewhere”

  1. Nigel V. Nugawela
    May 11, 2010 at 4:17 pm #

    Last month, the Economist also reported that the Chilean President and his entire Cabinet are on Twitter (http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2010/04/chile_and_social_media)

    Can such a move actually be considered as a policy for engagement, accountability and transparency? Furthermore, would politicians from any government actually respond to the inquiries made by citizens on Twitter? If there is no interaction, in terms of dialogue, then what is the point?

    • Sanjana Hattotuwa
      May 11, 2010 at 7:52 pm #

      I don’t think the use of Twitter, or the platform itself, engenders engagement. As with all other social media, it is how one chooses to use it. Moragoda’s feed shows some engagement pre-election. None show any engagement post-election. Could this be changed? Could for example public institutions set up Twitter as a means to generate public feedback, both good and bad? Conversely, can citizens set up twitter account for public institutions, outside their domain of control, to act as watchdogs on service delivery, exposing corruption etc? The medium allows for great creativity in its use, whether it is by progressive politicians or vigilant citizens.

  2. Nigel V. Nugawela
    May 11, 2010 at 7:55 pm #

    Agree. However, on the assumption that politicians and governments do use social media tools for accountability and transparency as well as a medium to engage with citizens; and following that, if information exchange is only active on one side, then I think that such a policy to use a social media tool as a platform for engagement is pointless. It is after all about communication and obviously this can occur in the form of a monologue or a dialogue, but with political actors and in the spirit of democratic governance it should, ideally, be about a two-way engagement and an exchange of ideas. Perhaps I’m constructing my own utopia of social media?

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