Next presidential election: Win the digital war to win the election
Wednesday, 16 August 2023 01:47 – – 62
Conventional campaigning methods are essential, but digital is the hero. There won’t be thousands in election rallies. The candidate who pastes posters will be looked down upon. Youth will be against soft bribes, such as alcohol and gifts, which will be recorded and shared in natural real-time. Candidates’ lives will be on display. Policies will be necessary, but every policy will have many faces. Candidates would have to stand for every policy staunchly, and also it would depend on who will be the candidate’s supporting messengers. The message and messenger are equally essential to build credibility. Even if you create an excellent statement, finding credible and skilful messengers would be a challenging task
In July 2014, social media, primarily confined to Facebook then, had an unusual spike in public discourse against the Rajapaksa regime though a presidential election was not on the horizon. No one sane would take credit for initiating the Yahapalanaya digital campaign, as it was a public uprising, mainly on Facebook. Fast-forward to 8 January 2015, President Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated by a commoner who lacked charisma, intellect, and leadership. Given the history of presidential elections, in my opinion, electing Maithripala Sirisena was a grave mistake, but 6.2 million voters decided it was not so. However, people may argue stopping the Rajapaksa regime was the most vital issue.
With the 2015 Sri Lankan presidential election, the newly formed Facebook political wing had an interesting case study. Not only Sri Lankan elections but Facebook was also pushed to learn how fake news could be used to create racism and even violence in a country, through the Sri Lankan case study. We all know the challenges Facebook faced in later years defending the platform. Many political strategists underestimated the power of digital media and communications for years, and they continue to make the same mistake even in 2023. In Sri Lanka, the press is dead, and radio listenership is down to single digits; out-of-home media has no impact, and TV has currency due to believability, but viewership has taken a nosedive year after year.
How does a politician communicate to voters and the public? Your guess is as good as mine.
You don’t need any research data to validate an argument. Ask 100 people under the age of 40 how they consume information.
Do they read newspapers? NO
Do they listen to the radio? NO
Do they watch TV? Maybe, but how many hours a day? Or are they consuming TV news on social media?
How can one ensure the targeted voter reads messages? You have no option but to push your communications through digital media. However, digital media is different from what it was in 2015. The platform itself has gone through massive changes. Facebook does not have the same impact, and Twitter is almost dead after Elon Musk took over. YouTube has gained traction, and a plethora of talk shows on YouTube is making an impact on changing public discourse.
However, in my view YouTube will lose its currency soon with the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI), which is evolving daily. For example, the story of ChatGPT already seems like old news and thousands of AI tools have emerged. AI is what the personal computer was in the 1980s. The one who masters AI for digital communications will undoubtedly have the upper hand over the competition.
For years, I have studied the impact of digital communications on shaping public opinion, and the data points are unreal. Conventional media does not have the same power as digital media for certainty. Traditional media cannot report what digital media can. Digital media channels mostly don’t have their ownership declared to the public. They could air anything they wished, only risking the channel’s reputation. The shrewd traditional media champions have realised the power of digital as they have integrated their core into digital.
In 2017, 15 of us from different geographies met in Tokyo, to discuss how to combat fake news broadly generated from digital media. I presented the Sri Lankan case study, and ours was unique. Some group learnings were submitted even to Facebook, but they turned a deaf ear. What took place after the Cambridge Analytica saga for Facebook is not a secret. CA- CEO Alexander Nix was publicly humiliated and never found a job thereafter. Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s senior aide, was on the CA board, and nearly 100 million profiles were compromised. Many political strategists had blood on their hands, doing anything to win. Fake news is still rampant. However, over the years, people have learnt to deal with it. I had first-hand experience in intervening to diffuse the Digana riots, but as a team, we were clueless for three days. There is nothing you can do when it passes a tipping point.
Any candidate needs to be geared to manage fake news. Primarily, in a person-centred election such as a presidential election, inevitable character assassinations take place. In a country like Sri Lanka, rather than policies, spin doctors go offensive on character, family, friends, business interests, sexuality, religious belief and personal history. The person who comes forward should be prepared to take the beating from all corners. Politics is not for the faint-hearted. Stakes are always high. Nothing beats negative messaging in Sri Lanka, and there is little protection for victims under the current law.
Given the ground realities at present, no single party would gain a majority. This is not rocket science. If economic conditions improve and national security is not a concern, the ground reality may change. However, my opinion through analysing data patterns is that no candidate would have a 25% bloc vote at the start of the campaign. It would be a surprise if anyone can achieve it within the next few months unless an economic miracle takes place. It all depends on whether it is a two-way or three-way competition. I guess it to be three-way unless serious back-channelling occurs (though this may be expected).
A candidate must build an alliance and compromise significantly to accommodate diverse political ideologies, cultures, personalities, commercial interests and plum ministerial positions. The Yahapalanaya alliance was a bad one, but the upcoming Presidential campaign alliance would have to go beyond. I fear the consequences of a similar coalition for the country. Still, the winning candidate would not have an option and must have a grand alliance that has never been built in the post-independence history of Sri Lanka. Also, we must not forget the interests of China, India, the USA, and Japan at the next Presidential election. Sri Lanka is the heart of the Indian Ocean, and stability in the Indian Ocean is essential to all stakeholders. It’s a complex situation which requires careful manoeuvring.
Premadasa vs Bandaranaike – the 1988 election had an attendance of 55℅. Subsequent Presidential polls had more than 70% attendance. Sirisena vs Rajapaksa contest had 81% attendance. This was one of the key reasons why Sirisena won. Going by the latest trends and the digital data I gathered over the last 6 months, I don’t see a reason to believe that above 80% would vote at the next Presidential election. There are approximately 6 million voters under-age 40 in Sri Lanka from a total of 16 million. The youth seems to have given up on politics as they no longer see a viable option. I noticed that from the engagement on all digital platforms. The key for youth (under-40) is employment opportunities, hope, and equality. Unfortunately, the child in this country has lost hope, and the political leaders have no solution to address their woes.
The older generation does not have any idea of the aspirations of the youth. Having taught over 20,000 youth in the last twenty-three years in different parts of the world, I see the generational gap. I learn from my three teenage children, and their perspectives amuse me. Irrespective of what is said, youth are much wiser than my generation. Today’s youth live in a virtual world with fewer attachments. Indeed, there are no party affiliations, which is why they look for personalities and characters. They get excited quickly but get frustrated far more easily when things don’t happen their way. The youth needs quick results and actions. I was a youth when postal telegrams were used to inform urgent matters, but today’s youth live in a world where you get a half-second reply to messages. The world is different, and senior political leaders have little knowledge to understand the ground reality of how to manage the segment.
Winning the digital war is critical for the next Presidential aspirant. Primarily, the absolute majority of the undecided voters would arrive from people under-40. Undecided voters move the result in a presidential election, and they drag their decision to the last day. Remember, in Rajapaksa vs Wickremesinghe in 2005, the difference was only approximately 180,000 votes, courtesy, northeastern boycott in favour of Rajapaksa.
In Sri Lanka, all elections from 1988 onwards, were won on emotions, false promises but never on policies and realities of life. I have no reason to believe that the next presidential election would be based on policies. Digital media amplifies emotions. It’s a two-way communication and herd mentality takes over. The leader willing to compromise and say what people want to hear and is easily understood would have leverage over the public. Nowhere in the world do the majority of people decide on rationality. The world would have been a better place if people acted with at least common sense. Politicians are masters of understanding that people don’t naturally look for rational reasons.
In 1960, Nixon vs Kennedy was a tight race. Kennedy’s campaign used television effectively. If TV was the thing in 1960, digital would be in 2023. The world’s first digital severe election campaign was Modi vs Gandhi in 2014. The Modi campaign was streets ahead of the Gandhi campaign. Though Rajnath Singh was chief of the BJP campaign, Arvind Gupta and the young tech brigade integrated the conventional campaign with an outstanding digital campaign. The young Gandhi was expected to take the digital route, but I remember he did not even have a proper website.
Digital media is dangerous. It’s a sharp sword. It would help if you handled it with care. Conventional media cannot control spikes and uprisings in digital media. It can only be killed by digital media. Fake news will never die in Sri Lanka. Gossip is part of our life, and digital media will amplify the discourse.
Don’t get me wrong. Conventional campaigning methods are essential, but digital is the hero. There won’t be thousands in election rallies. The candidate who pastes posters will be looked down upon. Youth will be against soft bribes, such as alcohol and gifts, which will be recorded and shared in natural real-time. Candidates’ lives will be on display. Policies will be necessary, but every policy will have many faces. Candidates would have to stand for every policy staunchly, and also it would depend on who will be the candidate’s supporting messengers. The message and messenger are equally essential to build credibility. Even if you create an excellent statement, finding credible and skilful messengers would be a challenging task.
In 2024, the one who wins the digital war will be the President of the country. Also, it would be the first presidential election since 2005 without Mahinda Rajapaksa euphoria. This would be an epic case study worth following.
(The writer, Alumni of Harvard Kennedy School, is a serial entrepreneur and a former senior corporate executive with nearly 30 years of experience covering the Asia Pacific and the Middle East. With an academic background in public leadership, public policy, marketing, and digital economy, he has advised many senior political and business leaders over the last 12 years. He could be reached via email at email@example.com)