On the night of September 4 or the early hours of 5, some groggy eyed travellers getting into taxis at the Katunayake Airport were given some stern advice. “Avoid Colombo, it is going to be absolute mayhem,” so said the drivers forewarning that Colombo would grind to an almighty standstill by virtue of a massive protests campaign by the opposition Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)
There were sticker campaigns, poster campaigns and social media had been deployed full throttle. By fifth mid-morning Janabalaya Kolombata looked like the first massive convergence of a social media campaign and a much more traditional grassroots level public mobilization campaign. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been a past master of public mobilization and his heir apparent was going to show that he was that and much more.
On social media, Janabalaya was on a different field altogether, on Facebook, the posts with the tag Janabalaya were shared, liked or commented on over 220,000 times by the time the buses with the protestors were reaching the outskirts of Colombo, there were over 8,000 twitter interactions and the tags were trending across social media in Sri Lanka and nothing else was getting even closer.
It was clear that there was a strategic social media campaign reached its crescendo as the protests were to hit the roads of Colombo – the target was over 200,000 would come in, if not more
The live feed of the event was watched by over two million with over 400,000 of that using Namal Rajapaksa’s Facebook page to do that. That is a massive reach.
It was clear that there was a strategic social media campaign that reached its crescendo as the protests were to hit the roads of Colombo – the target was that over 200,000 would come in, if not more. Nervous that they would get caught up in the protests office workers scrambled out Colombo. The stage was set.
But when the protests got going, the contrast from the coordinated, well-groomed social media campaign was stark. There was confusion where the marches were to converge, what they would do thereafter and even where some of the top draws of the opposition were. There was no oomph moment where weeks of Facebook posts, tweets, meetings, posters and stickers would combine with the personalities on the roads set off the fireworks literally and figuratively.
Since the protests many commentators have written about why they failed to live up to the hype. One aspect that has not been dealt with thoroughly is why the protestors on the streets did not match the swell on social media.
One protestor wryly said that those who protest, at least who take part in mass political protests in Sri Lanka are not keen social media followers. They are still gathered one protestor at a time and brought to the rallies by organisers, similar to how it was done when there were only landline phones. Sri Lanka is not yet there where a protest can be organized by online campaigns.
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been a past master of public mobilization and his heir apparent was going to show that he was that and much more
Experiences all over the world have shown that on social media, trends can be amplified or suppressed artificially. Here in Sri Lanka also this March there were indications on Twitter that bots purportedly of Sri Lankan origin were being created.
However, there were no signs that the Janabalaya Kolombata campaign had been artificially propped up. The social media campaign was organized and well-coordinated except on one crucial point, in hindsight there was a glaring disconnect between the social media campaign and getting the men and women on to Colombo’s sweltering heat.
The author is the Asia-Pacific Coordinator for the DART Centre for Journalism and Trauma, a project of Columbia’s School of Journalism