Innovating propaganda strategies | Sunday Observer

Innovating propaganda strategies

With the General Election just one month away, political parties and candidates, of whom there are more than 7,000 in the fray, are ramping up their propaganda activities. They are no doubt constrained in reaching out to the voter by the health regulations imposed in the wake of the pandemic. However, these have been imposed on the instructions of the Director General of Health Services, who knows best. As President Gotabaya Rajapaksa tweeted last week, one cannot be complacent about Covid-19 as any slip-up is bound to have disastrous consequences. Thus we must not let our guard down under any circumstances.

However, there is a feeling among political parties that some of the measures imposed by the National Elections Commission may have gone too far, even under the present circumstances. One of them is the almost blanket ban on displaying preference numbers, even at election offices of candidates.

Apart from duty free cars, this is about the only issue the parties could agree upon in one voice, so there must be a valid point. And we too agree that some leeway should have been given to the candidates in this regard. Otherwise only the rich and powerful candidates will be able to get their number across to voters by advertising or having meetings.

This does not affect the well-known candidates so much, because the voters will often try to find out the preference numbers in advance. It is the novice candidates who will suffer, because they have no easy means of disseminating their number among the voting public. Ironically, this defeats the very intention of almost all political parties this time around to give more place to youth and professionals, especially females. Most of these rookie politicians have no excess wealth to advertise on social and mainstream media. Without getting their message across to the voters, it is unlikely that their numbers will register in the voters’ minds.

We feel it is not too late for the EC and the political parties to find some middle ground on this issue, so that a level playing field can be assured for all candidates. This time, even the ruling party candidates will not have the use of State resources for propaganda unlike on previous occasions, with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa clamping down hard on this practice. If that is implemented to the letter, then all candidates will be in the same boat, so to speak.

But it is only fair that they be given an opportunity to publicise their number without spending millions. Remember, each candidate has to engage in propaganda throughout a given district under the Proportional Representation System. Although several attempts were made to introduce a fusion of First-Past-the-Post and PR systems in recent times, this is yet to come to fruition. Hence the complications brought about by the PR system still persist.

Meanwhile, the candidates will have to be a little more innovative to get their words and numbers across to the electorate. Word of Mouth still works, though admittedly it won’t reach an entire district.

Pocket meetings are ideal to get to know your voters more closely (subject to social distancing). During this campaign, pocket meetings will figure even more prominently everywhere as it is unlikely that Police and health authorities will permit big rallies in the wake of the strict Coronavirus precautions. One benefit is that they are less costly to organise than big rallies, though one has to factor in Covid-19 costs such as handwash facilities.

The younger candidates should try their luck with social media, which is practically free if you know the ins and outs of it. Moreover, that is a medium through which they can address the first time voters (around 300,000 for this poll) and the younger voters, who are on social media 24/7. They are less likely to vote on traditional party lines and more likely to vote for personalities who they believe will bring some change.

But the problem with social media is that things can turn against you as well, because political opponents can manipulate videos and pictures and make things worse. In fact, deepfake videos, which are basically real-looking videos entirely made up by political opponents, have figured prominently in many elections around the world. From trolls to bots that bombard the voters with wrong information, it is a veritable minefield out there on social media, so one has to navigate very carefully.

That still leaves the traditional media – print and electronic – to deal with. Posters are passé due to environmental concerns and so are polythene banners and cutouts. This is where the print media comes in. The ‘death’ of print media has been greatly exaggerated. The print media in Sri Lanka is very much alive and thriving and is an ideal medium for the candidates to get their message across, at reasonable cost.

It is much better to advertise in a newspaper than print 100,000 posters, not to mention the trouble taken to paste those. We have no clear idea of the rates charged by electronic media institutions or election advertisements, but again, it should be a less costly alternative to holding big rallies. Both print and electronic media have the potential to reach an islandwide audience, which should be enough for any candidate.

The Coronavirus has forced candidates and political parties to think of new strategies to win the hearts of the voters and who knows, some of them may stick around for future elections in a world sans Covid-19.