Crusading against the “Offensive”: The Political Communication Failures of Sri Lanka’s Political Class

Since the economic collapse and the Aragalaya protests, Sri Lankans have had to go through a number of important conversations on the direction that the country is heading.

Since the economic collapse and the Aragalaya protests, Sri Lankans have had to go through a number of important conversations on the direction that the country is heading. These conversations, many of which are happening for the first time on such a large scale,  have forced both the people in charge and the general public to think hard about issues like the economy, corruption, and the entire political climate in the country. One result of this was that the people have recognized that a massive crisis of leadership is plaguing the country. Nowhere was this more obvious than when the people were faced with the question of who to vote for in the upcoming elections.

While people not having ideal options to choose from is a perpetual peril of democracy and often, a popular complaint against it, being a problem Sri Lankans have often encountered in past presidential elections, this issue has not been as severely felt as it is now. It is, in fact, so severe that hundreds of thousands of people are shifting their support to a third party purely based on the fact that they have not won an election (though they’ve contested for decades) and have not had the chance to be in power. This momentum has been so strong that their carefully and well presented narrative of getting rid of corruption and not being a part of the status-quo has covered the fact that much of their admittedly successful political communication efforts i.e all the slogans and such have not been followed up by clear pronunciations of policy.

Garnering massive support for a movement seemingly based solely on empty cries for change is very much indicative of the level of desperation experienced by the people. This lack of trust in the current political class has quite dangerously snowballed into a serious lack of public trust in state institutions. The legal and structural line that separates the institutions and the politicians who are supposed to lead them, in the eyes of the public,  is a very weak one; it is almost invisible. To be clear, Sri Lanka is nowhere near the only country to be going through a crisis of trust, in fact, the deterioration of trust in authority seems to be a global phenomenon. The 2024 Edelman Trust Barometer (which shows the average percent trust in NGOs, business, government and media) which surveys more than 30,000 people from more than 25 countries, found that more than 60% of the recipients worried that their government and journalists/media are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggeration. Generally the trust in government and media are very low as well, standing at 51% and 50% respectively. Trust in government is below 50% in a majority (17 of 28)  of the countries where the survey was done.

But the difference is, Sri Lanka, having gone through a major political upheaval because of a crisis of trust ; the Aragalaya, and has emerged  out of that period of intense distrust and skepticism towards the states-quo politicians and institutions. Coupled with the continuing atmosphere of hopelessness, sadness and disappointment perpetuated by the economic crisis, the country is in an especially vulnerable state. This has led to a creation of a climate perfect for propaganda and disinformation much of it often spread to weaken the spec of trust the public has left in the fragile status quo. One could argue that the spike in disinformation during the election season, observed in most democracies, is normal. However, given the context mentioned above, the situation is much worse in Sri Lanka. Additionally, even under normal circumstances, this increase in disinformation and propaganda during Sri Lanka’s election cycle, particularly when it involves racially or religiously motivated content, deals a strong blow to the already fragile ethnic and religious situation in the country.

While the merits of changing the status quo are debatable and not the focus here, the manipulation of public desperation and intense distrust of the establishment to achieve this change will undoubtedly have serious long-term consequences. To put it simply, that distrust, especially in institutions,  will not be sustainably addressed through a change of regime. That doesn’t address the underlying issues. Furthermore, the collapse of a regime that comes to power as the antithesis to a corrupt status-quo, exclusively promising to rescue the nation from the extremely fragile economic and political situation it is in, framing itself as “the last hope” of the country to save it from the atmosphere of hopelessness, could lead to disastrous consequences for the people in Sri Lanka. While ‘the last hope’ rhetoric is not in any sense new in the political communications and campaigning repertoire, its use and ultimate failure in the current Sri Lankan context, could deal a major blow to the country’s already fragile democracy.

Lost in Translation: The Absence of Political Communication in Sri Lanka

Repairing that eroded trust is not going to be easy by any means, but it is unfortunate to see that the current class of politicians are failing even the most fundamental step of rebuilding trust in their images ; getting basic political communication right. It is not surprising, since most politicians in Sri Lanka, similar to politicians in most countries in South Asia, have historically proven to be extremely inept at basic public relations, much less political communication

Political communication, considered to be a part of Public Relations,  is the art and science of strategically communicating political messages, ideas, and policies to the public. Political communication involves strategically employing various communication tools and techniques to influence public opinion and shape political discourse, all in pursuit of specific political objectives. There are many such tools and techniques such as framing, agenda-setting and narrative control.

However, the lack of any of these techniques, or at best, a very miscalculated and bad strategy in strategic communication, was painfully on display during one of the aforementioned national conversations Sri Lankans have had ; the internet and online safety.  The very controversial Online Safety Bill – OSB  (now the Online Safety Act –  OSA, after being passed on the 24th of January 2024) and the conversations around it, including the debates in Parliament, have revealed the abject failure in political communication of a majority of Sri Lankan lawmakers.

Perception Warfare

From the beginning, the timing of the entire effort to advance the OSB was miscalculated. It should have been obvious that giving such urgency, both in action and rhetoric, would make the public question the government’s priorities. As could have been anticipated, a narrative emerged, which, while it may have naturally gained traction, was also actively propagated by some political actors. This narrative of ‘people are starving, but the government is focused on banning them from commenting on Facebook,’ became very popular. Regardless of the intended benefits, the government’s urgent action predictably backfired. This sort of swift and strong-handed attempt at passing a bill is, and should be, normally used in times of high public confidence in the administration and government. One crucial aspect that should have been considered is the nature of the bill that was being passed in such a rapid and forceful manner. Passing a law that deals with public opinion (online, in this case), especially involving restrictions, even if the the purpose of the bill is stated to be to combat disinformation and to prevent cybercrime, will inevitably be seen by the public as an attempt by an unpopular government to restrict civilian freedoms and crack down on public opinion and discourse against it. In the present climate ripe for disinformation and propaganda, it’s equivalent to throwing fuel into a fire. 

This misstep is closely related to the next political communication error that many politicians committed. They did not have a good enough grasp of the issue at hand, more significantly, their profound ignorance regarding online safety, cybersecurity, and the internet in general was glaringly evident and publicly exposed. In the age of the internet, where a single mishap that is captured on video and can be used indefinitely to tarnish and destroy one’s image and their credibility, it is incredibly important not to be captured on camera talking about and issue while being demonstrably ill-informed and having little to no understanding of it. This is a common tactic employed by politicians who use paparazzi-style “journalists” to “ambush” unsuspecting political opponents with challenging questions designed to catch them off guard. The goal is to film their opponents stumbling over their responses on camera. With some clever editing, they have a very damaging piece of propaganda to use against their opponent. But what Sri Lankans saw during the debates on the Online Safety Bill were not such acts of manipulation, but a shocking display of ignorance from their nation’s top lawmakers. It revealed a profound lack of understanding of social media and the internet, highlighting their detachment from the digital reality of the modern world. This would have been concerning regardless of the bill’s subject matter, but it is especially troubling given that the topic at hand—understanding the internet—is a fundamental aspect of political communication and even basic public relations in the modern age.

Among others, the primary way through which Sri Lankan Members of Parliament showcased their lack of understanding of both the internet and political communication was by predominantly emphasizing the offensive nature of the internet in their rhetoric. Many parliamentarians passionately lamented the perceived injustice of being targets of offensive online comments and content. However, what this conveyed to the public was that the motivations for passing such a bill—now condemned locally and internationally as draconian and fundamentally misunderstanding effective online safety measures—were purely petty and personal.

It also suggested that offensive comments on social media have significantly affected these politicians, which is considered a major failure in modern political and strategic communications. It is well known that offensive comments and content have been part of the internet since its inception. It is also generally understood among internet users and especially by modern public relations practitioners that the best way to deal with them is either to ignore them or to engage with them in a humorous manner, thereby disarming them. In fact, the worst course of action would be to signal that you are deeply affected by these comments and content, which is exactly the message that the public received.  Broadly speaking, this problem is not, strictly speaking, one stemming from the political class. The Sri Lankan people’s inclination to advocate for arrests and government intervention in response to ‘offensive’ online content, particularly when it pertains to religious matters, is a matter of grave concern. This affinity not only reflects a broader societal sensitivity to online discourse but also feeds into a lack of understanding among lawmakers regarding the nuances of the internet and its governance.

Reading the Internet

The political class and the public needs to understand that the internet operates differently from traditional media. It’s global, instantaneous, and often lacks gatekeepers. This stems from the fact that the internet was designed to be decentralized. This decentralized nature has heavily influenced the development of the internet and how it functions today. The internet’s decentralized structure and rapid speed of change makes it difficult to design and enforce regulations without running into major obstacles.

In another sense, the internet is inherently a harsh and unforgiving place. Users feel protected and emboldened by the anonymity and the sense of distance provided by the internet to behave in a way they wouldn’t do in real life ; they make offensive comments, interact with questionable material etc. (This doesn’t mean that it is always that, or that every social media user behaves this way.) What needs to be done to counteract this, in a political communications sense, is not to attempt or stand for policies which are anti-anonymity or even-worse anti social media (which would be a major setback with a young audience) but to be acutely aware that this is the case and to find a suitable strategy to work around it. Policymakers need to understand these nuances to create effective regulations and more important in the current context, to get political communication right. 

It is crucial to acknowledge that while the internet’s anonymity and perceived distance can embolden users to make wildly offensive and seemingly disgusting comments online, this same barrier often prevents most users from translating such behavior into real-life actions. If this is not the case for a user for some reason, whether it be radicalization, extremism, or mental illness, there are often signs that can be identified, and it becomes a different subject matter altogether.

It does not make sense to, for example, threaten to launch official government investigations on “offensive comments” made after the passing of an extremely unpopular state minister. The boundary between online and offline behavior also functions as a way for people to let out their frustrations, especially during emotionally charged events such as the one mentioned. The appropriate response for a politician in such situations is to carefully consider the impact of such events on their communication strategy. This includes assessing whether it is beneficial to voice their opinion and, if so, how to do so effectively.  It is crucial to understand the context and public sentiment surrounding the event/incident in question.

Returning to the passing of the Online Safety Bill (OSB), it is evident that the government had a bad framing strategy with the (Intentional or Unintentional) emphasis on offensive comments as opposed to a singular focus on the narrative that the OSB is crucial to National Security. Additionally, there was the assertion that the OSB aimed to protect Sri Lankan children, but this aspect was not  emphasized enough in the messaging. Consequently, this claim was swiftly countered in the public discourse by experts who argued that the bill did not adequately address the issue of child pornography.

These attempts to restrict social media through the rhetoric adopted by many pro-OSB politicians  would be more justified if a country had a significant youth population that shared these negative views. However, this is not the case in Sri Lanka. Not only is this evident from the reactions of young people on social media, but Sri Lanka’s experience with a brief ban on social media in 2019 also provides a unique perspective. While the ban was implemented due to a national emergency, it was widely regarded as a mistake, and the overwhelmingly negative reactions from the public were quite telling. In Political communication or any subject matter dealing with public opinion whether it be marketing, advertising or public opinion , the most crucial step of the process is to know your audience.

Modern politicians in Sri Lanka should bear in mind that their audience is not primarily the older generation, many of whom were isolated from sources of knowledge due to factors such as language, income, and geography, making them more susceptible to traditional political rhetoric. The younger generation, which now forms the majority of the electorate in Sri Lanka, exhibits a pronounced skepticism and disdain toward the traditional political rhetoric employed by politicians. This sentiment is largely shaped by their exposure to social media and other non-traditional means of communication. While they are not immune to propaganda, political communication, and public relations, the methods that resonate with them have evolved. It is crucial for the political class to adapt to these changes, not only to advance their careers but also to address the crisis of trust in the political class and institutions that currently afflicts the country. Unfortunately, it appears that the majority of politicians in Sri Lanka and the region have not taken even the initial step in proper political communications, let alone evolved their techniques.

Daham Jayarathna
Daham Jayarathna
Daham Jayarathna is an independent researcher and writer talking about propaganda and its history, evolutions, and utilization. He currently works at the Bandaranaike Academy for Leadership and Public Policy. You can contact him through Dahamj[at]