By Easwaran Rutnam
With a lot of misinformation and hate speech being promoted via social media ahead of the presidential election next month, international as well as local election monitors are keeping a close watch on social media, apart from just traditional media.
European Union Election Observer Mission (EU EOM) Deputy Chief Observer Dimitra Ioannou told The Sunday Morning that at the end of the election, the Observer Mission will present an analysis on the social media environment in Sri Lanka.
A total of 80 EU EOM observers will be in Sri Lanka during the election period with short and long-term observers as part of the mission.
The EU observers have been deployed to all nine provinces in Sri Lanka after being invited to observe the 16 November election by the Election Commission of Sri Lanka.
The EU EOM assessed the situation in Sri Lanka before deciding to accept the invitation and deploy a team.
Asked why the EU EOM felt it must accept the invitation, Ioannou said that the EU EOM applies the same methodology for every country in order to ensure consistency, and it was on that same methodology that they decided to accept the invitation from Sri Lanka.
“This is a huge operation. It is not easy to accommodate 80-100 people in a country.
“Before the final decision and even sometimes before the invitation from the host country, we have to see if the minimum criteria is met. First of all, we need to see if the mission is feasible in terms of operation and security. We then need to see if the mission is useful and advisable. We need to know if the mission is welcome in the country.
“So, we have a pre-election mission which we call an exploratory mission that visits the country before a decision is taken on the deployment of a mission. We then meet with all stakeholders including political parties to see if sending an observer mission will contribute to the electoral process,” she said in a brief interview at the Hilton where they are stationed.
She said that they also look to ensure there is proper a legal framework that ensures the conduct of a democratic election and also if fundamental rights and freedoms, including the freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, and freedom of expression, are protected.
Ioannou said that the observers also look to ensure the election observers themselves can move freely and observe all stages of the electoral process which include the pre-election environment, the election environment, and the post-election environment.
“So basically, we have a number of criteria that we need to fulfil before a final decision is taken with regard to deploying an election observer mission,” she said.
There have been concerns among the public that the security environment may not be fully conducive, following the Easter Sunday attacks, to hold a major election like a presidential election.
Asked if she feels her observers on the ground are safe and if the security environment as a whole is good enough for a presidential election, Ioannou said that an EU security expert is co-operating with the local authorities to ensure their staff is safe.
As for the overall environment, Ioannou said that since the State of Emergency was lifted a few months after the attacks, the environment is conducive to hold an election.
Social media and polls
Social media is playing a huge role in the election this year with candidates being promoted heavily on Facebook and Twitter.
However, at the same time, misinformation, fake news, and hate campaigns are also being spread on popular social media platforms.
Ioannou noted that the role of social media in elections is now a global phenomenon.
“From one part of the planet to the other, countries that hold elections need to consider this aspect (social media) as well.
“Usually, we have a media monitoring unit where we monitor traditional media (newspapers, TV, and radio), but over the past two years, EU Observers have developed a methodology on how to observe and assess online campaigning. Now, we have a dedicated social media expert who analyses and assesses the social media environment in the country that we are observing,” she said.
Ioannou said that they will assess the tone of online campaigns by candidates as well as hate speech, misinformation, and fake news.
“At the end of the election, we will come out with a qualitative analysis of the social media environment in Sri Lanka,” she added.
Meanwhile, local election observers have raised concerns over the misuse of state resources by the ruling party ahead of election day.
Asked if the issue had been raised with the EU Observers, Ioannou said that they had heard and read about it through local media and civil society.
“We are waiting for information from our observers on the field. It is still a bit too early as it has been only a few days since they were deployed around the country,” she said.
An EU EOM team was last in Sri Lanka to observe the 2015 presidential election and following that election, 26 recommendations were made, of which only three were fully implemented.
However, Ioannou said that it is difficult to say that most recommendations were not implemented as the election next month is the first presidential election after the 2015 presidential election.
She said that they will need to wait till the end of the election next month to see if other recommendations given in 2015 related to future elections were implemented.
Report on polls to EU
Ioannou also noted that a new process implemented by EU Election Observers is to compile a comprehensive report two months after the election process is over and submit it to the EU delegation in the host country.
“It will then be up to the EU delegation to follow up on the recommendations,” she said.
She said the recommendations will also be offered to the local Election Commission, Parliament, political parties, and others.
“We will not impose them,” she added.
She also said that the EU EOM will offer technical electoral assistance or parliamentary assistance.
“So, the recommendations we propose after the election next month will be accompanied by projects which, if Sri Lanka accepts, will be a step further in the implementation process of the recommendations,” she said.
High Representative for Foreign Affairs and European Commission Security Policy/Vice-President Federica Mogherini had said last week that she was confident that the deployment of an EU EOM under the leadership of Chief Observer Marisa Matias will contribute to an inclusive, credible, and transparent election.
She said that the election is important for Sri Lanka to continue making progress on its path of reform and national reconciliation. (Courtesy The Sunday Morning)