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Recent presidential polls:& Rumour reality

Ever since President Mahinda Rajapaksa expressed his wish to call a fresh presidential election in November 2009 (even when there were still two more years to complete his first mandate), one could clearly notice a new enthusiasm, a resurgence in our local politics, especially in elections. During the year or so prior to that, politics and even elections had become something lethargic, simply because there was only one party, namely, the ruling party that was continuing to amass votes at each passing provincial council election. On the one hand, most of our people had taken it for granted that since the unexpected victory over the 30-year old LTTE terrorism under the bold political leadership of President Rajapaksa, his undisputed popularity was such that he would win any and every election to come in the near future. In fact, his call for an early presidential election itself was a clear sign of his own confidence in this popular belief. On the other hand, having led his party to continuous defeats (including at two presidential elections) the unpopularity of the main Opposition challenger, Ranil Wickremesinghe, mainly due to his opposing the military action against the LTTE (and also due to his unilateral entering into a peace treaty with the murderous Tigers in 2002) was such that it was a foregone conclusion that he would never win an election in the near future. This is not a mere opinion but a fact, as election after election had convincingly demonstrated, and Wickremesinghe himself was at last aware of it, as demonstrated by the fact of him not coming forward as candidate at the recent presidential election. However, a few die hard UNPers, especially those belonging to the higher echelons in Colombo and other urban areas of our country had always been hoping against hope to unseat Mahinda Rajapaksa from Presidency though the majority of the country had been so clearly sending the very opposite message, and that too, repeatedly, at each and every recent election. In such a context, the announcement of the retired Army Commander, General Sarath Fonseka of his intention to contest the presidential election was unbelievable good news for them. The support extended to Fonseka by the JVP (who till the recent presidential election were believed to have had an excellent grassroots organization, especially in villages, to woo the voters) was further perceived by such people as a sure fillip to this ‘good news’. They who were almost dead in the local political scene, all of a sudden got galvanized as if they received a new lease of life, and began to believe that at last their dream of defeating the seemingly invincible Mahinda Rajapaksa at any cost, had finally come true. The enthusiasm generated during the past three months over the presidential election has to be understood within this undeniable local political context as a whole.

Two main rumours

One of the specific characteristics of this presidential election was the amount of rumours that were diffused especially by the suddenly stimulated supporters of the joint-opposition candidate. Supported by the anti-government media and the modern electronic media especially the e-mails and SMS system, these people (who were branded by the government as the katakatha brigade, most of whom are the elite from Colombo and other urban areas) began to propagate that this was going to be the closest presidential election ever. This was the main rumour number one, with its own ramifications and variations. Of course, the fact that it was the very Army Commander (who himself was mainly instrumental in the strategic military planning and innovative field action in the recent victory over the LTTE) who had come forward to challenge the President, gave enough substance to such rumours. But what these rumours deftly eliminated were the basic ground facts such as that the war was won under the vital, indispensable political leadership of the Commander-in-Chief, the President (amidst tough opposition, both local and foreign), and as a consequence, the latter’s popularity had reached a peak (as consistently demonstrated recently by election after election at the provincial council level). These rumour-mongers also smartly began to exaggerate and highlight the alleged corruption and nepotism of the Rajapaksa family, which eventually became the main rumour number two (and the rumour that was most diffused), again, with its own ramifications and variations. Of course, some of the rumours linked to this main rumour number two may have had some elements of truth, but the exaggerations and fantastic variations added to them, made them interesting and easily diffusible, thus, creating a world completely based on hear-say, and devoid of any logical or rational content. As usual with a rumour and the dynamics of its propagation, in this case, too, most of the urban rumour-mongers and their recipients (who themselves became in turn rumour-mongers, as it happens with any rumour) never bothered to verify the source nor the truthfulness of the contents. Some of the bizarre things that were circulated before, during and even after the election, are clear proof of this point. For example, before the election, i.e., during the period that led up to the election, it was widely rumoured that the President’s brother, Basil Rajapaksa had bought among other strategic items the influential Swarnawahini local television channel, but repeated denials by the management of that very television channel were not taken seriously. Then, during the election, it was rumoured that the government was using the security personnel such as the Navy to transport filled ballot boxes in its efforts to rig the elections and the police had caught such a vehicle. The denial by the Navy authorities of any such malpractice was not heeded at all (interestingly, just two days prior to the elections, the very arrest of persons close to the Pettah main bus-stand, with some 28,000 ballot papers marked against the Swan-sign of Fonseka, were hushed up, and ignored by these rumours). Then, after the final result was declared, it was rumoured (with bizarre variations to the main story!) that just after the counting began, Basil Rajapaksa had himself entered forcefully the Elections Commissioner’s office, had imprisoned the Elections Commissioner, and then, had taken control of issuing the results himself, and thus, had completely manipulated the results using computer gimmicks (what the JVP leader Somawansa Amarasinghe later called "a computer jillmart"). Not only e-mails and SMS messages on phones, but even prominent members of the Alliance that backed the retired-General Fonseka, such as Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mangala Samaraweera, (and Sarath Fonseka himself), openly expressed this opinion thus, further strengthening this rumour. How on earth such an alleged computer gimmick was possible was never explained by these rumour-mongers nor by those who were gullible enough to swallow them. Nor was it ever mentioned that according to the existing election regulations, the ballot papers had to be counted manually, and that such counting and repeated countings were indeed done at this election, at many of the centres of counting, and then, the results (with the signed approval of the party representatives and other responsible returning-officers) were fed into the computers. Moreover, how such a huge majority of nearly two million votes could be manufactured by any imaginable computer gimmick has never been explained by anybody up to the time of writing this essay. The other vital fact that both the local and international official observers had given a verdict of a generally free and fair election was also conveniently ignored by these rumour-mongers and their gullible victims. What I have mentioned above are only a selected instance each of rumour-mongering before, during and after the presidential election, on the part of the rumour-mongers of those who backed the joint-Opposition candidate.

The aim of this essay is to demonstrate how rumours create an imagined world which is totally cut off from reality, and how some frustrated people take refuge in such an imagined world, and how when finally reality strikes hard such imagined fantasy worlds, those people who have created and lived in such imagined worlds, find it extremely hard to get out of them and face reality. This is precisely what happened at the recent presidential election. To begin with, the rumours propagated by the supporters of the joint-Opposition candidate did not have a credible or rational base, as Victor Ivan (no sympathizer of the Rajapaksa government) so convincingly pointed out in a fine piece in the Ravaya newspaper on December 27, 2009. Those who created and diffused those rumours, and especially those who were gullible in believing them, believed that such an imagined world created by those rumours were true or real, and so, obstinately refused to enter into any rational inquiry into their veracity. Thus, if and when a rumour was countered by ground facts, they did not hesitate to create yet another rumour and take shelter behind it. [As the old dictum goes, when a lie is told again and again, those who tell the lie unconsciously begin to believe that their lies are true. Whenever such lies are proved to be not true, the liars find shelter behind further lies.]. Consequently, they began to live in that imagined, non-realistic world which was exclusively based on rumours, and their imaginations even reached the fairy-tale or fantasy level. The continuous reluctance to accept the more than obvious ground facts, including the final official result of the election that gave a landslide victory to the President, made such people get further into a secure, fairy-tale, fantastic world. Of course, they began to fantasize even before the election that there would surely be rigging. But ironically, instead of their candidate losing, in case such rigging were to really take place, they began to fantasize that their candidate would win handsomely!

One needs to notice this basic psychological irony, an irony not uncommon in people who get locked up in rumours. Moreover, what they stubbornly and conveniently forgot was (as they did even at the previous presidential election in November 2005, but not to the extent as at this time) was that the Sri Lankan elections are normally decided by the rural voters, and that the rural voters were strongly behind the popular President, as recent provincial council elections did clearly and consistently show. There was nothing politically dramatic that happened in-between, during the few months (from the provincial council elections to the presidential election) to shake or erode the voters’ enormous confidence in the President, except the phenomenal rumour-mongering that suddenly erupted with the declaration of the presidential election. Furthermore, a discerning reader needs to note that even if one assumes that the contents of those rumours were true, the issues raised by such contents (such as nepotism of the Rajapaksas, corruption and wastage of state property,…etc.) did not crop up all of a sudden during the three months since the calling of the presidential election. That is to say that even if as the rumours alleged, the President and his family were really corrupt with an unprecedented sense of nepotism, it could not have happened suddenly after the recent elections were called! It was only the rumours that cropped up since the calling of the presidential elections, and logically speaking, it was these rumours and the unrealistic, mythical, fantasy world they themselves built which made the difference in-between, a difference that was wrongly perceived (by the rumour-mongers and those who believed such rumours) to have had a dramatic influence on the voters. Besides, they simply assumed that the mere entry of the retired Army General would do the magic of a dramatic right-about-turn in the minds of all those who went to vote (though the same voters had been repeatedly reaffirming the President and his policies in a series of other recent local elections).

What is a rumour?

A rumour is often viewed as an unverified account or explanation of events circulating from person to person and pertaining to an object, event, or issue in public concern. Although it is a concept that lacks a particular definition in the social sciences, most theories agree that a rumor involves some kind of a statement whose veracity is not quickly or ever confirmed. Sociologists have identified a rumour as a subset of propaganda. Thus, a pioneer of propaganda studies, Harold Lasswell, for example, defined propaganda way back in 1927 as referring "solely to the control of opinion by significant symbols, or, to speak more concretely and less accurately, by stories, rumors, reports, pictures, and other forms of social communication". Rumours are also often discussed with regard to "misinformation" and "disinformation", the former often seen as simply false and the latter seen as deliberately false. Rumors thus have often been viewed as particular forms of communication that not only are erroneous and deceptive, but that have no rationally provable content linked to reality as it is. The Oxford Dictionary defines a rumour as "information spread by word of mouth but not certainly true". Generally, rumours have no known authors; often, if not always they are anonymous. If one were to question a rumour-monger as to who said what a particular rumour contains, the invariable response would be: "I heard so", "They say", "People say", "All say",….etc. Moreover, rumours are normally without any rational base, and if at all, they have unverifiable or very doubtful bases. When the writer inquired from a group of good ladies after the mass last Sunday as to on what basis they were believing those rumours which they were gleefully discussing, one of them immediately retorted: "Father, are you also bought up by the Rajapaksas?"! Rumour-mongers and those who believe them, normally resist any questioning as to what their source or rational basis is, for believing a particular rumour. The main argument propounded by not only the post-presidential election rumour-mongers, but also by the defeated retired-General himself, is a classic illustration of this point: according to them, there were such massive crowds at the joint-Opposition candidate’s propaganda rallies that the very fact of such crowds not being proportionately represented in the final results, is a clear indication of government rigging the election. But as the editor of the Island so masterly demonstrated in his superb editorial of 4th February 2010, crowds are no indication of votes received by a candidate if one were to go by our own Sri Lankan election records. Besides, who would be the competent authority to determine that Sarath Fonseka had greater crowds than President Rajapaksa? Is it his very supporters who are the "impartial" judges of who had greater crowds? Besides, if it were only the number of the crowds that partook the propaganda rallies that were to decide who the winner of an election is, we would surely end up in inviting all candidates of all hues and colours to manipulate crowds at their rallies, and what a confusion it would be! In such an eventuality, the great majority of Sri Lankans who never attend such rallies will have no say at all in choosing their leaders. Exclusive reliance on crowds attracted to political rallies could be anything but not a worthy democratic means to decide the popular will of the people. But then, it is precisely such irrational premises that contribute to the very substance of a rumour as we have already mentioned above.

In the past, much research on rumours and their dynamics came from psychological approaches, as research on them done by well-known psychologists such as Gordon Allport would demonstrate. The focus was especially on how statements of questionable veracity (absolutely false to the ears of some listeners)circulated orally from person to person. Less work had been done until recently on how different forms of media and particular cultural-historical conditions may facilitate a rumor’s diffusion. Of course, the recent appearance of new electronic communications methods such as the internet and SMS messaging have paved the way for ever new possibilities for the fast diffusion of rumours, than mere mouth-to-mouth rumours. Nor had previous research taken into consideration the particular form or style of deliberately chosen rumors for political purposes in particular circumstances even though significant attention to the power of rumor for mass-media-diffused war propaganda has been in vogue since World War I. In recent times, scholars such as Jayson Harsin (2006) have introduced the concept of the "rumor bomb" as a response to the widespread empirical phenomenon of "rumoresque communication" in contemporary relations between media and politics, especially within the complex convergence of multiple forms of media, from cell phones and internet, to radio, TV, and print. Harsin begins with the widespread definition of a rumor as "a claim whose truthfulness is in doubt and which often has no clear source even if its ideological or partisan origins and intents are clear". He then treats it as a particular rhetorical strategy in current contexts of media and politics in many societies. In their classic work entitled "Rumor Psychology: Social and Organizational Approaches" which was published in 2007, Nicholas DiFonzo and Prashant Bordia point out how rumours may be spread maliciously to deceive an opponent or a strategically important audience, as is often the case in wartime. In our contemporary Sri Lankan context, we may infer that the same held good even before, during and after our recent presidential election. The above two authors also hold that the existence of mutual reinforcing rumours or widely repeated rumours can promote their own greater spread or diffusion, again, a phenomenon of which we have had first hand evidence with regard to the rumours that were linked with the recent presidential elections.

(Continued tomorrow)

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