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Mapping Election Influence On Social Media: Part One – Twitter

This is the Twitter universe of the elections. Every star is a tweep; every line is a tweet, retweet or a mention.


Beautiful, isn’t it?

This is a visual representation of a week’s worth of Twitter conversations from #GenElecSL and #SLGE15, the two most popular hashtags related to the 2015 General Election. I’ve set about mapping influencers on social media – and the first part of the map is Twitter: the second is Facebook. For this first part,  I’ve downloaded the tweets using NodeXL (from the Social Media Research Foundation) and mapped them out with Gephi, the open source data visualization software, first using the Fruchterman-Reingold algorithm, then using the Force Atlas 2 for clarity. Keep in mind that the accuracy of this analysis is based entirely on how Twitter’s API presents data (algorithm unknown, but widely assumed to be chronological).

Before we begin, let me declare that I, Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, while having my own political preference, have not in any way willfully misrepresented any facts here due to those preferences.  This analysis was conducted as part  of a larger effort spearheaded by the Sri Lanka Press Institute. 

On with the show. What you see is 6184 conversations carried out among 1774 people. Let me be my own devil’s advocate and point out that this is really a very small chunk of the Sri Lankan population, and possibly irrelevant in the greater scheme of things: while there are Sri Lankan Twitter accounts with substantial reach, actual discussion is limited to a small community of people talking mostly to each other. Nevertheless, let’s see who’s who.

In order to weed out the spambots, I’ve configured the visualization to identify accounts that have inbound data – retweets and direct tweets, implying either agreement, conversation or argument – as well as outbound data (tweets).


Click for full size

The red circles are ones that tweet a lot. The large circles are the ones that get tweeted at a lot. The large, red circles are the ones that tweet and get tweeted at – the apex of engagement.

Here are the accounts that get the most amount of attention:


  • @presrajapaksa 145,736 followers
    The former President and his social media team.
  • @maithripalas 15,233 followers
    The current President of Sri Lanka and his social media team.
  • @nalakag 4,513 followers
    Nalaka Gunawardene; journalist, science writer, communication specialist, blogger and consultant.
  • @rw_unp 9,183 followers
    Ranil Wickramasinghe, present Prime Minister and long-time head of the United National Party.
  • @upfasl 1,115 followers
    The official Twitter account of the UPFA.
  • @srilankatweet 14,475 followers
    An account largely tweeting political news, apparently run by Dinesh De Alwis, a journalist with the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon.
  • @azzamameen 15,454 followers
    BBC reporter / producer Azzam Ameen. Was one of the most active tweeps in the space surrounding the January 8 Presidential Election as well.
  • @dinouk_c 2,595 followers
    Freelance journalist for Al Jazeera in Sri Lanka and a photographer to Getty Images. Noted for his (sometimes hugely controversial) undercover
  • @dmbreakingnews 126,456 followers
    The official twitter account of the Daily Mirror.
  • @groundviews 32,605 followers
    The official Twitter account of Groundviews, the independent
    journalism website run by Sanjana Hattotuwa.

Ranked by order of content output, this becomes:

1) @nalakag
2) @upfasl
3) @groundviews
4) @dinouk_c
5) @azzamameen
6) @srilankatweet
7) @dmbreakingnews
8) @rw_unp
9) @maithripalas

Overall, it is seen that politicians – like Mahinda Rajapaksa – are almost inactive here, a stark contrast to the situation leading up to the January 8th Presidential Election. They nonetheless sit at the center of a sea of attention from the vox populi. Journalists and media-affiliated accounts, like Nalaka Gunewardene and Dinouk Colambage, seem to wield substantial influence in this sphere.

This inactivity of the Presidents and would-be Presidents is in stark contrast to the January 8th election, which I mapped out on an article titled “Who’s been running the #PresPoll?” on Readme.lk (see http://readme.lk/running-prespollsl/). There, @PresRajapaksa was one of the most active tweeps. It should be noted that @AzzamAmeen and @NalakaG also showed up in that analysis, leading me to conclude that these two shape much of the Sri Lankan political discussion on Twitter.


In the days of the #PresPoll

Back to the present. The highest output, as always, is maintained by spambots – both machine and human – who do little but retweet. The exception is Nalaka Gunawardene.


While third in the attention race, his account ranks sixteenth in terms of output. I have yet to weigh input versus original output and create a scoring mechanism, but visually, it looks like @nalakag is driving the election discussion on Twitter. If not driving, he’s in the front seat peering out through the window.

Out of this dataset:

There are 807 mentions of the UNP, whether as a word, mention or part of a retweet
908 mentions of the UPFA
20 mentions of the SLFP
270 mentions of the JVP
and 213 mentions of the TNA likewise

This data doesn’t tell us what people think of these parties, but gives some clue as to what most of these people might be discussing.

A key takeaway should be that there are only 1774 people discussing this, and that’s accounts – weed out the spam and we’re left with substantially less. Twitter, then, while a wonderful tool elsewhere, is mostly a handful of influencers convincing each other. While the real-life impact cannot be quantified, I have a feeling that this space – already demographically skewed towards more ‘connected’ people than your average Facebook use – may not really be worth engaging in for many politicians. Going by the numbers, the biggest audience is elsewhere.  Expect Part Two of this brief study – Facebook – to have much larger numbers.

For those interested, I’ve uploaded the raw data: links below.

Tweets from #GenElecSL – the Excel sheet.
Tweets from #GenElecSL – the GraphML file.

Tweets from #SLGE15 – the Excel sheet.
Tweets from #SLGE15 – the GraphML file.

#SLGE15 + #GenElecSL, in GraphML format.

Note that there is more data in there than was parsed for this analysis – there might be more to find (sentiment analysis, anyone?). If you do, drop me a line here – I’m always interested.

A Tweet is Not A Bullet. This is Why.


This is a bullet.

It doesn’t matter who fired it. Or what. Uzi, Glock, AK-47, T-56 – doesn’t matter. The point is, it’s a little metal ball of pain hurling towards you.  At the other end is a man (or woman) who really, really does not like you.  It flies away from him (or her) and to you.

What do you do? Nothing. It’s too fast. It enters your skull and explodes, metal shards ripping through your brain, turning into mush what was once a person with memories and laughter and life.

What can you do? Nothing. A bullet is not a tweet: you can’t argue back. You can’t #stop it. It’s not a Facebook page: you can’t report it. It’s not a racist friend: you can’t block it.  The bullet doesn’t have a voice. It doesn’t have an agenda. It doesn’t have an opinion. It doesn’t care what you were, what you are, how many followers you have, how many likes you get. It simply turns you into a corpse.

Welcome to reality.

This goes out to all the change.org petitioners. To everyone who #iSupportGaza’s. You think it matters? It doesn’t. You think you’re changing something? You’re not. Your opinion isn’t worth a damn. It never was.

Because you – you’re not there. You’re here. You’re sitting in a comfy seat, perhaps sipping a cup of overpriced coffee from a comfy Colombo coffee shop, discussing Gaza with your iPhone in your hands. You’re checking Facebook on your laptop at work. In a few minutes you’ll forget Gaza and switch to Instagram to take a #busSELFIE. Or you’ll #OMG #the #beach #is #awesome #today #nightout #friendsandalcohol.

#PrayforGaza has 4 million tweets behind it. Does prayer help? Maybe it helps you: maybe it comforts you to think that, deep down, you’re a nice person, you’ve done your bit for humanity. It doesn’t really help the people dying out there. Prayer doesn’t help. Bullets do.  I am a human and #ISupportGaza #FreePalestine #PrayForGaza #GazaUnderAttack #GazaUnderFire. #iSupportIsrael because my religion tells me to. Or #iSupportPalestine because OMFG everybody on my newsfeed is suddenly all lovey-dovey about that dying Muslim kid. Big deal. Can you catch a bullet? Will you catch a bullet? It’s easier to talk than it is to do. It’s easier to write and pledge allegiance that it is to jump into that line of fire. Take it from a writer. We have it easy.

You want change? Get up. Get a gun. Go down there and lay your life on the line. 

History is full of wars and battles of opinion (in fact, all religious wars are basically debates of opinion). At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. The guy with the sword wins. The pen is mightier than the sword? Puh-leaze.  Why do you think no-one stopped America invading Iraq and Afghanistan? Why do you think a tweet didn’t stop Aluthgama? Became they couldn’t. Because at the end of the day, you can push paper, you can make declarations, but unless you’ve got the firepower to back it up, they’re just pieces of paper.  And you, little socialite, little Facebook Freedom Fighter, that’s you: just a piece of paper. 

Cue gunfire.

Social Media: Can They Censor Us?

Yesterday, Eran Wickramaratne, Sanjana Hattotuwa (Groundviews) and Malinda Seniviratne (Daily Nation) got together for a forum on social media and the whole question on censorship.

Now, far be it from me to talk about that, because by a rather unlucky combination of work and delayed meetings, I completely missed out on that thing. Pity – I was really looking forward to it. But an acquaintance and I once had a conversation along the following lines:

“Can they (the government) actually censor social media?” 

Because we’d both met government workers who seem to think they could, actually, control what people were saying on Facebook or Twitter – the general idea seems to be “if China can do it, why not us?”

Let’s look at this from a techie perspective. Take Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Every status, tweet or photo that we put up is data. This data is held by American companies on servers which are usually firmly planted in American soil (take Facebook, which has data centers in Oregon, the Silicon Valley, San Francisco and so on).

So once that data’s in there, it’s..there. I seriously doubt any US company or court is going to honor a request from a third-world country to modify data and breach their own agreements with their userbase. If you believe posts like these, Facebook already does a certain amount of censorship. (Instagram also did it, famously, for RIhanna and her nudes). So will the social networks bend over? For the NSA – maybe, but for Sri Lanka? Perhaps not.

Getting civilians to clear the road for you is easier than getting Facebook to divulge user data. Forget write access.

Getting civilians to clear the road for you is easier than getting Facebook to divulge user data. Forget write access.

So, right: it’s a question of getting to the data before it reaches foreign soil. Now, as I’ve explained on Readme.lk before, Sri Lanka is connected to the rest of the world by a few undersea cables. Tap these cables and, technically, you’d be tapping into all of Sri Lanka’s traffic – Facebook, porn site requests, our daily email flow, you name it. You’d be sitting there like a fat, bloated dataspider, drinking in all the yummy stuff.

Except somehow, I don’t think it’s feasible to monitor all that data. It’s possible to isolate traffic going to, say, the Facebook servers and monitor that. It’s been done.  However, not only would you need massive infrastructure to pull this off, you’d also need to break into the encryption schemes used by these services. It’s mathematically doable. You’re talking massive firewalls in place, monitoring for phrases and symbols and blocking data flow, which is similar to what China seems to be doing.

Is this practically possible? Yes. Feasible, for Sri Lanka? No. Given how half-assedly our government handles most social media accounts, I doubt there’s enough technical expertise to pull it off. The least intensive solution would be to block sites like Facebook. Everybody did it – Bangladesh, Egypt, China, Iran – 

But hello, people, proxies, which allow you to access any site you need: honestly, it’s like fighting a hydra – the moment you cut off one head, another sprouts back. I don’t think Sri Lanka can fight this particular battle. SLT’s blocks, in any case, don’t seem to be very effective – ColomboTelegraph, for example is blocked at the DNS level. Nothing setting your DNS server to Google Public DNS won’t fix. The point is, people will always find a way. We’re not at a level where we can support our own social network, like China.

The total solution would be to pull the plug – total blackout. Unfortunately, whoever’s doing it will need an army, a navy and an air force at their command to quell the inevitable uprising and face the complete collapse of the economy…

Oh, wait.


The thing is, you can’t seriously control what people post on Facebook or Twitter – unless you ARE Facebook or Twitter or something that can directly impact how they work (for example, if you were a shotgun pointed at Mark Zuckerberg’s head, I think you’d stand a good chance).  Unless you actually pull the plug, people will keep finding a way.

hail hydra

Hail Hydra.

There is one thing the government can do: suggest what to write and what not to. Unfortunately, they have few ways of enforcing said suggestions short of the proverbial White Van.

Are we untouchable, then? No. Social media actually opens up a more effective method of censorship: exploiting he human element.

It’s no secret that almost all of our data is up on social media. Take the average Sri Lankan with a smartphone, who uses Facebook. Not only do I know what they look like from almost every angle (profile photos), I also know what they’re thinking and feeling (statuses), who they’re interacting with, where they are / were (check-ins). I know what they like.   know what they hate. I know who they’re dating.  I know where they learned and what. I can access more data about a person in a few keystrokes  from my home than entire government agencies could ten years ago.



And if Foursquare’s involved, a day or two of monitoring and you can pretty much nail someone’s daily route down to a T. If Instagram’s involved, you know what they’re seeing. You can intelligently guess where that selfie was taken.  Why would you even bother trying to break into US servers or, all the gods help us, trying to filter throuogh terabytes of data every second? Heck, look at Facebook Graph search, a service that can find people in your hometown who like bicycling. That’s the level of search / stalking you can do on a person now. You don’t need a datacenter. You don’t need men in black suits. All you need is a couple of guys with laptops.

Social Media’s not just a platform for sharing opinions – it’s become an inverse Big Brother of sorts, a sort of fucked-up espionage system where everyone voluntarily uploads their data. No longer do governments have to spend time and resources monitoring its populace: all they need to do is hire a guy to check Facebook. Intensively.

People tend to forget that hiding behind an online alias is not easy when you’ve spent years turning that alias into a proper digital extension of yourself.

The truth about Social Media

Art by Pawel Kuczynski

Art by Pawel Kuczynski

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