Sri Lanka’s second wave of COVID-19 infections had a significant link with the country’s largest fish market located in the suburb of Peliyagoda. Conspiracy theories about how consuming fish can cause you to fall victim to COVID-19 abounded, and lots of Sri Lankans stopped purchasing fish. With unsold fish piling up across the country, many fishermen were left destitute.
It is in this backdrop that the minister resorted to eating raw fish in a bid to convince his fellow Sri Lankans to start buying fish again. One may be tempted to think that the minister was off his rocker, but we think it was a well-planned, calculated move.
Thomas Sowell once said that “No one will really understand politics until they understand that politicians are not trying to solve our problems. They are trying to solve their own problems — of which getting elected and re-elected are No. 1 and No. 2. Whatever is No. 3 is far behind”.
The minister in question, MP Dilip Wedaarachchi, hails from Hambantota, a coastal town in southern Sri Lanka. Naturally, his electorate is home to many fishermen, who are often daily wage earners. If their fish remains unsold, their finances are going to take a significant hit.
We are pretty sure that the MP knows his electorate very well. Helping people in times of distress is one of the oldest tricks in the book of politics, and what better time to deploy it than during the time of a pandemic and build your vote bank?
But here’s the problem. We live in an era where the news cycle moves very fast, and the world is full of noise. You can pay-to-play, but that’s going to be expensive. So what is a member of the opposition to do?
Social media and the modern news cycle are both built on sensationalism. In a world of heart reactions, wows and likes, the algorithms of the social media giants are optimized for engagement. And what gets people to engage with something, like it, share and comment? That’s right, sensationalism it is.
When we say sensationalism, we don’t mean it in the traditional sense where fake news is amplified to no end. Rather, we mean content and perspectives that are unique, creative and very rarely heard or spoken about. Think man biting dog.
Coming back to the MP, he settled on taking a bite out of a raw fish to gain control of the news cycle, at least for the day. Sure, he ran the risk of falling victim to Salmonella, but free publicity is priceless, especially if you’re a politician. So he turned up at the press-con, and took a bite-out of the fish. The effect it had on the public was akin to setting a cat loose in a chicken coop.
Every news channel in the country flashed images of the MP eating the raw fish. Newspapers splashed the MP’s image on their front pages, while Sri Lankans started talking wondering ‘what’s going on?’
As the news started trending, it was picked up by international media outlets including Reuters, The Telegraph, and Yahoo! News. Heck, the news even made its way to Piers Morgan. After all this, and despite all the ridicule, we think the MP had the last laugh. Even people in our own circles started buying fish the next day, while the MP was felicitated by the public in his electorate. He definitely has some goodwill in the bank that he can cash out on when the next elections roll around. Wasn’t that his objective anyway?
You may not approve of the MP’s methods or his politics, but there is no denying that he knows how to make social media work to his advantage.