Given their small, close-knit populations, relatively low internet penetration, and the continuing primacy of the mainstream media as a source of information, most Caribbean nations are a long way from seeing the emergence of a homegrown US-style “netroots” movement that can genuinely and profoundly influence the outcome of a political election. But the “social web” seems nevertheless to be making its presence felt in election campaigns in Jamaica, where voters go to the polls today (September 3), and Trinidad and Tobago, where an election date is expected to be announced any day now. Here's a review of some of the notable uses of the web in the Caribbean's two largest and most dominant territories:
Jamaica House, Jamaican Lifestyle, Jamaica and the World, Moving Back to Jamaica, City Girl and Stunner's Afflictions, were some of the citizen voices commenting on the Jamaican election campaign, but even more notable, considering the Caribbean media's ambivalence about the read/write web, was the Jamaica Elections 2007 portal set up by the Jamaica Gleaner, the country's oldest newspaper. The portal, which carried the coveted domain name jamaicaelections.com, incorporates a forum, a photo gallery, a polling service and a blog. Much of the blog's content, however, seems to be re-purposed articles or lists of links from the Gleaner, and the photo gallery would probably have been more comprehensive if the site allowed users to contribute their own images from the campaign trail.
With Trinidad and Tobago's election date still to be annouced, it's left to be seen whether any of the country's three dailies will undertake anything similar to the Gleaner‘s elections portal. But politically oriented Trinidadian blogs like The Manicou Report, Jumbie's Watch, Keith in Trinidad and Trinidad Media Arts & Culture can be expected to enliven the election season discussions, as should a newly launched satirical blog purporting to present the inner thoughts of Patrick Manning, the current Prime Minister. Activist bloggers like Shivonne du Barry, Attillah Springer and the Rights Action Group, whose efforts were galvanised by the government's siting of an aluminium smelter in a rural area in southwestern Trinidad, are unlikely to be silent either.
The Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) beat the incumbent People's National Party (PNP) to the YouTube table, having posted the first of their campaign ads there back in July, and outdid the ruling party numerically as well, posting 31 videos to the PNP's 9. Also appearing on the JLP's YouTube channel are the series of televised debates between JLP leader Bruce Golding and PNP leader Portia Simpson-Miller. While most voters in Jamaica would have first been exposed to these advertisements on local television, releasing the ads and debates on YouTube makes them available to the country's large disapora community in the US and elsewhere, as well as to other interested users. Among the other election-related videos posted on YouTube or is one of a debate organised by Jamaicans living in Miramar, Florida.
Of the three leading political parties in Trinidad and Tobago, only the United National Congress (UNC) currently has a YouTube channel. YouTube user Casadoma Netvision, however, has posted five videos of meetings of the Congress of the People (CoP), the newest of the three contenders. A search for material related to the ruling People's National Movement (PNM) yielded nothing at the time of writing.
Neither of the Jamaican parties appears to have a presence on Facebook, but in Trinidad and Tobago the social networking site (currently the second most popular in the country, according to Alexa) has captured the imaginations of political parties and voters alike.
Of the three Trinidad and Tobago parties, the CoP proves to be the savviest user of Facebook. While the party risks creating confusion with its presence as both a Facebook user and a group (open membership; 682 members), the party's Youth wing has what appears to be a serious and fairly active group with 341 members. Another group called “I'm Voting COP!!!” has 142 members. Political leader Winston Dookeran has a user account which lists links to his hi5 page, two e-mail addresses and a telephone number. Moreover, Dookeran's account appears to be genuine, unlike the three claiming to belong to the current Prime Minister Patrick Manning of the PNM (the Trinidadian taste for jokes is alive and well on Facebook). Manning is also pilloried in numerous Facebook groups, including “I hate Patrick Manning” and “Manning is d worse thing that ever happen to T&T“. The PNM's only openly accessible presence on Facebook appears to be a user called “Pnm People“.
The UNC's presence on Facebook at the time of writing consists of a group (membership by request) with 120 members and three events.
On the voters’ side of things, a well-trafficked Facebook group called “T&T Elections …are you registered and where can this be done?” started by a teenager offers information and discussion about voter registration.
Political party web sites – who's the most “social”?
Of the two Jamaican party web sites, the Jamaica Labour Party has the more promising appearance, though further examination reveals relatively standard features. A “Get Involved” link leads to a page offering users two options for donating money (PayPal and Senvia Remittance Services). The party's YouTube videos are linked to but not embedded (rather surprisingly, the site instructs users to download a Flash player to view the videos). On the plus side (arguably), the JLP web site offers party ringtones for download.
The less promising looking People's National Party web site has a similar features to its rival's, but its video section has a built-in media player. The blog advertised on the main page disappoints with its two one-sentence entries, both clearly written by a party diehard. With only hours to go before the election, the party's “Donate” link is still promising electronic donations as a “Coming Soon” feature, listing instead three bank accounts where donors could physically deposit funds, after which they were instructed to “Please call/email the People's National Party to confirm receipt.”
Both Jamaican sites link to the Electoral Office of Jamaica's search engine, allowing users to confirm whether their names are on the electoral list.
Although it has yet to change its design to reflect its new title of “UNC Alliance”, Trinidad and Tobago's United National Congress wins the award for the most “social” of the leading Trinidadian party web sites, as well as the most comprehensive. The UNC's web site has a prominently positioned calendar of events and speeches from party events in both print transcript and downloadable MP3 form. Users can register for accounts which give them access to polls, a discussion forum, a live chat facility and e-mail notifications of site updates, as well as the ability to submit links. The “Links” section includes links to the UNC's Facebook page, a mailing list for New York-based party members and a Yahoo User Group, plus a link to the country's Freedom of Information Act. The site accepts donations via PayPal.
The Congress of the People web site is the most attractive and most modern in appearance of the three party web sites (the party is also the most recently formed). Via the site users can join the party, sign up as volunteers or to receive news updates, and make donations via PayPal. A calendar of events is accessible only after clicking a link on the main page, and a “media” section suggests that audio and video will eventually be posted on the site, but at the time of writing contains only print material. Also missing are links to the CoP's presence else on the web, including its vibrant use of Facebook.
Visitors to the PNM web site are greeted by a Flash animation of the party seal, which immediately pushes the site into third place in terms of the modernity of its design. It's the least attractive and user-friendly of the three party sites, with no interactive features except an online poll. A multimedia page offers material dating back to 2005 and 2006 and only available in streaming Real Player of Windows Media Player format. The site's greatest asset may in fact be an interesting set of old photos of Dr. Eric Williams, the party's founder and the country's first Prime Minister.
Does the Internet matter in Caribbean elections?
With official (2006) Internet penetration figures of only 12% for Trinidad and Tobago and 39.6% in Jamaica, it's reasonable to ask whether the Internet can have a real impact on the outcome of an election in these countries. One area where it seems fairly clear the Internet can have play a role in Caribbean elections is on involving overseas diaspora communities in the political process. The donation buttons on party web sites are a sign of their keen awareness of this, notably the Jamaica Labour Party's telling link to a money transfer service specialising in remittances from overseas, which in Jamaica are said to top the list of foreign exchange inflows into the country.
Analysing the politically-oriented online activity in her country in this election year, however, Trinidadian blogger Shivonne du Barry, while celebrating the “alternative spins” on current events being provided by blogs and social networking sites, expresses some skepticism:
All of this is enough to make me think that the population is really politically savvy and educated despite the lack of structured civics education in our school system. What I worry about is whether the online community, with ready access to computers and the Internet, are an accurate representation of the general population. What about the political opinions of those on the other side of the digital divide? And it may be that the Internet is just the latest forum for Trinis to do what they do best, talk. How much this translates into action is another question. Like a friend of mine, wary of all the online talk that has been taking place, recently wrote: “While we, ‘the future’, sit and occupy our time amusing ourselves with all these…discussions, the true leaders in the real world are doing as they please.”
Caribbean Free Radio writes in reply:
Juxtapose the 12% internet penetration rate and Danah Boyd's infamous findings about Facebook and class (assuming they apply to Trinidad and Tobago) and you conclude that Shivonne's concerns are well taken, as of course they are – they're the concerns perennially expressed in discussions about the role/value of the the internet in “developing” societies. But they also assume that, in the absence of Facebook and its equivalents, the political dialogue/activity taking place among this select group would have taken a different (and possibly superior) form (as well it might). Or taken place at all.
They also assume (more than likely correctly) that there's not some parallel activity taking place “on the other side of the digital divide” via cell phones and SMS. They also assume that all online political activity will necessarily be partisan. Might we not see some serious citizen reporting this upcoming election season? Might some ordinary person not happen to capture some priceless image or bit of footage on a cell phone camera that the jaded media practitioners have missed?