Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago: Elections go Web 2.0

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?


  • […] für Trinidad und Tobago, wo ein Wahltermin in den nächsten Tagen bekannt gegeben wird. Georgia Popplewell gibt einen Überblick über die wichtigsten Blogs, Video-Posts, Social Websites und den Websites der Parteien, die […]

  • Jacqueline Morris

    When I got a Winston Dookeran/CoP “friend request” on Hi5, it felt really weird. I don’t want to be “friends” with a political party!

    The UNC is really big on spamming, won’t tell me where they got my email addy, and won’t remove me from their mail list despite several requests.

    I’m not sure that any of them are really considerate of the privacy concerns of users. That disturbs me as we are plunging into the use of these tools without any proper legal protection. I’d be happier if they were less active in using the foreign-developed online tools for marketing and more active in developing policy to do things like narrow the digital divide, developing a strong technology sector in the economy, using online tools for consultation and information, etc.

    In Trinidad, the Government is creating positions internationally on all sorts of really important standards and policies without any local consultation. That sucks.

  • Excellent post Georgia.

    Blogging, Facebook and other social media tools have attracted people, and thus caused politicians to take notice of this medium. However, the key issue is the demographic that it reaches, and whether it affects the people who comprise the core of a political party’s support. For example, in T&T “the grassroots” continue to be a core voting stronghold for specific parties. Are grassroots people online, and if so are they online to check their e-mail or to read blogs indepthly? A 2003 study showed that the working to middle classes are online.

    Additionally, when you look at Caribbean bloggers, we’re a small group, and the participants in conversations tend to be the same people most of the time.

    There’s also the skepticism that often pervades people’s perspective of politicians. For example, Barbados’ ruling and Opposition parties have blogs. Yet some may see these as just another propoganda tool. Plus, some people are very hestitant to join Facebook groups for specific parties, since they don’t want to become marginalised because of who they support.

    I think it’s great that people are using various technologies and are going online to express their political views. It also expands room for dialogue since persons from the Caribbean diaspora who live abroad can join the conversation. A definite benefit is sharing views, which will inform how people – who are plugged into the digital world – decide to give an “X” in elections.

  • I don’t have a problem with T&T’s political parties using foreign-developed tools if these tools are effective and especially if this allows them to tap into existing networks. But I agree that they risk alienating people and damaging their reputations if they use them badly. I don’t see the sense, for instance, in the CoP being a “user” on Facebook, especially when there’s already a CoP group. And spamming is of course untenable.

    And I certainly take your point, Jacqueline, about their using online tools for information and consultation. I think one of the challenges, however, is that all of the parties probably need to learn how to do this offline first!

    And to address Karel’s point about online tools and demographics. I think that one of the things often ignored in similar discussions is that any organisation that seeks to target the general public is going to need to take a multi-pronged approach. If any political party in T&T thinks it’s reaching a majority of the electorate via Facebook, then they shouldn’t even bother to contest the election. But if they’re aware that they’re using that tool to communicate with a certain group of users, that’s another matter altogether.

    I think another mistake that parties may be making is seeing these tools as self-maintaining, while the reality is that the very nature of online networks makes them in many ways more difficult to maintain and control that physical ones.

    One of my main concerns about the use of the Internet in this election, however, is not how parties are using it but how the electorate is using it to inform and empower itself.

  • And even Taran showed up to comment…

    (1) Jacqueline: You know how the UNC got your email address. There’s a fellow that we all know who has made a living selling email addresses, and he wears UNC on his sleeves. If you don’t know who it is, email me. I’ll tell you. I’m not on good terms with that person because of a history of underhandedness (is that a word?).

    On the flip side, there is a vacuum when it comes to the PNM. Of course, the Prime Minister of T&T at this time doesn’t seem too interested in what the public has to say (the Smelter, for example), so it stands to reason that the internet be a pappyshow in that regard.

    (2) I typically stay out of the soap opera of politics because it seems that so many people have dogs in the fight. I have been spared friend requests from political parties, perhaps because I have a bit of a reputation of not caring who people are – but caring what they do.

    (3) Caribbean bloggers are a small group, yes, but I think the real problem is that much of the information comes from local media – which is biased, to say the least. No politician would want to be cast in the light of Adolf Hitler, but they certainly work the press in similar ways. I don’t even read local news anymore. If I liked soap operas…

    Guyana does deserve special mention here. Guyana has some great bloggers, and they are taken seriously by the media. Perhaps that is the problem.

    Divide and conquer seems to work for the rest of the region.

    (4) There is another tool that most people in the Caribbean haven’t grokked yet – Second Life. There is a Caribbean presence within Second Life and it is growing, though it is limited to those with the appropriate levels of bandwidth.

    (5) I’d love to see people take on the real elephant in the middle of the table: CARICOM. CARICOM is supposed to be good for the region, and if there is anything in the region with a big ‘Blog Me’ target on its back – it is CARICOM. If there is a way to apply political pressure, it would be CARICOM… but then, CARICOM doesn’t seem to take the web as seriously as it should either.

    (6) Elections… are how we democratically elect dicators. Writing, discussion, etc… that is real democracy… and it would be good if that actually did filter through.

    In the end, there is a lot of talk and no action… and because of the media haze, one does not know if the bloggers are touching the same elephant in different places, or whether there is a herd of elephants out there. :-)

  • Jacqueline Morris

    The UNC is using Akon’s “Sorry – Blame it on me ” for an ad. I hope they licensed it, but given the history, I doubt it. COTT apparently is on the ball here and has already contacted Akon’s ppl about the ad.
    Such a lack of concern for IP rights does not bode well for the tech future in the Caribbean!

  • Bah. The ‘intellectual property’ issues of the region transcend the UNC. The government collects money from video clubs every year, yet these same video clubs download unauthorized copies of movies and *rent* or *sell* them all the time.

    Meanwhile, COTT harasses small business owners for playing the radio. I wrote something about this some time ago. COTT claimed it was ‘upholding laws’, etc – but it is selectively doing so. Any mention of COTT, therefore, will be heckled by yours truly. But then, celebrating below average performancee is to be expected in the region – the region does this consistently.

    And in a political context, using COTT as a tool is just plain… political. That is sort of like using the Town and Country division in conjunction with the threat of use of the regiment to dismantle cell towers while the tens of thousands of houses which the government has put up (poorly) did not have town and country approval.

    Politics is the hammer, apparently. Everything appears to be a nail. And it is the same folks running in the next election – they just moved around a little to appear like there has been some progress…


  • Jenna

    I heard we can check our status on the electoral list online…if so can someone please post the link, I can’t seem to find it. thx

Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.