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Bloggers Get Bad Rap in Trinidad & Tobago as Paid Political Trolls Do Online Damage

Photo by Dennis Skley; used under a CC BY-ND 2.0 license.

Photo by Dennis Skley; used under a CC BY-ND 2.0 license.

One of the headlines in Trinidad & Tobago's leading national daily, this week was “Bloggers attack”. Blogging has become a dirty word in the twin island republic it seems, but informed netizens’ indignation over The Trinidad Express’ misuse of the term was apparent on various Facebook threads, with some commenters even suggesting that Trinidad and Tobago had managed to redefine what a “blogger” is.

The newspaper article, which highlights alleged cyber bullying behaviour towards journalists, political bloggers and outspoken netizens by what are, according to the description, paid Facebook trolls and not bloggers, attracted quite a bit of attention in the local blogosphere.

Facebook user Rhoda Bharath, who also blogs about political issues at The Eternal Pantomime, said:

The country hot with the bloggers story this morning…
The hate and racism on those walls are but the tip of the iceberg.

Paying trolls to write status updates on Facebook and other social media sites is not a new trend. Back in 2011, soon after the current People's Partnership coalition government was voted into office, a local daily broke the story that students at the University of the West Indies were on the payroll of a group claiming to work for the People's Partnership.

With 2015 being an election year, however, the stakes are higher — and the online commentary is decidedly more vitriolic and heavily race-based. The Trinidad Express report stated that “even journalists themselves, some of whom are employed by the State […] have been spearheading the cyber assault on their colleagues.”

Journalist Lasana Liburd, who blogs at Wired 868, posted a public status update about the issue on Facebook in which he listed some of the important stories investigative journalists have exposed over the last few years and addressed the alleged threats towards reporters:

Is it worth fighting for the right of journalists to bring you stories like these? No matter what your party, race or media affiliation might be, isn't Trinidad and Tobago a (slightly) better place because of such pieces?
If yes, then what have you done to defend their right to carry on providing such work?
PS: If you're employed in the media and don't think an attack on independent journalists is your business, you are in the wrong profession.

Bharath also stood solidly behind local journalists. In a follow-up status update, she posted:

Trinidad must surely be the capital of situational irony.
For the last 5 years female investigative journalists and female columnists have been under special attack by the media professionals of this regime.
Today I see Gender Studies, silent on every gendered atrocity committed by this government, organising a memorial for the fallen students in Kenya.
We see every other country's ill but our own.
Spare me the invites to that event. I standing vigil by Asha Javeed [a female journalist in Trinidad & Tobago who was reportedly targeted in the online attacks] gate instead.

Instead of the government addressing the allegations made in the report — proof of which any avid Facebook user can find just by trawling their newsfeed — the Minister of Tourism, Gerald Hadeed, issued a statement claiming that the report is false and that it “show[ed] the true nature of the Express newspaper”.

Hadeed asserted that the newspaper is anti-government and said that the opposition People's National Movement is the party that is actually paying people to “blog”.

Diaspora blogger Jumbie's Watch was disturbed by the revelations:

Granted, politics is a dirty game, but this UNC [United National Congress, the main party in the coalition] government is sinking to new lows – or, maybe reaching as high as they can? They are paying bloggers $6000 per month (one in picture) to denigrate the Opposition in general and Keith Rowley in particular. These people have resorted to the nastiest language in promoting sedition and racism.

Now, I'm not above criticising where it is due, and this government has really raised my ire, and to those who blindly support the racist, nasty views of these paid bloggers, I hope that you know your government can lose the upcoming elections.

The Association of Caribbean Media Workers has condemned the “unlawful and defamatory social media attacks on women journalists in Trinidad and Tobago” and the International Press Institute has also voiced its concern about the situation.

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