July 2018

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If you are a follower of progressive politics in the United States, you may have heard of Shaun King. More than likely, you have seen his work. King is part journalist, part activist and even part political strategist and campaigner.

He worked with NFL player Colin Kaepernick on his protest against police brutality. Many of the videos you see on the mainstream US media that depict police violence or racism came through his hands first. When a group of white supremacists badly beat a black counter protester at the protest in Charlottesville in August 2017, it was King who coordinated the manhunt to find and capture them. Three of them are in jail today. For several years King has campaigned for candidates at the city, state and national level on the left wing of the Democratic Party and disseminated ideas on political strategy and action to the public.

King is one of an emerging breed of political actor, occupying a new but growing space. He is able to do so because of one reason – social media. On Twitter he has nearly one million followers, including politicians, party operatives, mainstream journalists, academics and activists. His power is the power of social media and it can be felt throughout the political process, including elections.

But what of Trinidad and Tobago? What kind of impact do social media have in our politics? How have platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube affected our elections? And what are the benefits and dangers of this potential disruptive technology, to our political process, traditional media, and society itself?

These were some of the questions asked and answered at a recent forum hosted by the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies (SALISES) of UWI. Entitled “The Role of Social Media in National Elections in Trinidad and Tobago”, the forum looked both at the international picture and the national election in 2015.

“In 2015 both parties used social media to target the undecided, especially youth,” Dr Indrani Bachan-Persad said in her presentation at the June 6 forum. Dr Bachan-Persad is the author of “Mediatised Political Campaigns: A Caribbean Perspective”. Speaking to an audience at the Centre for Language Learning (CLL) Auditorium that included veteran journalists, activists, politicians and UWI students and staff, she presented findings from her new research.

Dr Bachan-Persad’s research led her to the conclusion that the People’s National Movement’s (PNM’s) more targeted approach social media approach to win young and undecided voters, contributed to their victory over the United National Congress (UNC)/People’s Partnership (PP) in 2015.

“The UNC was not as targeted as the PNM,” she said, pointing to the PNM’s use of Vestige Services, a Washington-based digital strategist firm. The UNC, on the other hand, used several firms and as a consequence suffered from “mixed messaging”.

Dr Bachan-Persad described a social media environment in which the PNM, its activists and community groups created a barrage of content on sites such as Facebook, content such as music videos and campaigns that spoke directly to the youth (such as 3 Canal’s “Beat Out 2015”). In contrast, the UNC content was longer form and documentary-style, appealing to an older audience - an audience that could not determine the election.

In her presentation, Dr Bachan-Persad spoke about the dangers of social media in a country such as Trinidad and Tobago where political divisions can also be racial divisions. The media, she said, is “crucial in managing issues such as race” to prevent them from becoming “the dominant themes of the campaigns”. And while she saw traditional media taking up that role responsibly, “in the absence of equivalent gatekeepers in social media, the floodgates of unfettered opinion” could be opened.

The danger of media without gatekeepers, particularly in an environment of extreme wealth and power, was one of the themes of Dr Scott Timcke’s presentation. Dr Timcke is a Lecturer in UWI St Augustine’s Department of Literary Cultural and Communications Studies.

Looking at the US in the era of President Donald Trump, a prolific user of Twitter, Dr Timcke says, “for Trump social media is the only way to get the truth out. The Trump administration routinely coordinates efforts to delegitimize news organisations like Time and CNN.”

Even more worrying, Trump and his followers have used social media to encourage the growth of far right groups that have nationalist and bigoted ideas, such as the “Alt-Right”. Alt-Right leader Richard Spencer was one of the architects of the demonstrations in Charlottesville that culminated in the killing of Heather Heyer, an activist.

“For totalitarian leaders, truth is simply a matter of power,” Dr Timcke says, speaking of how powerful actors operating in bad faith can misuse social media platforms. “(So they can put out prejudiced messages such as) African Americans are gang members; Mexicans are rapists; Muslims are planning to overthrow the government.”

Perhaps the most positive speaker on the role of social media in elections was the one whose profession is being most affected by it. Journalist Curtis Williams, speaking on behalf of the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT) acknowledged the enormous changes taking place in the media landscape today.

“The rise of social media has been accompanied by increased connectivity,” Williams said, citing data from the Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad and Tobago (TATT) showing fixed line Internet penetration was as high as 76.9 percent in the last quarter of 2017 and mobile penetration at 52 percent.

Trinidad and Tobago is now a wired society and with deep digital penetration comes deep social media usage. This has major consequences for traditional media.

“Traditional media are no longer the gatekeeper of news,” Williams said. “Gone are the days when what we saw and heard was determined by traditional media. This is because people now have the power to post their thoughts, pictures and video, and tell their stories without having to go through traditional media.”

The MATT representative used the recent examples of Nafiesa Nakhid, the teacher who was told she could not wear her hijab at the Lakshmi Girls Hindu College, and Ajay Aberdeen, the young boy who posted a video of himself explaining his decision to farm and sell peppers. In both instances, stories generated and shared on social media determined the traditional media news cycle.

Williams said social media was not only driving news, it was also taking advertising away from traditional media. However, he believed there was an opportunity for the traditional media to carve out an important space by providing the kind of verification and attention to journalistic standards that social media does not have.

But he cautioned that traditional media was not immune to bad actors or practices.

“Propaganda is not new,” he said. “We have seen political parties or political operatives putting out information that is clearly incorrect and has not been fact checked, and some of it is making its way into the mainstream media.”

For the traditional media to maintain its relevance it should offer what social media does not - verified, trustworthy information.

After the presentations, forum Chairman Dr Hamid Ghany, Director of SALISES, led an engaging question and answer session with members of the audience. One person asked about the risks of participating in the online space in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal in which the digital firm collected the personal information of over eight million Facebook users. Earlier this year the Bloomberg news organisation reported that the UNC employed Cambridge Analytica in 2013.

Several other audience members questioned the impact of social media on elections, one in particular saying social media served more as a way to confirm biases rather than influence opinions.