How the Press (and Politicians) Embraced Social Media in Jamaica’s Election

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By Marcia Forbes, PhD
CJ Contributor

The 2011 general election in Jamaica saw the use of traditional and social media in ways never before experienced on that island. This was the first such election in that country since the coming of age of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, three of the most popular social networks.  In September 2007 when Jamaica voted in this manner, Facebook was just three and a half, YouTube approximately two and a half and Twitter about one and a half years old – all in their infancy.  Given Jamaicans’ love of music videos, however, YouTube did play a role in the 2007 elections.  Not the other two networks, though.  It was different in 2011.  All three were used by the two leading parties, the PNP and the JLP, with a view to gaining political mileage.

The former Prime Minister, Andrew Holness went as far as to indicate that the Jamaica Labour Party would be relying less on traditional media and more on social media to communicate their messages to the people, so that, as he said, “the people can get the message unfiltered, untwisted … the truth.”  That statement really surprised me.  Social media, especially Twitter and Blackberry messages, sometimes remind me of the game of telephone.  A message can start out as one thing and get twisted by those who pass it on, with persons adding their own comments and clips, taking out bits and pieces from the original and changing punctuation until, eventually, the message creator would not recognize the end product as anything related to his or her her creation.  Facebook and YouTube postings are different, but are still subject to cannibalization and message dilution — especially YouTube videos.

While it is true that creating one’s own messages provides a safety blanket against distortions, of note is that the original links and postings from social media content creators, in this case the political party, may never be seen, heard or read by the intended audiences.

Many see or hear only the permutations, usually comical take-offs of the original which serve as grist for propaganda and/or stress relief.  Social media provides fertile ground for cacophony and confusion.  Then there is the real challenge of reach, given the still relatively low penetration of social networks and smartphones in Jamaica.  Coupled with that is the youth factor of social media.  The Jamaica Labour Party’s Facebook users averaged 30 years of age.  Undoubtedly, the PNP attracted a similar demographic.

Smartphones like Blackberry, Androids and iPhone are said to be only 10 percent of the mobile phone market in Jamaica, even in the face of seeming ubiquity of Blackberries.  A little less than a quarter of Jamaicans have Facebook accounts.  Significantly fewer are on Twitter.  The “Canna Cross it” YouTube video featuring Clifton Brown was lost to the vast majority of Jamaicans until brought to their attention via traditional media.  Nationwide Radio seemed to have been the first to talk about it and thereafter it went wildly viral online.  That’s how I remember it, having seen the very first posts of that video via Twitter.

Compared to 2007, when the JLP ruled supreme on YouTube, this time around qualified political sources say the PNP had more YouTube videos than the combined videos of the JLP in 2007 and 2011.  Facebook and Twitter were used by politicians, the media and the public in an unending “mashup” of traditional and citizen journalists, with “old” media sometimes seeming to blend with the collective voice of the masses of “new” media.  The island’s two leading national free-to-air TV stations, TVJ and CVM TV incorporated feedback via Facebook and Twitter in their election programmes.  Radio stations such as Nationwide News Network regularly inserted listeners’ comments posted on the station’s Facebook page.  With Nationwide it was always the same persons posting.  I even grew to know their names and what their responses were likely to be.  At the peak of the election season Nationwide threatened to lockdown their Facebook page as postings of potentially libellous material gave them cause for great concern.

The Gleaner and The Observer newspapers are among the leading media players in Jamaica to have embraced social media.  Both have mobile applications to facilitate reading and watching via smartphones.  Yes, watching! These newspapers now post videos and are destined to become multi-media enterprises, way beyond their circulation via hard paper.

Throughout 2010 into 2011 (and even now), The Observer and The Gleaner aggressively competed for Twitter followers.  Both now boast 27, 685 and 27,718, respectively as of last night, with the Old Man of North Street, as the Gleaner is called in view of its location, only 33 followers ahead as at January 15, 2012.  A politician or a political party ignores or wars with traditional media to his or her or the party’s peril, especially in the face of many of these “old” media commanding respectable online offerings.

Over the period of Dec. 1 to Dec. 31, 2011 the JLP’s Facebook account attracted activity amounting to 1,031,585.  These include friending, comments, links and shares and compares to 215, 574 for YouTube and 87, 075 for Twitter.  Do not be fooled by these numbers, though.  When it came to the matter of engagement as measured by social media analytics, Twitter, despite its small number of users compared to Facebook and YouTube, elicited levels of engagement frequently on par with Facebook.

Many of us are grappling with understanding social media analytics.  Having used Twitter as my digital ethnography community for the past two years, while I do not properly understand the analytics, my own experience confirms the high level of engagement via this social network.

Jamaicans need to understand social media and how it can be used for democratic engagement and involvement of citizens.  My upcoming book, STREAMING:  Social Media, Mobile Lifestyles is being written with this as one objective.

Dr Marcia Forbes is a media specialist, the co-owner of multimedia production company Phase 3 Productions, Ltd and former Permanent Secretary in Jamaica’s Ministry of Mining and Telecommunications and later the Ministry of Energy and Mining. She is the author of Music, Media & Adolescent Sexuality in Jamaica and the upcoming Streaming: Social Media, Mobile Lifestyles.