By Marcia Forbes, PhD
Politicians & Social Media Engagement
THE QUESTION keeps coming back – social media and Jamaican politicians; do they know how to use these communication tools to their advantage?
Recently, it seems that whenever there is an election in Jamaica, politicians take to social media. They do not always score big with users, however.
This time the election is for the leadership of the country’s opposition party, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). The contenders are the incumbent, former Prime Minister Andrew Holness, and his challenger, former Finance Minister Audley Shaw.
Both men are on various forms of social media, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. One is even on Instagram, showcasing pictures of himself and his family.
Politicians, with US President Barack Obama setting the example and leading the way, use these new media forms to build a bond with those on these platforms, to share their various “messages” and engage with their constituents. It works very well for Obama.
Although it is only just over five thousand JLP delegates who will be voting in this soon-coming election, the campaign has taken on national importance. This is not unusual. It was the same when Dr Peter Phillips of the People’s National Party (PNP) challenged the now Prime Minister, Portia Simpson Miller on two occasions.
Politicians realize that delegates can be influenced by friends and family, as well as perceptions of who is “winning the race.” Visibility via the media plays an important role in cultivating this perception. It is therefore understandable why these party leadership challenges are taken beyond party confines and on to traditional as well as social media.
‘Rae Rae’ Politics & ‘Daggering’
Jamaicans love excitement and they love politics. Political meetings are often of a “rae rae” nature, meaning they are full of rhetoric, running and prancing around on stage accompanied by dancing, occasionally of a “daggering” nature.
With the growing involvement of Jamaicans on social media via networks like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, politicians, like true marketers, are going where their audiences can be found. Although only just over a quarter of Jamaicans are on Facebook , with the number on Twitter unclear but significantly less, as too for Instagram, many of those on these platforms are opinion shapers. Traditional media, newspapers, radio and TV, now regularly include Facebook posts and tweets in their reports.
Do Politicians Disengage after Elections?
The argument about politicians and social media is that the majority of them seem to approach social media as platforms to be used and discarded once elections are over. Audley Shaw and Andrew Holness are very busy on social media for now. Once their leadership race is settled, will they have any “use” for the constituents they have “endeared” themselves to via social media? Or, will these persons be discarded, having “served their purpose” until they are again needed for the next election?
Over this period of “rae rae” politics in the form of the Jamaica Labour Party leadership race, it was brought to Twitter’s attention that the Prime Minister of Jamaica, a master “rae rae” politician, had not updated her Facebook and Twitter accounts over the past six months. The question was posed as to whether Caribbean Governments should be active on social media.
One tweep pointed out that the Prime Minister of the Bahamas had not updated his social media account since July of 2012. Elections were held there in May 2012. It would not be unreasonable to think that soon after the elections were over in the Bahamas, engagement via social media became unimportant to the new Prime Minister.
Beyond Propaganda Feeds
In continuing the conversation regarding the use of social media by Caribbean Governments, one tweep remarked that politicians seemed to use them as “one way propaganda feeds.” He described this as a “pity” since this approach only alienates voters. He pointed to the usefulness of social media networks for engaging youths in the political process.
Another remarked on the way in which President Obama uses his Twitter account to post information pertaining to policy changes.
Yet another noted that the Twitter account of the Office of the Prime Minister of Jamaica, @OPM, was very active. The quick retort to that was that the Jamaican Prime Minister herself was “largely absent from all forms of social media platforms” as well as traditional media.
While many Jamaicans are still not yet using social media, their use among youths is growing. Almost three-quarters of the Jamaicans on Facebook are between 18 to 34 years of age.
This is an important population segment for politicians as youths are the ones who will have to take this country forward. Interestingly, in Jamaica 53 percent of Facebookers are females. This is unlike places like China where males outstrip females, 60 percent compared to 40%, respectively.
While many local politicians have not yet awoken to the “hidden power” of women in the political process, Audley Shaw and Andrew Holness should quickly wake up to this. I gather many of their party’s delegates are women. They, as well as other politicians, should harness the power of social media to keep constituents, females and males, engaged and involved.
Dr Marcia Forbes, a Caribbean Journal contributor, is a media specialist, the co-owner of multimedia production company Phase 3 Productions Ltd and Adjunct Senior Lecturer, Caribbean Institute of Media & Communication, University of the West Indies, Mona. She is the author of Music, Media & Adolescent Sexuality in Jamaica and the recently-released Streaming: Social Media, Mobile Lifestyles.
Follow Dr Marcia Forbes on Twitter: @marciaforbes