After my first post on this blog, I tweeted that I blamed my valued colleague Nicolette Bethel for my starting a blog. However, I should have blamed former Attorney General and Minister of Education Alfred Sears for it. Only days before starting this blog, during a brief conversation after attending a panel discussion hosted by the Eugene Dupuch Law School, he opined that Bahamian academics were too silent on current affairs, political and social. I believe he was wrong, but just in case, I thought, I should add my voice to the choir.
Bahamian academics, and I pointed this out in an article in the Nassau Guardian recently, are constantly making their contributions to the national discourse; The College of The Bahamas (COB) hosts frequent lectures, symposia, panel discussions, etc. Many of my colleagues’ names are commonly seen in the newspapers, offering commentary and analysis. However, by and large, the public in general, and our political class in particular, have a remarkable talent for ignoring these contributions – not in a sense of not reading or listening, but in a sense of not responding, not entering into the discussion. A common remark at the end of every Q&A at any given COB event is, “The College needs to put on more functions like this one.” It does, but the audience is generally comprised of the “usual suspects,” with a handful of newcomers thrown in. Pursuing new ways to reach out to the Bahamian public, to engage them in a much needed dialogue, many COB professors have wholeheartedly embraced social media such as Facebook and Twitter or write on various blogs.
2012 is not 2007
Technically speaking, the 2012 general elections in The Bahamas will be the second general elections since Facebook and Twitter. Twitter was started in March 2006, and Facebook opened to the general public in September 2006; however, both networks’ impact in 2007 was negligible, because their reach was extremely limited. In 2012, this situation has changed dramatically. Statistics suggest that more than half of the Bahamian population is on Facebook, and recent events have shown, how quickly news – and rumours – spread on that network and go viral, for instance the allegations of Bernadette Christie being spat at during the advanced poll, or the story about a spray painted potcake. In fact, it would appear that Facebook is the place where some of these stories get picked up by our reporters. In 2007, social networks were not a factor in the Bahamian elections; in 2012, they are.
The exponential growth of social networks over the past couple of years is changing the way of public discourse, and it is changing the way that we perceive the world. Beginning in December 2010, civil unrest in a number of Arab countries has grown into what is often dubbed the “Arab Spring,” and a number of leaders have been toppled in its wake. The Western media was quick in dubbing this movement the “Facebook Revolution.” However, upon closer examination, this proves to be a misnomer. Traditional media, such as radio and television, and traditional channels of communication, such as telephone and text messaging, were far more important, simply because they have a much greater reach: upwards of 80% of the population for Al Jazeera in the case of television. On the other hand, as little as 5% of the population of some of the countries affected have Internet access (“Arab Spring: Facebook Revolution #1;” “Was the Arab Spring really a Facebook Revolution?;” “So, was Facebook Responsible for the Arab Spring after all?;” “Twitter, Facebook and YouTube’s Role in Arab Spring.”). However, while all these articles agree that the influence of social networks on the Arab Spring was insufficient to call it the “Facebook Revolution,” they agree that the Internet did influence some aspects of it, even though only a small percentage of the population in that region have access to the Internet.
In The Bahamas, unlike in northern Africa and the Middle East, Internet access is readily available, and Facebook alone reaches more than half the population. Facebook allows users to form groups, in which they can discuss whatever topic(s) they so choose. The largest Bahamian political forum that I am aware of, is the “No Spin Zone,” which has more than 11,000 members. If all of these members were registered voters, this would represent 6.4% of the electorate in a single discussion forum. Considering that the FNM won the 2007 elections by a margin of 2.8% over the PLP, it is clear why these networks represent an arena that no political party running for office can afford to neglect. Yet their Facebook and Twitter activities suggest that neither party has understood how to use these media effectively, instead handling them much the same way as an ordinary election season rally.
At rallies, the politicians are in control of a one-way broadcast. Ever since our politicians campaigned for votes, they did so by means of telling the electorate whatever they felt like sharing with them, and keeping to themselves whatever information they did not feel like sharing. Social media, however, enable the recipient of the message to respond to it. Social media, in fact, allow the user, and that is the potential voter, to start the conversation.
Election season 2012 started online long before Ingraham finally “rang the bell,” and it started with voters who wanted to deepen the democratic process, with voters who do not believe that the camaraderie at rallies, t-shirts and jingles are good enough reasons to vote for any one party. As soon as the Boundaries Commission’s report was tabled, and the parties announced their candidates, election season had started. In this election season, expressing thoughts, discussing ideas and asking questions is no longer the domain of politicians and a handful of pundits approved by the traditional media outlets of the country; this time around, it can happen on Twitter, on Facebook, and on blogs, which discuss trends in the region or propose a voter’s manifesto. To be clear, these bloggers are not spin doctors for one particular political faction; they are voters committed to empowering democracy’s sovereign, the citizen.
Maybe the age of the candidates – Ingraham is 64, Christie 69 – could be an explanation for the parties’ ineptitude to formulate an adequate response to the online discourse that has developed in anticipation of the 2012 elections, but one would think that any well-oiled party machine would include some Internet-savvy operatives. Another possible explanation could of course be the leaders’ delusions of grandeur, which has caused this election season to be characterised by two men fighting over the legacy of their mentor, employing terminology such as “heir,” “anointed leader,” “ordained by god,” or “Moses.” Thus, the 2012 election campaigns remained largely the same one-way broadcasts they were in the past, and the divide between the political class and those parts of the electorate that wanted to move beyond a reenactment of the struggle of the 1960s continued to grow.
#Bahamas2012 is the hashtag a number of active Bahamian Twitter users agreed to adopt for discussions about the 2012 general elections in The Bahamas. Because messages on Twitter are limited to 140 characters, something like #BahamasGeneralElections2012 would have simply been too long. Hashtags are supposed to not only allow your readers to recognise the topic you are addressing at a glance, but also help to find other contributors who discuss the same subject. The drawback of #Bahamas2012 is that a number of tourists also use it to discuss the trip they took or are about to take to The Bahamas in 2012.
Another hashtag that must be mentioned when discussing this year’s election season is #DemandDebates, which first surfaced on Twitter on 17th March, 2012. Since then, it has reached many a Bahamian tweeter, causing more and more users to join in the campaign to convince Bahamian politicians to face an audience in a non-rally setting and discuss policy issues standing next to their competitors, allowing for a direct comparison of platforms.
The School of Social Sciences at The College of The Bahamas prepared for such an event, and sent invitations to all three major political parties (PLP, FNM and DNA), as well as to the Bahamas Constitution Party and a number of independent candidates. The independent candidates who were invited (Craig Butler, Bamboo Town; Alex Morley, Englerston; Paul Moss, Garden Hills), as well as the leader of the Bahamas Constitution Party, S. Ali McIntosh, immediately accepted the invitation. The PLP, the FNM and the DNA all ignored the invitation. They did not decline it, they ignored it. Yet I am confident that they received it, for I personally e-mailed the invitations to the chairmen of all three parties, I faxed them to their headquarters (except in the case of the DNA, where I could not find a fax number listed), and I hand delivered them to their headquarters, too. But, there was no response.
#DemandDebates, however, will not go away. The hashtag will reappear on Twitter on 8th May, and there now is a corresponding Facebook group, Bahamian Democratic Discourse. Maybe, the power of Twitter is still underestimated by Bahamian politicians, for their activities on the network suggest a lack of understanding of how the medium works. However, like Facebook, Twitter has a remarkable reach, allowing Bahamians to connect and exchange ideas, and allowing outsiders to get up to date news from the country. Arguably, you can feel a country’s pulse on Twitter.
The network also measures the conversations that take place, by showing a list of trending topics on the homepage. These are the ten most discussed topics on Twitter at any given point in time – worldwide. Last Wednesday (2nd May), late at night, the fourth most discussed Twitter topic worldwide was #OnlyBahamianPeople. If there was any doubt before, it should now be clear that many Bahamians are active on Twitter, very active indeed. While it may not be as prevalent as Facebook, its dynamics are very different. There are fewer restrictions by means of privacy settings, and therefore most content is public and thus more widely shared. The word, once out, travels further faster. Direct dialogue between people who are not your “friends,” which on Facebook both users have to pick, choose and approve, is the norm.
However, an analysis of the political parties’ Twitter activities shows an insecurity about the medium, and an uncertainty in the approach. The challenge Twitter poses for anyone, is that you ought to express an idea in 140 characters or less; for comparison, this blog post is approximately 16,700 characters long. Twitter allows users to post links, but links are only attractive if they come with a brief description as to what one may expect when following said link. None of the three parties seem to have grasped that part of the network.
The FNM appears to have two accounts campaigning in 2012, @yourfnm and @torchbearersbah. Long Island candidate Loretta Butler-Turner has her own account (@lorettabturner), but that has been inactive since before the bell rang. Of the two active accounts, @yourfnm has more followers, 437 at the time of writing this. However, it only follows 178 other users, most of whom appear to be either personal interests of the person in charge of the account, uncritical and thus confidence boosting party supporters or generic corporate profiles with little politically relevant activity. Very few of them are actively engaged in a meaningful discussions about the 2012 elections.
This puts the FNM’s Twitter presence in a challenging position, because the party is bypassed by a lot of the discussion. Other users can still reach the FNM by using the @yourfnm handle, but unless these messages contain nothing but unwavering support, they are ignored. The FNM does not engage voters in an online dialogue, and does not respond to questions or criticism. Twitter is treated as a one-way medium of communication, the messages consist predominantly of campaign slogans or links to websites of rally photos and tv advertisements, and through the generous use of ALL CAPS, the party’s tweets even resemble the noise level of a rally.
Unfortunately, one must also include the Tribune’s Twitter account (@tribune242) in this overview of the FNM’s campaign. The Bahamas’ fourth estate in general has provided too little analysis and fact checking during this election season. Instead, it satisfied itself with merely retelling the narrative provided to them by the political caste. However, @tribune242 went one step further, by live “repweeting” campaign slogans – void of independent commentary – from FNM rallies.
The PLP is also present on Twitter. Their official campaign account is @myplp_believe, which replaced the previous account, @bahamasplp, about a month ago. Their tweets are similarly unremarkable, there is no dialogue, and very little interest in following the online discourse. Being late to the game is one reason why the PLP has less than half as many people following (as in “reading along,” not as in “committed to voting for”) them on Twitter. Other reasons are the failure to differentiate between username and real name, the failure to create a profile that contains either the letters “PLP” or the words “Progressive Liberal Party,” and the poor use of hashtags, all of which will present users searching for either the “PLP” or the “Bahamas” with considerable challenges; you would have to search for “plpbahamas,” and that is an unlikely one.
There are some PLP politicians who have their individual accounts: Perry Christie (@pgchristie), who barely uses the account, Melanie Griffin (@msgriffin56), who cannot decide whether she is tweeting as a politician or preacher, Ryan Pinder (@ryan_pinder), who seems to have understood the concept a little better but only uses Twitter sparingly, and Bradley Roberts (@bradleybe), whose account appears to be linked to his Facebook as all tweets appear to be nothing but copied Facebook activity, consisting mainly of links which leave the reader wondering what to expect.
However, the most influential Twitter user in the PLP’s camp is an anonymous account, @bahamaspress. Bahamas Press focusses largely on parroting campaign slogans, and on slinging dirt in the general direction of the FNM. If the FNM does something wrong, you find it first on Bahamas Press. If the FNM does not do something wrong, Bahamas Press will make up something, anyway, which is why the account is anonymous, and of course in no way officially connected to the PLP. Bahamas Press is the proverbial noise in the market, and Bahamas Press believes that the louder you say it, the truer it becomes; the more often you say it, the truer it becomes. To make their dreams come true, Bahamas Press repeats itself, quotes itself, repeats itself quoting itself and quotes itself repeating itself. It is almost a surprise that the account has not been closed for spamming yet.
The most advanced Twitter campaign is that of the DNA. They, too, repeat many of the same mistakes the two established parties make. They post too many links void of any description. They repeat themselves too often, frequently spamming several screens worth of Twitter feed in green logos and blue links. In many cases they simply have Facebook copy their activity to Twitter, which poses the problem that, because Facebook activity is not limited to 140 characters, the truncated message is regularly too cryptic. They do not use hashtags, which would give their presence some more structure. Despite this, they still get something right. They talk about themselves and their actions. They talk about some issues and their plans. When they talk about their campaign, they do not just repeat slogans – though there is that, too. And: they engage the user.
The DNA enters into a dialogue with their supporters. They also enter into a dialogue with their critics – not always, but often. They will try to present arguments in defense of their positions against opposition, and they answer questions about their programme. It appears that there are several persons within the party tending to the main account (@mydnaparty), some of whom are quite adept at expressing thoughts within the constraints of the 140-character limit of Twitter. This openness paired with the electorate’s curiosity about the new kids on the block probably explains why the DNA has more followers on Twitter than either the PLP or the FNM.
In addition to the official party account, there is an account of the DNA in Grand Bahama (@mydnapartygb), and no less than seven candidates have their individual accounts: Branville McCartney (@branmccartney), Jamarl Chea (@jamarlchea), Farrell Goff (@muddasick), Rodney Moncur (@rodneymoncur), Prodesta Moore (@dnakillarney), Alfred Poitier (@alfredpoitier), and Roscoe Thompson (@dnasouthabaco). The levels of activity vary widely, but the corporate identity is undeniable, even if Goff’s username can only be explained by taking into consideration the fact that it predates the creation of the party by two years.
For the DNA, a social network campaign makes sense. It does not require the budget that t-shirts and flags for half the island, and posters for the entire island, require. It does not require the budget that mass rallies require. The DNA’s willingness to engage in open discussion also underlines their claim to a different style of governance, even if their programme is a very conservative one. However, come rally time, the pretense of a new approach is forgotten, and the boisterous rhetoric in that setting is reflected in the bragging that goes on online. The DNA’s campaign is set on telling its supporters that they are going to win in 2012. They do not prepare to lay the foundation for years of hard opposition work in anticipation of the 2017 elections.
Days before the 2012 elections, the #Bahamas2017 hashtag has already surfaced. A young generation of Bahamian netizens is demanding the respect that citizens in a democracy deserve. They are no longer prepared to be (dis)counted as the “grassroots base.” They are not looking for a circus. They want policy proposals. They want vision. They #DemandDebates. They want us to “dream better.”
This yearning for a more democratic democracy is evident on Twitter, where the #DemandDebates hashtag is in no way subtle. It is evident on Facebook, where more people (816) like a satirical parody of our election season called the Real Bahamian Party than like the governing FNM (713). It is evident on YouTube, where TAP’s vlog mocks rallies by showing a group of supporters of a fictitious WTF party and has scored more hits (over 30,000) than any spot uploaded by any real Bahamian party.
In 2017, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube may strike us to be as old-fashioned as a dial plate telephone. However, regardless of the social networking flavour of the day in 2017, we will have different candidates in that race. They will not only be new names, they will have to be a new type of politician. Whether two or three (or more) men (or women) are going to be PM hopefuls in five years time, they will not only feel the pressure of a more self-confident populace, but they will be unable to avoid the responsibility of a candidate in a democracy: to answer questions posed by others.
To this end, the School of Social Sciences at The College of The Bahamas is planning to host a series of conversations on democracy. We hope to involve different groups in different ways. We hope to educate and to learn. We hope to do this in the virtual realm and in the real world. We hope to “support and drive national development through education, research and innovation, and service.” We hope that The Bahamas is ready for this, for we plan to #DemandDebates.