All Except

“Attorney General, Allyson Maynard Gibson said yesterday the Constitution should be amended to end all forms of discrimination, except discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Mrs Maynard Gibson said there have been no reported cases where anyone has alleged discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation therefore there are ‘far more pressing matters that need to be considered’.” (S. Brown. “An End to Discrimination – Except over Sexuality.” The Tribune, 11th June, 2013.)

One must ask in which Bahamas Maynard-Gibson lives? Surely, not the Bahamas in which “sissy” is an acceptable way of publicly putting somebody down? Surely not the Bahamas were you get convicted of manslaughter – instead of murder – when you kill a homosexual man because he was making advances towards you? Surely not the Bahamas featured so prominently in Rosie O’Donnell’s “All Aboard” (2006)?

If you would like a piece of Maynard-Gibson’s Bahamas, a Bahamas where no discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation exists, please sign this petition, so that our current Bahamas, which is characterised by exclusion rather than inclusion, may one day become this paradise that the Attorney General apparently already lives in.

© by Stephen B. Aranha

© by Stephen B. Aranha

“Enemies of the State”: How Young Nerds Scare Grown Men

(Paper presented at the conference, “The Bahamas at Forty: Reflecting on the Past, Envisioning the Future,” hosted by the College of The Bahamas’ School of Social Sciences, 12th-14th June, 2013.)

Originally, this paper was supposed to be entitled, “‘A Prime Minister Who Listens’: An Examination of Social Media and the Public Discourse Surrounding the Referendum on Gambling in the Bahamas,” because when Bahamian Prime Minister Christie announced that the referendum on gambling would be postponed from 3rd December, 2012, to 28th January, 2013, he did so stating that he was “a Prime Minister who listens” referring to the wide array of criticism that the government’s plans had been met with from various sectors of Bahamian society. In this paper, I sought to explore if – or how – public commentary on this issue on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook may have influenced this debate, if its users were, perhaps, ahead of traditional media, ahead of the official opposition, and ahead of other interest groups chiming in on the issue.

During the so-called Arab Spring, mass media pundits were quick to dub these movements Facebook or Twitter Revolutions. However, academic researchers have since shown that, while these platforms played an important role in getting information about these events to the outside world, more confidential and easily accessible communication channels, such as text messaging, were far more important in coordinating the protests inside affected Arab countries. (1) The trend to credit social media with fuelling protest movements in the Islamic world can currently be witnessed again in Turkey, however, unlike in the countries of northern Africa, Internet access is widespread in Turkey, and 81% of Turkish Internet users have at least one social media account.

In the Bahamas, compared to most of the Arab world, Internet access is comparatively affordable and readily available, and fear of criminal prosecution for voicing one’s opinion is far less prevalent, albeit growing. Can social media, in such a setting, widen the base of participants in the political process and deepen democracy?

Originally, this paper was to look at a select number of Facebook groups, as well as the Twitter feeds of a cross section of Bahamian users of the platform that can, in social media terms to be adapted to the Bahamian context, be considered influential without being traditionally influential. It will attempt to highlight emerging patterns of how ideas can now be born in the virtual sphere and find their way into the conversation of the traditional political and media elite.

However, over the past few months, there were several important changes in the social media landscape of the Bahamas, which I will outline first, as they affect the approach taken to the paper – and, I trust, explain its new title. Regarding Facebook, the most important development impacting this study is that of the three major groups in which Bahamians like to discuss politics online, only one remains public: Crossfire. Crossfire, however, is known for its explicit PLP bias, so it may not be a very useful case study.

Not being able to conduct a more in-depth analysis of the discussion that took place on Facebook is disappointing, because Facebook is currently the most influential social media platform in the Bahamas; in September 2012, there were 165,820 Facebook users in the country, which in June of the same year had a little less than 236,000 Internet users; the 2010 census counted 234,744 individuals in the 15-64 year age range. A further demographic breakdown of Bahamian Facebook users is interesting, because it demonstrates that, contrary to popular belief, Facebook is a platform appealing primarily to the adult population. In fact, recent figures from the United States and western Europe indicate a decline amongst Facebook users aged 34 years and younger in those countries.

Age Range

13-15

16-17

18-24

25-34

35-44

45-54

55-64

65-100

%

4%

7%

29%

26%

17%

10%

4%

2%

Facebook Users in the Bahamas by Age (May 2013)

Sex

Female

Male

%

55%

45%

Facebook Users in the Bahamas by Sex (May 2013)

One of the non-public Facebook groups in which political matters are being discussed encompasses more than 15,000 members, a number close to ten percent of the 165.922 persons registered to vote during last year’s general election. Given these membership numbers, the level of confidentiality suggested by such groups’ non-public status may be questionable, but their privacy settings must be respected, and as such, a detailed analysis of the discussion within such a group would require the explicit permissions of every poster. In the framework of this paper, attempting to get permission from such a vast number of individuals did not seem feasible.

However, an exploration of the causes that lead to two of these groups switching to non-public can nonetheless be very informative, because it immediately points to some other developments and discussions that the country has witnessed over the past few months:

  1. On 4th April, 2013, Commissioner of Police Ellison Greenslade announced that certain posts on social media platforms could trigger legal action against users. The Tribune quotes Greenslade saying, “I send a clear message to all and sundry: have your fun on social media, send your messages to your friends; but this issue of posting lewd pictures of people, obscene pictures of people – whether they are alive or dead or injured – is an area that’s going to get you into grave problems.” And: “I sound that clarion call this morning and I demonstrate by action, how serious I am about that. I am prepared to speak to it again and again, until that message is clear. If you post on Facebook or any other social media anything that is contrary to law, that is obscene or indecent, and it infringes upon the rights of any other citizen, this commissioner and all members of the RBPF – I daresay all of us in public safety – are going to take action because we have a problem with that. We are not going to ignore it.”

While these statements alone seem perfectly reasonable, it is the interpretation of what is acceptable or not that has the potential to intimidate Bahamian social media users, because Greenslade did not make these statements in a purely hypothetical scenario, but made them to explain action taken by the Royal Bahamas Police Force against Rodney Moncur, a Justice of the Peace, former DNA candidate and self-proclaimed community activist who allegedly posted pictures on Facebook showing police brutality. One picture, or set of pictures, allegedly showed the bruised backside of a man who claims to have been beaten by police; the other picture, or set of pictures, allegedly shows the corpse of a man who died in police custody.

In light of the accusations against Moncur, Greenslade’s warning ought to have been clearer, for questions remain as to the precise nature of Moncur’s infraction or infractions. Were the pictures themselves lewd, obscene or indecent? Was it that they made allegations against the police that had not yet been proven in a court of law? Was it that at least the picture of the corpse was allegedly obtained without authorisation?

In the past, Moncur has alienated many Bahamians through his arguably misogynistic rants on Facebook and Twitter, but nonetheless many of those that he has alienated came to his support, and one Tribune editor tried to start an online conversation to discuss the state of free speech and freedom of the press using the hashtag #FreeSpeech242. (2)

  1. On 19th April, 2013, the Nassau Guardian reported that the Office of the Attorney General is working on legislation that would police information posted on the Internet. In the article, Attorney General Allison Maynard-Gibson is quoted as saying, “We have to balance freedom of the press with protecting the public.”

  1. A few days later, on 29th April, 2013, an opinion piece by Philip C. Galanis, coordinator of the Vote Yes campaign and associated with the governing party, originally published in August 2012 was reprinted in the Nassau Guardian, seemingly at the request of Galanis, in which he identifies several groups as “enemies of the state.”

Galanis writes, “Every day, enemies of the state perpetuate this ignorance and misinformation in our media and on the various blogs and social media sites. Sometimes it does not involve lying, but rather contorting the truth or omitting all the facts. Sometimes this is caused by ignorance of the exact facts, exacerbated by laziness in pursuing those facts to their source in order to glean the actual, seminal truth of the situation. Sometimes this is caused by agendas that exist deep within our so-called balanced media practitioners. It is those hidden agendas that cause things to be presented to an unsuspecting and trusting public in ways that cleverly erode and undermine the beneficial policies of the state. It is those agendas that cause information to be imparted in an insidiously slanted and unbalanced way in order to please and promote one side over another. Those who do this are clearly enemies of the state. The blogs and social media sites that impart their versions of the truth oftentimes are perceived as purveyors of the truth instead of what they really are: disseminators of self-serving rhetoric, often driven by purely political motivation and/or mischief. The individuals behind these sites are determined and committed, and their sometimes vile and always hard-hitting tone is crafted to destabilize belief systems, damage reputations and call motives into question. These are not places to find truth and concern for the welfare of the state. Therefore, these places, the bitter blogs and the poisonous social media sites, can also sometimes become enemies of the state. Nothing is more important to a healthy democracy than an informed electorate that is ever vigilant about these enemies that seek to undermine our state. Whenever they raise their ugly faces, we must be ready to stop them.”

While some of Galanis’ observations may fittingly describe some of the commentators in our present-day Bahamas, there are certain key phrases that should have journalists, bloggers and other social media users concerned, especially the premise that regards policies of the state as beneficial by definition and thus off-limits to criticism, and the notion that dissenters must be silenced, rather than argued with – or against – in the arena of public debate. For example, two currently influential examples of commentators that utilise an approach mixing social media, blogs and – to an extent – traditional media are “Bahamas Press,” known for its PLP bias, and “According to Me: Sharon T.” which is known for its FNM bias. Both are also known for preferring certain members of their respective parties over others. Both have – on occasion – raised interesting points which could have been valid contributions to a public discourse, but too often their credibility takes a hit when they lash out against the political opponent for no other reason than their party affiliation, or censor comments made on their posts, thus preventing discussion rather than fostering it. (3) However, regardless of one’s political affiliation and appreciation – or lack thereof – for these bloggers’ positions, the label of “enemy of the state,” which implies treasonous tendencies is inappropriate, and suggests that those who use it are uncomfortable with the notion of uncontrolled – and uncontrollable – free speech.

Switching the attention to Twitter now, where most accounts, and therefore most user contributions are public, we see the discussion being shaped by essentially the same dynamics as on Facebook, but due to the platform’s public nature, conversations often include different individuals, whereas on Facebook they are frequently limited to the proverbial usual suspects. For the purpose of this study, I have selected a handful of Bahamian Twitter accounts belonging to individuals who have chimed in on the matter of the gambling referendum held on 28th January, 2013, and who meet Berger’s and Strathearn’s definition of influence and/or exposure on the platform. (4)

One challenge I encountered while choosing which accounts to look at was that, without using third-party tools that require payment, one is quite limited in how far back one can access old tweets. Twitter itself proved insufficient, but a free service offered by www.twimemachine.com allowed me to go back approximately 3,200 tweets on the selected accounts. There was at least one account I would have liked to include, but its owner uses Twitter so much that even by going 3,200 tweets back into the past, I missed the time frame I was interested in, that is between Christie’s announcement of the referendum at the beginning of November 2012 and the actual day of the vote at the end of January 2013. Another criterion for this study was totally and utterly subject to my own personal bias: the users must – generally speaking – use the limited space of 140 characters available to them to compose coherent messages resembling some form of Standard English. I have, however, tried to include a spread in the selection, and ended up focussing on accounts that include representatives of the media, of academia, of the business sector, of the information technology sector, and of the blue collar working class.

With the help of Twimemachine.com, these accounts were searched for the following keywords: gambling, gaming, referendum, webshop and web shop (spelt as one word and two). Based on the observations made above, and from comparing the coverage provided by the Tribune and the Nassau Guardian to the online discourse, I offer the following three hypotheses:

  1. While traditional media dictate the topics of discussions on social media to a large extent, these online conversations are often a step ahead of the discussion in traditional media, and can in fact fuel the arguments made in the political arena.

  2. A self-sustaining social media discourse has not, or not yet, been achieved in the Bahamas, and online discussions fizzle out when the traditional media no longer provide a second arena for the same topic, even if the issue remains unresolved.

  3. Social media discussion of current affairs in the Bahamas, to an extent, provides a level of analysis that is often lacking from our traditional news media.

Of course, these three points are interrelated. Much of it is probably true for the social media phenomenon worldwide, but arguably, the last point, where Bahamian social media users attempt to analyse developments in lieu of analysis by media professionals plays out differently. A COB student research project conducted last year, concluded that contrary to popular belief, newspaper reporting in the Bahamas shows little to no political bias, not necessarily because of a deliberate effort at neutrality, but because of a lack of analysis and the strong emphasis on stock phrases, stock expressions and quotes, (5) which are not put into context and do not trigger the reporter to ask further questions.

Many of the obvious pertinent questions regarding the January 2013 referendum were then first asked on social media sites, even before representatives of opposition parties then asked them in front of microphones. A few examples:

  • What exactly did the report of the government’s UK-based consultants say that led the government from excluding the question about a national lottery from the referendum, despite the promise made in the PLP’s Charter for Governance?

After hesitating for a while, and denying the existence of a formal report, the government flew in a representative of the consultancy firm to explain his firm’s negative projection regarding a national lottery. Arguably, a consultant admitting that he has never seen the inside of a webshop did not manage to convince the opposition or the wider public, and the lottery question was subsequently added due to mounting popular pressure.

  • Can the government legally hold a non-constitutional referendum?

Seemingly rushed and reacting, the government tabled legislation to make provisions for non-constitutional referenda. However, many observers were surprised when it became clear that the Christie administration was planning to have a non-binding vote on the gambling issue, henceforth causing many Bahamians to refer to the exercise as an opinion poll.

  • Is it proper to ask voters their opinion on the regulation and taxation of webshops without asking about legalisation first?

First posed on Twitter immediately after the release of the referendum questions, DNA leader Branville McCartney prominently stressed this point, and prompted a response from Maynard-Gibson, in whose legal opinion the term regulation by definition automatically includes legalisation. This in turn sparked a brief online conversation on whether it should then not be regularisation instead of regulation, but seemingly the political sphere accepted the Attorney General’s position.

  • Why is the question of discrimination against Bahamians residents in local casinos not being addressed?

Less than a week after the original announcement of the referendum, an online petition was launched demanding to include casino gambling on the ballot, arguably not for the sake of expanding Bahamians’ gambling habits, but to remove a law that many in the country see as discriminatory. While the petition itself attracted only 125 signatures in two weeks, opposition leader Hubert Minnis then asked this question repeatedly of the government, which was forced to respond that this would – probably – be addressed in the constitutional referendum pending the final report of the constitutional review commission. This response, too, sparked further online debate with many arguing that it would be best to remove the discrimination as soon as possible, i.e. now, and to then remove the exemption of gambling laws from being non-discriminatory later, i.e. after the final report of the commission. Especially, as was pointed out by social media users, an earlier commission had already recommended to allow Bahamians access to casinos – in 1967.

  • How reliable were the numbers presented by the government and the Vote Yes campaign about webshops and their role in Bahamian economy? How were they arrived at?

This is an area that highlights how the online discourse quickly fizzles out if ignored by news media and politics, for neither representatives of the opposition nor representatives of traditional media questioned the numbers put forth by the Vote Yes campaign, or the numbers presented by the prime minister in parliament, despite their glaring discrepancies; for instance the alleged 4,000 jobs and the annual payroll of $15 million, which would have meant that a webshop employee earns a weekly salary of $72.12. The topic came up online, every so often, but never gained much traction.

  • Should webshop gambling become legalised, or in the terminology of the referendum question, “regulated and taxed,” will webshop operators be made to pay backtaxes for years of profits they raked in outside of the scope of their business licences which supposedly merely allowed them to provide Internet access on their premises?

Like the question before, the financial implications of the referendum for webshops seemed to be off-limits to both the Bahamian media as well as politicians, regardless of whether representing the government or the opposition. However, both of these points prove that social media users were attempting to seriously discuss different aspects of the gambling referendum, whereas news media and politicians frequently contented themselves with talking points and catchphrases. Of course, even before the referendum, in fact before the 2012 general election, speculations were rife as to the influence that webshop money had on politics and the media and their lack of scrutiny regarding webshop operations.

  • How much preparation time is needed to have a referendum on gambling?

As soon as the referendum was first announced at the beginning of November, to be held on 3rd December, 2012, voices could be heard that one month would not be sufficient time to educate voters on the matter, though I suspect “educate” may have been code for “campaign,” as this argument was most often used by people who admitted to having a horse in the race. In fact, I would also argue that of all the hot topics surrounding the gambling referendum, this was one barely resonating with individual social media users, and more frequently repeated on partisan platforms. It would appear that most social media users feel more comfortable about their level of awareness on national issues than many of the so-called leaders in the Bahamas are willing to give them credit for.

It were the first and last examples that ultimately had the most striking impact on how the referendum would unfold. Because a wide disapproval of the government’s handling of the process was so vocal and visible, Christie was forced to make major concessions: “I am a Prime Minister who listens, … and in listening to the still evolving public discourse on the forthcoming referendum it has become clear to me that more time is needed before the Bahamian people are called upon to vote. … Notwithstanding that initial advise, the government has decided that it would be in the interest of the broadening of democracy and consistent with its charter for governance to include a national lottery in the referendum question.”

Seeing the role that online discourse plays in overall Bahamian conversation, we conclude that, while it may at times constitute a vanguard, its influence remains limited and fickle. One possible explanation for this may be the lack of a critical mass of “nerds” to create a self-sustaining “online community” (6) to join the online conversation at any given time, to sustain it and to carry it further. What is true for Bahamian society in general, is in a paradoxical sense even truer of the Bahamian online community: it is a face-to-face society. When discussing politics online, you are always in dialogue with the same familiar users. While Bahamian social media use is heavily characterised by the use of aliases, it is not uncommon to piece together certain clues and feel pretty confident about a suspicion as to who may be behind a username.

Another reason may be people’s perception or interpretation of the function and purpose social media. A survey asking users why they used Facebook found that the wish to express political and/or social views ranks low – in fact last; light social interaction, entertainment and procrastination all rank much higher.

Unfortunately, I missed last week’s contribution to the budget debate by Fred Mitchell, Minister of Foreign Affairs, but was told that he elaborated on the influence social media has had on last year’s general election. When I wrote about the subject last year, I concluded that the PLP’s, FNM’s and DNA’s social media strategies all demonstrated “an insecurity about the medium, and an uncertainty in the approach.” Fan pages steered by party operatives were ineffective, but it appears that our political class has not become aware of this yet.

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last week remarked, “There is now a threat called Twitter. … As far as I’m concerned, social media are the biggest threat to society.” We thus see a recurrent theme from Erdoğan to Galanis, and recognise that while social media does already have the power to effect some changes in the discourse and influence events to an extent, perhaps its biggest power right now is that it has put on alert all those politicians who confuse their structures of state power with society – or even democracy.

(1) Miriyam Aouragh and Anne Alexander. “The Egyptian Experience: Sense and Nonsense of the Internet Revolution.” in: International Journal of Communication 5 (2011): 1344-1358.

(2) The original hashtag was #FreedomOfSpeech242, but shortly after it was changed to #FreeSpeech242, which is shorter and thus better suited for use on Twitter due to the limit of 140 characters per message. Stephen Hunt (@chippychatty). “Commissioner Greenslade has warned about what people can post on social media. Share your views at #freedomofspeech242 – who has the say?” 4th April, 2013, 5:56pm. Tweet.

(3) Naturally, it is difficult to prove the existence of deleted posts. At this point, I can only offer my word that I myself have seen comments disappear merely for correcting factual background information, even if they did not attack the message of the rest of an article.

(4) J. M. Berger and Bill Strathearn. Who Matters Online: Measuring Influence, Evaluating Content and Countering Violent Extremism in Online Social Networks. London: The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, 2013.

(5) Rashad Rolle. Media Bias in Major Bahamian Newspapers. unpublished term paper at the College of The Bahamas (SOC 200, Social Research), Fall 2012. p. 16.

(6) The term loosely describes activists concerned about Internet accessibility and control, but is highly controversial, especially within the group it is supposed to describe. Sascha Lobo. “Unsere Muetter, unsere Fehler.” in: Sascha Lobo: Autor, Vortragsredner, Internet, 22nd March, 2013. http://saschalobo.com/2013/03/22/unsere-muetter-unsere-fehler/ (accessed 7th June, 2013); Ole Reissmann. “Leistungsschutzrecht: Versagensangst in der Netzgemeinde.” in: Spiegel Online, 25th March, 2013. http://www.spiegel.de/netzwelt/web/leistungsschutzrecht-versagensangst-in-der-netzgemeinde-a-890736.html (accessed 7th June, 2013).