The election via social media

The election via social media

Paul Golding

Sunday, September 27, 2020

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The September 3 General Election ended with a landslide victory for the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and left the Opposition People's National Party (PNP) bewildered and excoriated. The official campaign period was short with nomination day on August 18, leaving only 16 days for campaigning. With COVID-19 and social-distancing measures in effect, this election campaign was supposed to look different from previous elections.

The election protocols included restrictions on door-to-door campaigning with no more than five people, mask must be worn, and sanitising on entering homes and removal of shoes. Additionally, there should be no more than 20 people at any election meeting, including rallies and gatherings. However, on nomination day it became evident none of these social distancing rules would be observed as election excitement took hold. Within seven days and surging COVID-19 cases both parties suspended physical campaigning.

Even before the election was called and the restrictions were announced there was the expectation that campaigning and political discourse would significantly move online to social media platforms. How did the two political parties use social media to campaign online, and what were the dynamics of each party's strategy?

Social media platforms have become a major influence on elections. They are increasingly being used to shape political opinion and beliefs, generally, and in electoral periods they influence voter choices. Reports from many countries have shown that disinformation attempts to manipulate elections, be it via discrediting campaigns, external influence, or trying to suppress voter turnout all manifest.

There are some characteristics about social media that are worth mentioning. First, especially among millennials, social media is not just an important source of news, in some cases it is the only source of news. Second, compared to broadcast media, social media is largely unregulated; therefore, politicians can push the limits of acceptability using this medium. Third, as a consequence of the second, social media provide political actors with unfiltered means of communicating with their followers. The regulatory gap between online and offline political communication and elections is staggering. For example, Democracy Reporting International indicates that, as at 2020, only five of 28 countries in the European Union have regulatory bodies for social media, and only four have a regulatory framework for social media that extends to the electoral campaign. Jamaica does not have social media rules or regulations pertaining to elections.

We have no population information on social media usage in Jamaica. However, a 2018 national study of millennials indicated that 95 per cent of respondents had Internet access and, in descending order, their favourite social media platforms were: WhatsApp (84 per cent), Instagram (64 per cent), Facebook (59 per cent), Snapchat (51 per cent), YouTube (50 per cent), and Twitter (21 per cent).

We examined the use of social media during the recent elections and we restricted monitoring to four platforms: Facebook, Instagram (IG), YouTube, and Twitter. The duration of the monitoring was from nomination day to two days' post-election. The political actors and activities we monitored, including nomination day, the three national debates, official pages of the two party's leaders, major candidates, youth organisations, among others.

One of the main social media issues that analyst are deeply concerned about is disinformation, as seen in the 2016 USA presidential elections, 2016 Brexit campaign, and the 2018 Brazilian elections. During the observation period we saw no prevalence of disinformation. When issues arose which were misleading, and we saw examples of this relating to COVID-19 and personal protective equipment, stories were fact-checked and verified or repudiated before it could spread.

Another issue that international observers have serious concerns about are gender-based attacks on female candidates online or offline. Julia Gillard, the former Australian prime minister, was reported by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) as “routinely demonised” for being unmarried and “childless”. The vitriol was so intense that her critics and opponents called her, among other things, “a menopausal monster”, “deliberately barren”, “a bitch”, and “a lying cow”. Contrast this with Jamaica. This year 30 female candidates were nominated for the general election and 18 were elected; 14 from the JLP and found four from the PNP. This is a 50 per cent increase in the number of women in Gordon House. In our observations there were no gender-based attacks, sexual objectification or misogyny on women or men. In the final debate, PNP leader Dr Peter Phillips received strong social media criticism for his comments on the traditional role of women and the changes that are required to support women parliamentarians. Generally, Jamaicans should feel proud of the online gender discourse on female candidates and parliamentarians.

Our observation of the use of text-based social media, Facebook, Twitter, and IG, were dominated by two individuals, Andrew Holness by the JLP and Lisa Hanna of the PNP. If we use Holness's and Hanna's online activity as a proxy for the online strategy for each political party the results indicate that the strategies are the same: High concentration on IG, followed by Facebook, and then Twitter. The big difference is the intensity of the usage; Holness being way ahead. In comparison, the PNP leader has not embraced these platforms in his strategy, and therefore his appeal among millennials is likely to be low.

Table 1 shows how political actors use social media to campaign and platform preference. On Twitter the most prominent themes focused on three hashtags: #decision2020ja, #javotes2020, and #jamaicadebates2020, with 22,461, 14,604, and 7,775, respectively. Each of these hashtags was then used to organise communication on Twitter by topics. Note the spike in tweets on the debate days: August 26, 28, and 30. If the objective of the Jamaica Debates Commission was to use the debates to engage, educate, and empower voters, the data suggests that the first objective was met.

The dominant topics under these usually centred on the manifestos and their content, as well as the political debates themselves and anything else that would have to do with the election. One of the main issues discussed regarding the manifesto of the PNP was the rent-to-buy proposal. Interest in the housing issue is indicative of the dearth of affordable housing.

Unlike Twitter, the most frequently used hashtags on IG were #BuildBackStronger (JLP) and #BuildingYourJamaica (PNP). Note the similarity of the two political party's taglines. The JLP, however, had hashtags with much higher engagement: #BuildBackStronger, #StrongerTeam, #RecoveringStronger.

In 2016 Facebook expanded the ways in which users responded to posts. In addition to “liking”, it was possible to react with emojis like love, laughter, surprise, anger, or sadness. We investigated the emotional response to posts made by the two political leaders to see which differences arise between the candidates. The “like” emoji dominated the interactions followed by “love”, for both party leaders. Peter Phillips had no “angry” or “sad” emojis, while Andrew Holness had a few of each. Holness had more interactions suggesting a higher level of engagement.

On all three text-based platforms the JLP, and more specifically Andrew Holness, had higher interactions and engagements than the PNP. It is fair to say that the data corroborates what has been known anecdotally that he and the JLP are far more social media and marketing savvy than the PNP.

We also investigated the most watched political YouTube videos during the campaign period. This was one medium that the PNP dominated. The combined views of the videos and pop-up ads put forth by the PNP were 299,819. This figure includes the views of the same videos that were uploaded on separate channels. The likes accumulated were 493 and the dislikes were 37. The sum of comments was 73, including spam. The top PNP videos were: (1) Building Your Jamaica: #VotePNP2020, (2) Leadership You Can Trust: #VotePNP2020, (3) The People's Pledge: Education Plan, (4) The People's Pledge: Hopeful Homeowners, and (5) The People's Pledge: Water Plan.

Based on the data collected the JLP did not concentrate on YouTube as a communications vehicle, even thought they had a slew of videos promoting a number of candidates. The combined views of video posts by the JLP were 18,016. The 'likes' accumulated were 320 and the dislikes were 42. The sum of comments was 38, including spam comments. The top JLP videos were: (1) Roll Call Ad, (2) JLP Ad, (3) Marsha Smith JLP Ad for St Ann North Eastern, (4) Nesta Morgan, and (5) Dave Brown.

Social media has become a major influence on elections. The data that we have provided is not indicative of the level of influence in Jamaica or even a predictor of election outcomes; however, these platforms exist in what is referred to as unified digital ecosystem in which different strategies, themes, and influencers act. Consequently, content sometimes move from one platform to the next. With these platforms being a major conduit for interactive communications, especially among millennials, political parties ignore them at their own peril. The 2020 social media election campaign had none of the pitfalls and concerns that international monitors have highlighted, (disinformation, hate speech, misogyny), however policymakers should not wait but be proactive in specifying online code of conduct.

Professor Paul Golding is former dean of the College of Business and Management at the University of Technology, Jamaica. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or pgolding@utech.edu.jm.


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