29 Aug 2017 New media and citizen participation in Jamaica
Photo: De Carballo
In the early 1990s, the media industry in Jamaica was liberalized, thus causing a tremendous expansion of the media landscape in Jamaica. This was followed by the liberalization of the telecommunications sector in 1999, which paved the way for the development of new media in the country. Citizens have increased their participation in this public sphere of new media and have been expressing their views on a number of subjects. New media are replacing traditional means of communication for political organizations and governments, raising a number of questions.
Since the 1990s, there has been a radical transformation in the global media landscape (Dahlgren, 2000). The advancement of modern technologies has metamorphosised the media environment allowing an increasing number of ordinary citizens to gain access to the media and to their political leaders (Blumler & Cavanagh, 1999). The advent of the Internet has facilitated the development of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Text Messaging and other forms of instant communication. In this new environment citizens are more demanding in their claims for their rights to be heard and greater accountability and transparency from their leaders (Graber, 2011).
The new media are very interactive. Communicating with individuals through the use of the Internet and cellular technology, and in this context, through podcast, Facebook, Twitter, blogging, e-mails etc., are all features of the new means of communicating. It is instant, unregulated and more importantly, it extends to individuals in remote parts of the globe (Dahlgren, 2005). The new media basically revolutionise how citizens communicate with each other (Forbes, 2012) and this has profound implications for political communications. Accordingly, it is important to contextualise the applicability of the internet in political communication. Indications as to what some of these new media entail and how they were developed is needed.
The new media environment
The new media environment is formed of a number of platforms that have been developed through the Internet. These include platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc., which are nothing more (and nothing less) than new tools for an older, democratic function: the distribution of information across networks, communicative action between citizens, and the creating of shared meaning (Novendstern, 2011).
Novendstern was participating in a discussion on events taking place in Egypt and their quest for democracy. The use of Facebook was a major source of accessing and disseminating information to the Egyptians as they pressed for greater political and economic freedom. The role of the social media network was so powerful in the Egyptian uprising that the government made several attempts to disrupt connectivity. This prompted appeals from President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Egyptian authorities not to meddle with the rights of citizens to freedom of expression and information.
The use of Facebook in the transformation of democracies and the reformation of autocratic regimes across the world has been hailed by President Obama as a novel American innovation. In his State of the Union address, Obama cited social media, in particular Facebook, as a part of the universal right to the freedom of expression and access to information (Obama, 2011). The transformative effects of Facebook are evident in the shaping of democracy in the modern political context.
Twitter is another form of new media that has been impacting positively on modern democracy. Twitter was created in March 2006 by Jack Dorsey as a means of sending short, instant messages to followers. It is estimated that Twitter has over 200 million users a month with approximately 65 million followers a day.
Twitter is a social networking and micro-blogging website which allows its users to send and receive messages called tweets. Tweets are text-based posts comprised of up to 140 characters highlighted on the user’s profile page. Individuals have been using this new means of communication to promote products and causes. Progressive politicians in democracies across the world have been using Twitter as a means of keeping in contact with their constituents. This was one of the means by which President Obama kept in touch with his supporters in the 2008 and 2012 elections and was able to mobilize a large cadre of young people.
YouTube is another media phenomenon that has been impacting the development of democracy across the world. It was developed by Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim in February 2005. YouTube is a video sharing website that provides both amateur and professional video recordings to clients across the world. Indeed, the invention of YouTube has triggered a novelty on the Internet. Individuals can watch videos of what is taking place across the globe from their computers or cell phones. Similarly, individuals can use a digital video recording machine or a simple cellular phone, to upload video recordings from their communities.
This is how the world was able to witness some of the uprisings and protests for greater democracy across the world. In 2009 for example, the world witnessed the death of a pro-democracy advocate Neda Agha-Soltan in Iran. Dying in full view of the world, the video went on to win the Polk Award, one of the most prestigious awards for journalism (Chick, 2010). It is clear that over the past 20 years, the world has witnessed a revolution in the media landscape and this has profound implications for democracy.
Through the liberalisation of the telecommunications industry, the Internet has become more accessible to citizens across the globe. The availability of the Internet to citizens has provided a rich opportunity for them to discuss political matters in the public sphere.
According to Peter Dahlgren, the public sphere has three constitutive dimensions: structures, representation, and interaction:
“The structural dimension has to do with the formal institutional features. This includes media organisations, their political economy, ownership, control, regulation, and issues of their financing, as well as the legal frameworks defining the freedoms of and constraints on communication” (Dahlgren, 2005, p.149).
These three dimensions provide an analytical starting point for examining the public sphere of any given society or analysing the contribution of any communication technology. In this context, it would be pertinent to examine the Jamaican experience, since the advent of new media to assess its impact on the public sphere and democracy. Prior to engaging in such discussion, it would be wise to examine the fourth wave of democracy gathering momentum worldwide.
The fourth wave of democracy
Huntington (1993) published a major academic work entitled The Third Wave in which he argued that the new wave of democracy in the 20th century had its genesis in the Portugal Revolution of 1974. Huntington argued this was accelerated with assistance from the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 and the change in U.S. foreign policy from support for regimes loyal to the West to an emphasis on civil and political rights. Huntington suggested that this contributed to over 60 countries in Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America, adapting to democratic tendencies.
What is conspicuously absent from Huntington’s list of contributing factors in this rush for democracy was the prominent use of the media and modern technology. The pervasiveness of the Internet and other forms of new media were absent at the time of this wave of democracy. But traditional media were present and played a pivotal role in the transformation and expansion of worldwide democracy. Huntington noted this third wave of democracy went through certain processes:
- Transformation – a top down (elite-controlled) change from within government (as postulated by theoreticians of the modernisation theory some 30 years ago).
- Transplacement – Negotiated reform of regime and government.
- Replacement – Regime break down (rupture) and the collapse of authoritarianism (Huntington, 1993).
Fast forward into the 21st century and there are glaring similarities with the emerging fourth wave of democracy. Identical processes noted by Huntington are recurring in this fourth wave. Transformation, transplacement and replacement have all been incorporated in this new wave. Thus far, with the aid of new media, citizens are rebelling against their governments, intensifying their demands for greater transparency, accountability, and advocating for a greater stake in the economic base of their society.
New media and Jamaica
In 2017, I completed a doctoral thesis at the University of the West Indies. In my thesis, the research sought to analyse the effectiveness of governmental communication on citizens of Jamaica, with particular focus on the period 1972 to 2006. This era included the leadership of Michael Manley, Edward Seaga and P.J. Patterson as heads of the Jamaican government. During this period, traditional media were the dominant means of communicating with citizens. As a matter of fact, new media only became part of the political landscape in the 2002 election but, even then, it was never a major feature since the telecommunication industry had recently been liberalised (Gordon, 2013).
The introduction of websites by the two major political parties came in the 2002 election. This provided voters with information on candidates and the manifestos of the political organisations. By the time Jamaica reached the 2007 election, major transformations had taken place through the use of new media by the political parties. Facebook, blogs, Twitter, text messaging and chat rooms have since become a standard feature of political campaigns. For example, in the 2007 national election, the political parties sent several “mass” text messages to registered voters in constituencies across the island. This was made possible because by 2007, close to two million Jamaicans had access to cellular phones (PIOJ, 2008). Simultaneously, a number of party officials could be seen and heard in chat rooms, espousing the various achievements and policies of their political parties.
In the 2016 election, political leaders and their parties were deeply involved in the full utilization of new media. They could be seen and heard on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and any other social media platform on which their messages could be transmitted to citizens. More Jamaicans are using these social media platforms as access to the Internet increases (Forbes, 2016).
On all media websites there are links to Facebook and Twitter. Thousands of Jamaicans have since logged on to both. Forbes estimates that over one million Jamaicans are on Facebook (Forbes, 2016). They have been contributing to the dialectics taking place in the public sphere. For example, the public enquiry of the Manatt, Phelps and Phillips (MPP) Affairs in 2010 saw many Jamaicans expressing their opinions during the deliberations. These could be observed on the websites of the two major newspapers, The Gleaner and the Jamaica Observer (“Dudus-Manatt Commission of Enquiry-Deception and Contradictions,” 2011). As time evolved, more and more Jamaicans have become attached to new media (Forbes, 2016). The operators of telephone services in the country have all been recording tremendous sales in varied devices which allow for instant messaging to take place. One of the major cellular providers, Digicel indicated that it had over 70,000 subscribers to Blackberry.
A survey conducted by a team led by Hopeton Dunn of the UWI revealed that approximately 94% of Jamaicans had access to cellular phones. This same survey revealed that 24% of Jamaicans had a computer and approximately 16% had Internet access at their homes (Dunn, 2011). The situation is more encouraging in relation to individuals as opposed to households since 42% of individuals indicate access to the Internet either at home or outside.
The low levels of access to the Internet and ownership of computers by Jamaicans are largely attributed to the issue of cost. It therefore means that policy makers have to implement programmes and policies which will contribute to greater access to the Internet and ownership of computers by Jamaicans which will result in citizens exploiting more of the offerings of new media and the global economic environment. This is even more important for vulnerable groups such as persons with disabilities (Geddes, 2015). Dunn’s study showed less than 1% of the respondents with a disability had access to the Internet (Dunn, 2011).
- Some of the initiatives that should be implemented to facilitate access and citizens’ integration with the technology are to:
- Remove all duties and taxes on computers which will result in a significant reduction in the cost.
- Provide further improvements to the regulatory environment which will see greater broadband access to the Internet by citizens.
Expedite the installation of computers and Internet services in all government operated schools across the island, by removing all bureaucratic impediments to the Universal Access Fund which was established to provide greater access of the Internet to Jamaicans. If these policy and programmatic initiatives are not executed in the near future, only the elites of the society will be able to continue exploiting the offerings of new media and the global economic landscape.
Notwithstanding the low levels of access to the Internet by households in Jamaica, since 2002 the island has seen an expansion in the use of new media by government to transmit information to citizens, as well as communicate policies and programming. Through the various ministries of government, websites have been established to provide information and to solicit information from citizens for the respective ministries. The Jamaica Information Service (JIS) has its own website that provides critical information to the public. The Parliament of Jamaica has now established its own website and citizens can access important information on a variety of legislation being passed by the Parliament.
It is clear that there has been a significant transformation in the media landscape in Jamaica. More citizens have access to cell phones and this allows them greater access to the Internet (PIOJ, 2013). With increased access to the Internet, there is increased capacity for citizens accessing the different social networking sites to participate in discourses relating to societal issues. They are no longer dependent on groups or branches to disseminate information relating to politics in their communities. Furthermore, all the traditional media houses in Jamaica have new media options for their clients to keep in constant contact.
At the governmental level, the ministries and agencies have been adopting a similar approach, making serious attempts to keep in touch with citizens. These options and services were unavailable to policy makers prior to 2002. The ability of governments in Jamaica to continuously respond to the needs of its citizens, through effective communication, has now been greatly enhanced. As to whether this availability is contributing to improvement in governance and democracy remains to be seen.
Very little research, if any, has been done on this area of Jamaican political life. Therefore it is impossible to state definitively the extent of the effects of new media on the quality of democracy in Jamaica. The state of democracy has been of major concern as citizens have been avoiding the political process (Munroe, 1999). Over 50% of the population expressed dissatisfaction with the nature of democracy in the country during the late 1980s and 1990s (Powell & colleagues, 2007). However, to date, Jamaica has not experienced the sort of mass protest that has taken place in the Middle East, despite people’s dissatisfaction with the quality of democratic governance. Is it that citizens have found new means of expressing and ventilating their dissatisfactions through new media? Dunn (2012) pointed to dominant use of the Internet in Jamaica by citizens below the age of 34. Interestingly enough, this is the cohort that dominates the approximately 40% of Jamaicans who are frustrated with the political process (Anderson, 2015).
To sum up, the dialectics about the poor health of democracy in Jamaica and the globe, intensified during the 1990s, at about the same time that the Internet was rapidly leading a media revolution. Scholars and observers optimistically connected the two phenomena. The proliferation of the media, in particular the Internet, would assist in remedying the challenges confronting democracies across the globe (Anderson & Cornfield, 2003). The Internet has made it possible for individuals to communicate more effectively with each other through the proliferation of social media such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Information on virtually every sphere of life is readily available and accessible through these sources. Governments have become a part of this development and have been establishing a plethora of social media facilities to communicate with citizens (Dahlgren, 2002).
This is true of Jamaica as governments now realise that if they are to curtail the growing tide of citizen apathy and frustration with the political process, new media must play a leading role. However, no one can definitively state the extent to which they have contributed to an improvement or decline in democracy in the country. The situation demonstrates a gap in the phenomenon and grounds for further research.
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Floyd Morris is a Senator in the Parliament in Jamaica. He recently successfully defended his PhD at the University of the West Indies and is the Coordinator for the UWI Centre for Disability Studies.