On Monday, 7 September 2015, the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) held general elections in 41 constituencies. The Peoples National Movement (PNM), won 23 seats with 51.68% of the votes cast and the Peoples Partnership (PP) won 18 seats with 46.64% of the votes cast. The PNM was led by Dr. Keith Rowley, who was sworn in as Prime Minister on Wednesday, 9 September 2015. The PP was led by out-going Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, of the United National Congress (UNC) with a coalition of three other parties: the Congress of the People (COP) led by Prakash Ramadhar, the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC) led by Kwesi Mutewa, and the Tobago Organization of the People (TOP) led by Ashworth Jack.
What role, if any, did social media have on the outcome of the general elections held in Trinidad & Tobago?
Social Media Usage in Trinidad & Tobago
The number of people using social media sites regularly increase, with Facebook ranked first and YouTube second in terms of usage. A study conducted by Caribbean Ideas Agency shows that between the ages of 16 and 45, over 40% of the population use social media sites for more than 11 hours per week, with some going over 31 hours per week. Their study also shows 40% of the YouTube visitors watch videos daily. According to Mr. Chike Farrel, the co-founder of Caribbean Ideas and a former employee at Microsoft, these statistics are on par with the rest of the world. He explained that 89% of Trinbagonians had Facebook accounts and the key for companies and political parties is to adapt quickly. Based on the aforementioned the expectation is that both political campaigns will tailor their message to the audienceS and where the spend time. The most used social media platforms in Trinidad are Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.
Battle of the Hashtags in lead up to T&T’s 2015 General Elections
The UNC launched a vicious smear campaign dubbed #NoRowley campaign prior to the 2015 general elections. Many questioned the validity of the claims although the UNC PR team claimed that is was factual.
The anti-Rowley ads were in heavy rotation, even popping up on YouTube streams:
The PNM used the hashtag #getoutkamla in its social media communications, though there didn’t appear to be a formal advertising campaign supporting it. The PNM did respond with an invitation to #KnowRowley. Facebook user Rhoda Bharath posted a black and white photograph of a young Rowley participating in a political march, with the comment, “He in this town a while now”:
There was also a public #KnowRowley Facebook page, where supporters had made their own accusations against the Kamla Persad-Bissessar led government, with many maintaining that the #NoRowley campaign was racist. One Twitter user felt that the #NoRowley campaign was achieving the opposite effect from what was intended:
Political engagement on Facebook
The supporters of the PNM and UNC were very engaged on the party group pages on Facebook. Independent groups also created virtual space for citizens to voice their comforts and discomforts. These groups included Speak Out T&T, UNC Scandals Yet OO, The Real PP TT and ForTT. ForTT, an investigative blog that claimed to advocate issues and revealing truth, arguably had the most significant impact in shaping public thought. The group provided Facebook users with a series of investigative reports that included the improprieties of Kamla Persad-Bissessar (Alco, Orgies & the UNC) and Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s alleged blackmailing of President Anthony Carmona (Blackmail, Bribery & the Presidency).
Live streaming on YouTube
Unlike the UNC led People’s Partnership, the PNM relied heavily on live stream. All events including cottage meetings and larger public events were live streamed. The cottage meetings titled Conversations with Dr. Rowley were community meetings that showcased the candidates running for office. Attendees had the opportunity to question the candidates and Dr. Rowley during these meetings.
In addition to live streaming events, the PNM also made every recording available on YouTube for later viewing. Citizens had the opportunity to see and hear from all of the PNM candidates. The same cannot be said of the People’s Partnership which only announced its slate of candidates a mere 3 weeks before the election. Unlike the PP, as soon as the election date was announced the PNM began its campaign and live streams. The People’s Partnership focused on demonizing Dr. Rowley via Twitter and Facebook while the PNM focused more on showcasing its candidates and sharing its message via live streams and YouTube.
While there isn’t enough conclusive evidence to suggest that discussions and marketing on social-media tipped the 2015 T&T general election in any specific direction, it is safe to say at the very least, social-media has the ability to shape public thought, perception and participation. I do expect future political campaigns to make more use of social media in the upcoming local government and next general election in Trinidad and Tobago.