A battle for the young vote is gathering pace in Fiji on social media. Political parties and politicians are beefing up their presence online but just how will it translate into ticks at the polling booth?
Sally Round reports.
Statistics show more than a third of people in Fiji are using the internet. While there is a way to go to reach the 90 percent penetration rate of some western countries, it is a far cry from the 10 percent of people who had access to the net in Fiji when the last election was held in 2006. With the voting age lowered to 18 and about 40 percent of voters classed as young, it is no surprise that political parties are focusing on the use of social media to garner the all-important youth vote. The president of Fiji’s oldest party, the National Federation Party, says the voter profile means a change in its traditional campaigning style. Raman Singh says the party, with the help of experts, is developing a stronger online presence with a website, Facebook page and discussion forums planned.
“Because we are traditionally used to meeting people, and at bigger meetings, and personally going to them, but now because of time constraints and all that and the fact that social media has come into the picture we are not so much forced to but we will have to take part in that and it is something which we will have to get used to.”
Raman Singh says it is a matter of engaging young people without losing the support of traditional older voters many of whom do not use social media.
“So far we have realised that the youths are not so much engaged in politics. They’re busy in their own work and all that. But as the elections are approaching we can see that they are taking a bit of interest but it is a matter of cultivating that.”
Pita Waqavonovono, who is the head of the youth wing of the Sodelpa party, says the party is getting feedback on its youth manifesto via social media, which is also proving to be an important platform for debate.
“Social media is where the battle for the youth vote is happening right now and the current regime has taken to social media also. They’re campaigning on social media. There are also bullying tactics happening on social media so it’s good to see there’s a lot of freedom happening on social media when the mainstream media is not exercising much freedom to host debates and all that sort of stuff. It’s all happening on social media.”
The independent candidate Roshika Deo has experienced bullying and threats via the internet first-hand. But she says half of her manifesto comes from connecting with young people via the internet.
“A lot of them are on online, accessible, there’s less intimidation so people are more readily giving their opinions and their feedback and then there’s a lot of people that send private messages on the Facebook campaign page but people are definitely very much engaged. Whether they will vote for me or not does not matter at all because the primary objective of the “Be the Change” campaign is to get young people and women more politically and publicly mobilised.”
An ethics and governance scholar in Fiji Mosmi Bhim says as people are less guarded on social media, it plays an important role in gauging people’s opinions but not as far as Fiji’s grassroots is concerned. She says her views do not reflect those of her employer the Fiji National University.
“The bulk of the population in Fiji still rely on the daily media for their news so if they’re receiving censored news, that will form the basis for the information of the majority of people living in Fiji. So it’s very important that the government lift any restrictions on the media and equally to make political parties feel that they can freely express their views in order to have a free dissemination of information in the lead up to elections.”
Pita Waqavonovono of Sodelpa says young people may be vocal online, but many have not yet registered to vote for a number of reasons, including having no means to get to registration centres.
“A lot of young people are trying to suss out whether the system is flawed or not … whether the elections will be free and fair and we’ve just been trying to spread the message of optimism about the whole election process. Apart from that you’ve got also a lot of young people who are isolated from the whole elections registration process.”
But how has engagement with Twitter and Facebook affected election success abroad? An economist at New Zealand’s Waikato University, Michael Cameron, says studies of recent elections in New Zealand showed candidates’ use of Twitter and Facebook had only a small effect on how well they did in the polls and that was mainly where the race between candidates was tight. He says research indicates social media is most effective at engaging young voters who are among the least inclined, in the developed world at least, to vote.
“Importantly it may be used as a tool to mobilise those voters. So looking at for instance the presidential elections in the US, social media played a big role in terms of mobilising voters as opposed to trying to change their opinion about which candidate they should vote for.”
Meanwhile the Fiji regime says its long awaited electoral rules which are expected to provide the nuts and bolts around campaigning will now be out next week.