Features — 16 October 2015 — by Nuri Muhammad

BELIZE CITY, Wed. Oct. 14, 2015–Facebook has become Belize’s latest and perhaps most popular communication forum. Belizeans are connected to “friends” across the street, throughout Belize, in the Diaspora and around the world. Facebook, in just ten short years, has indeed become a global cultural phenomenon.

       According to Internet World Stats, the Caribbean has an estimated population of 41,873,409, of which there are 17,211,359 Internet users as of December 2014, with 6,397,080 using Facebook – the most dominant social platform, with over 1.15 billion active members worldwide. Facebook remains the most popular platform for Caribbean nationals, with Twitter in second place.

       The Bahamas has the highest internet usage for the region, with more than 90.5% of residents online, according to World Development Indicators.

       There are literally thousands of Belizeans using Facebook, but only a very small percent of that number actually “post” or “share”. The largest number of Belizean Facebook users, it appears, are there only to “fass”, but “fass” or not, Belizeans are online.

       Over the last seven years, and more intensely in the last three years, Facebook has become a major medium of free exchange and source of breaking news. While it has its drawbacks, Facebook has become the place to find out what Belizeans at home and abroad are thinking, at any time of the day. It is a forum for lively discussion on issues, even some of which are forbidden in the local media of Belize.

   Facebook has also become the forum for a conversation about governance of Belize. While official UDP and PUP statements are not made via Facebook in response to queries or allegations, it is a medium through which their supporters try to defend their party’s position. The United Democratic Party (UDP), does have an official Facebook page, but the People’s United Party uses only individual pages for their candidates.

       But how significant is the use of this “tool” in elections? In 2004, Barack Obama, then a long-shot candidate for the US presidency, developed an effective online/digital campaign which made heavy use of social media. However, as most candidates won’t have the financial backing or extended team that President Obama did, they should consider a few things before campaigning on social media.

       Nerissa Golden of Goldenmedia and Ursula Barzey of Moxee Marketing say that over the next 18 months more than 10 Caribbean countries and Overseas Territories will be heading to the polls to elect new governments; and to not include a definitive social media strategy in their campaign could mean a loss of power for incumbents to parties prepared to win by any means necessary.

       “Social media has become the most immediate and affordable means of communicating. While Caribbean governments have initiated the use of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, there is this sense that they are to follow a trend without understanding it is the space in which the electorate will deliberate on whether they want to reelect the same team or put new people in power,” she said.

       “The present governments [in the region] have been in power for four or more years and within that time, the power and influence of social media in the region has been amplified significantly. This means you can’t use it on the fly hoping for the best, but be very intentional about the goal,” explained Golden.

        So how will Facebook (FB) factor into next month’s election? Anyone who frequents Facebook knows that there is a lot of chatter and some serious conversations. The chatter outweighs the conversation, but there is undoubtedly a forum for the exchange of ideas.

       Since social media has become such a game changer in so many ways in Belize we wanted to explore what impact it will have on the upcoming elections next month, so we put the following question to a number of Belizean Facebook users who have established a name for themselves in the world of Facebook:

       Do you think that social media will significantly impact the next election?  Why, or why not?

       Well-known Belizean journalist, Bilal Morris, who resides in California and contributes daily to the Belizean conversation on Facebook, said, “Social media have already impacted Belize’s upcoming general elections since the first video ad by the UDP government, a week ago, went viral. It showed how Belizeans from the Diaspora were responding to government’s paved streets and other urban developments.  The video which appeared on FB (the most powerful and effective social media today), was able to curb public opinion at home in Belize in terms of how Belizeans view the so-called transformation progress that the Belize government was boasting about.”

       He continued, “The daily news, views and reviews that party faithfuls and political pundits used to influence the Belizean electorate through social media have made government and opposition parties launched counter social media defense in the protection of their propaganda and self-interest.”

       Another regular contributor to Facebook is Dr. Jerome Straughan, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California. Dr. Straughan has done extensive research on the Belizeans in the Diaspora and wrote his doctoral thesis on migration patterns of Belizeans in the US over the last sixty years. He observed that “social media will have an impact on the upcoming election.”

        “Social media has become the place to disseminate news, to test out messages or propaganda, and engage in discussions (often with people of varying political views). It has become an incubator for ideas.”

       Dr. Straughan said, “The number of Belizeans (home and abroad) on FB has increased and there is now a greater likelihood that Belizean of diverse backgrounds are interacting with each other.” He observed however, that, “While people are privy of the discussions that go on, see videos that are posted, read the news and so forth, only a small percentage of people comment from day to day.”

       He went on further to say, “There are now more people commenting that are considered academics or intellectuals, are politicians or have a certain stature in Belizean society. I think in the past some felt commenting on FB was beneath them. Here Lisa Shoman is a pioneer, but I recognize that she is often doing so with a purpose.”

        He observed that, “The comments of certain people seem to carry more weight in some political discussion (just judging by likes), at times not because of what they have to say but because of who they are. However, there are others who gradually get credibility by what they say (consistently good comments).”

       Aria Lightfoot, who resides in Florida, thinks social media has become a mainstay in Belizean politics. It plays an important role “in creating platforms, highlighting issues, framing discussions, organizing advocates’, she said, adding that, “for the first time [FB is] connecting the Belizean Diaspora to Belizeans at home.”

       She said further that, “It is a tool to organize, strategize, measure feedback and get your message or brand out there in the speed of pressing the ‘post’ and ‘send’ buttons. The power of social media is simply, 1 post =1000 views multiplied by 1000 shares to 1000 other views. How can it not have an impact?”

       “I certainly believe that social media will have a significant impact on these upcoming elections for a number of reasons”, wrote Raymond Lashley, another Belizean in the US.

       He listed them as: “ 1) approximately a third of the country is online with access to social media which allows almost anyone to spread their views… 2) The electorate has access to information that wasn’t readily available before. .i.e. the Guatemala issue, crime stats, political back and forth etc. 3) Social media also allows many to educate themselves on topics in detail like never before, allowing citizens to make better decisions 4) More Belizeans have direct access to some of the candidates like never before; in some cases they can communicate directly with them via instant chat and specialized groups. Social media is like the new town hall; the difference is that it’s available 24/7.”

       Lashley added “…I want to step out on a limb and say more people are reading on social media than the newspapers.”

       Wendy Auxillou Othman, a Belizean who lives in Europe and a frequent visitor to FB, says: “I don’t think social media will significantly impact the next election because the majority of voters live below the poverty level and do not have fulltime access to the internet. Even if they did, the significant issues are beyond their level of understanding.”

       Hubert Pipersburgh, a Belizean who lives between Belize and California, thinks that while the impact of the social media cannot be empirically qualified, “there is no doubt anecdotally about its effect on helping to shape public opinion.”

       He said, “You can hear politicians, including the PM, routinely reference policy positions by respected bloggers”.

       “In fact,” he went on to note, “most or all of them are on Twitter, FB, Integra, etc. Social media also dispenses more information than many of the media houses in Belize. There are ninety eight thousand registered people with Internet access in Belize that includes smart phones. There’s no denying that many of them are registered voters who get their information exclusively from social media.”

       “It would be foolhardy of any of the political parties to be dismissive and not regard the importance and relative impact of social media”, Pipersburgh added.

        “In short, social media is an equalizer of sorts. It gives voice to the once voiceless. It provides a medium to be heard where once one would have been lost in the shuffle. Although, as I’ve mentioned before, empirically speaking, it’s hasn’t been quantified, there’s still no denying social media’s impact. Not one politician in Belize would rather take the chance and not use social media to dispense their propaganda,” he said.

       “Belize Abroad” is the alias for a Belizean whose postings have become very popular over the last few years because of information about Belize that others have a difficult time obtaining. She said, “The impact of social media on democracy and elections in Belize is very much evident in the number of FB ads by politicians in Belize. “

        She added, “Today is an exciting time to be a politician; technologies like mobile phone and social media, are proliferating rapidly and their potential as political tools is being realized, particularly by those who are technically inclined.”

      Belize Abroad continues:  “Your question remains virtually unexplored in our young democracy, but the effect of social media on politics has the potential to be quite distinct. Sadly, I am of the view that in this election cycle, the biggest effect will likely be on independent voters.

   “Francisco Ramirez, another Belizean from Cayo living in the United States, wrote: “I think it will; Reason being that people are starting to pay attention to the issues and are using social media not only to follow, but participate in the discussions. This is the first election in Belize where politicians are taking social media seriously. The problem, however, is that they are still using their old dirty tactics to trick and confuse people.”

       Louis Wade, owner of Plus TV and host of the popular morning talk show, Rise and Shine, responded that, “If all politics is local, then people are posting their sentiments on local issues. I get to see what is happening in constituencies I would normally not be aware of. Certainly, this holds true for other voters. I get to see the condition of streets in PG and in Benque, where there is no national media house. Some of these Facebook stories make it to the news or the morning rotation… something that would not have happened if Facebook was not available. People get to read a wide variety of comments on any hot button issue. This, clearly, will affect the way people think, as their opinion is being constantly validated or opposed.”

        As an example, Wade cited, “In the PUP convention up north when Josue Carballo went up against Dave Burgos, Josue did all the traditional campaigning AND he did it on social media. Burgos did ONLY traditional media… he even boasted in an interview that he does not know why Josue did so much stuff on the internet… he said ‘I go meet the people!!’… Well as history shows, Josue Carballo beat him by 1 vote or just a couple!!!! Had Burgos put up a social media site, today he would be the PUP standard bearer.”

    The UDP have been in power since 2008 and within that time, the power and influence of social media in the region and Belize has been amplified significantly.”

         Nerissa Golden also recommends that politicians not overlook the Diaspora effect.

        “Although they cannot vote in local elections, family and friends in the Diaspora can be a major influence in deciding who will win. The Diaspora use social media consistently to search, share and celebrate what is happening at home, often before many on the ground are aware. If they are able to grab the passion and purpose of a candidate and share that message within their network, the result is that those at home will give consideration to the officials whose names and images come up more consistently and effectively in the spaces where they spend the most time, which is online,” he said.

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