Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Separating truth from propaganda

Observer column for MON 12 SEP 11 | by Jean Lowrie-Chin

Electoral Commission Chairman Prof Errol Miller has reminded us that last Wednesday, September 7, marked the first day of the final year of the current Government’s term of office. So here is Jamaica, once again in heightened election mode. We say heightened, because our political parties are always campaigning. Depending on the perspective, we can either be glad that our economy has shown slight growth and our crime rate has decreased; or we can be worried that our unemployment rate is disturbingly high and productivity lower than most of our Caribbean neighbours.

In the coming year, the Jamaican people will be subject to a tsunami of propaganda. We are therefore calling on the church and civil society to lead the charge in helping to educate the public on how to assess their political representatives, and how to uncover the kernels of truth in the various messages that will be inundating press, broadcast and social media.

We saw a glimmer of the use of social media in the last elections, but with over 600,000 Jamaicans on Facebook and an ever increasing number on Twitter, our politicians will be facing off and tweeting as never before! We who timidly put ourselves on Facebook so we could keep in touch with family and close friends, have slowly widened our circle. For me, it has been a mostly positive experience. I have learned a lot from Dr Leahcim Semaj and Francis Wade, received spiritual upliftment from Pastor Winston ‘Bello’ Bell and enjoyed the good humour online.

Should we ‘friend’ politicians? I believe we should. Criticise them all you want, they have a very tough job and social media is going to make it tougher on them. It is actually an act of bravery on their part to put themselves up for such close scrutiny. We can check their profiles to get a glimpse of their philosophy of life. We can hear from their status notes what is dearest and most concerning to them, we can write on their ‘walls’ and see how they respond … or not. Of course they all dream to be as popular as Barack Obama (notwithstanding recent polls), who has 23,003,775 fans ‘liking’ his Facebook page.

We should also encourage each other to upload and ‘tweet’ links from the various websites that play a role in our country’s governance: Electoral Office, JIS, PNP, JLP, CAFFE, Political Ombudsman. But most of all, we should be careful that our utterances are based on fact, not rumour and that we remember the basic tenet of human interaction: ‘Do No Harm’. As the fever gets high, we tend to forget that politicians have parents, husbands, wives, and children. Through social media, they are even more vulnerable to negative reports and opinions.

And what of those who are not on the internet? There is no shortage of outlets, with 19 radio stations plus several other community stations, three free-to-air television stations and multiple community cable channels, everybody has the chance to be a star … even if only in their neck of the woods.

The ability to drive all of these communication vehicles will probably be the deciding factor in who will win the next general elections. This will be particularly difficult for the party in power, as they must not only be performing, but also be telling the public how well they are doing. The opposition have far more time on their hands to strategise.

In an analysis I had presented at a forum on political advertising held by the Research and Policy Group at the Mona School of Business soon after the September 2007 elections, I pointed out that the JLP had shown more new-media savvy than the PNP, and that it may have given them the edge. Interestingly, the spokespersons for the two political parties at the time were Karl Samuda for the JLP and Sharon Hay-Webster for the PNP. Samuda gave kudos to ‘The G2K geniuses’ while Hay-Webster said there were ‘lessons learned’, and reminded her audience that the JLP had won by the slimmest margin ever.

The advice to choose words carefully and speak truthfully should be heeded by candidates. Now more than ever before, they will return to haunt whether on YouTube or elsewhere. In the same breath, members of civil society are being called to bring the highest level of scrutiny to bear on our candidates, not only as they campaign, but also on their biographical data. The way they have performed as parents, spouses, professionals and community members will help us to decide if they can handle the highest positions in the land.

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