Social Media's Role In Politics Amplified During PNG Elections

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Public venting frustrations, organizing political action online

MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, July 5, 2012) – It's been called an historic election for Papua New Guinea (PNG), for many reasons - and one of them is the growing role of social media.

Blogs, Facebook and Twitter are making an impact in the way Papua New Guineans involve themselves in the political process.

Emmanuel Narokobi runs the popular Masalai blog and is one of the administrators of SharpTalk, a Facebook group where users discuss all things PNG and election related.

He says the recent constitutional crisis, which saw the country with two men claiming the title of prime minister, was a big catalyst for online discussion.

"Even lawyers from PNG and Australia couldn't really work out who was right, and that went into all the other appointments," he said.

He says the online conversation was more about solutions than choosing sides in the political stand-off.

"I guess everyone was tired of the politics in a sense and they just wanted to get on with nation building," he said.

"It actually resulted again through SharpTalk people organizing and taking part in discussions that were being held by Transparency International and church groups, generally all saying the public and the country wanted a solution to be made by both parties."

Another popular political blog in PNG is The Garamut, run by an anonymous blogger who goes by the name of Tavurvur.

He says the election results are featuring highly in discussions as well as the problems people have had with voter registration and details.

"One of the key issues that people are concerned about, and are using Facebook and Twitter and even the comments on my blog, to vent their frustration... is the issue to do with the common roll, and how many of our voters, particularly those who have access to technology and social media, haven't found the names of themselves or their families on the common roll," he said.

"If somebody has access to a medium by which they can pronounce that fact to a wider audience, and as a result we've seen a lot of comments.

Mr. Narokobi says the use of social media marks a change in the way people in PNG take part in political discourse. "It's been huge," he said.

"SharpTalk [is] a fairly active Facebook group among PNG users. We had about 3-4,000 users...then after the constitutional crisis the numbers jumped up to about 6,000 members.

"We could directly see the number of people that actively accessed information about what was going on and participate in discussions.

"It's been a great avenue for people to get information - the background story on issues, and things like that. So people aren't as isolated as before."

Tavurvr says while PNG media has always been quite free, social media has given the reactions and discussion of voters more immediacy.

"We're seeing that happen as we speak right the past, when we had previous elections, we knew there were problems with the common roll," he said.

"Because of that access to social media and technology, it seems to have become emphasized.

"The amount of complaints or issues being raised by people, I think to some degree, have always been there, but with the provision of social media, we now see those issues gaining prominence.

"Traditional media have always reported stories about their election, [but] their only problem is that they're so slow. They're always a good 12 hours or 24 hours behind what's happening."

The engagement hasn't stuck to Facebook - Emmanuel Narokobi says it's also spurred political action off-line.

"One of the best examples was Parliament had advised the public they might possibly delay the elections and this was before Easter weekend," he said.

"And so over the whole Easter break on a weekend people frantically organizing on Facebook a protest march on Tuesday after Easter Monday.

"So seeing people put the effort into something like that on a public holiday was interesting."

Mr. Narokobi says the growing power of social media in this election shows a generational shift in involvement in PNG politics.

"The majority of users on Facebook in PNG are 25 and under, or around 35, and under so it's definitely a younger population that's getting involved with social media."

"I mean having said that too it also helps that we have someone like O'Neill around that age group as well that's responding to it. I think someone older would have probably just dismissed everything and continued doing what he wanted to do."

Tarvuvur says the prevalence of smart-phones means he doesn't see any major differences in access and discussions on social media between rural and urban voters.

"From the last figures I checked in terms of Facebook users in Papua New Guinea in terms of the overall population, we have a penetration rate of about 1.8 percent," he said.

"But in regards to Facebook penetration rates in terms of the internet population (those who have access to the internet), we're looking at about eighty percent of that population."

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