“…the giant digital platforms that now constitute a new public sphere are far too often being used to weaponize information, with a goal of deepening social divisions, fostering unrest and ultimately undermining democratic institutions and social cohesion… the integrity of elections themselves are at risk.” – Edward Greenspon and Taylor Owen
(Greenspon is president of the Public Policy Forum, based in Ottawa, Canada and a former editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail. Owen is an assistant professor of digital media and global affairs at the University of British Columbia.)
It was Alvin Toffler who in 1980 noted the increased use of the internet and the resultant development of the “infosphere” in which technology driven information and communication have increasingly altered the social, economic, work and school environment, and the political sphere in the contemporary world. This is all the more driven by the growth in the use of smartphones today.
It is true that the Caribbean constitutes a small percentage of the global population, but we seem to be defined by an avaricious appetite for the internet, which is exemplified by the apparent survival strategy of attachment to a cell phone irrespective of our surroundings. Cell phone usage in the Caribbean is extraordinarily high and in 2016, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago were ranked at number four and five globally in terms of mobile usage.
As I said before, it is increasingly frustrating to teach a class today as my lectures are punctuated with “turn off the cell phone” at least five times in every lecture and it is always the usual suspect irrespective of age. I am beginning to contemplate the imposition of punitive sanctions for violation of the stated understanding that cell phone usage and surfing the internet are strictly prohibited during class time.
But back to the point at hand. The 2018 Internet Usage Statistics for the Americas report shows that as of June 2018, the Caribbean represents 2.7 per cent of internet users in the Americas. However, with an estimated population of just over 44 million individuals, approximately 21 million persons use the internet (about 47 per cent) with almost 16 and a half million using Facebook. Barbados, Anguilla and the Bahamas rank among the top internet users in the Caribbean with Guyana and Belize unsurprisingly bringing up the rear. Internet usage in the individual countries is well above the global average which is 55 per cent. (See Figure 1.)
Predominantly, it is young people who have taken advantage of these new technologies. But there are also some interesting gender developments. The ICT Facts and Figures 2017 report states that though the digital gender gap persists, in two thirds of the world, the proportion of men using the internet is higher than the proportion of women. Secondly, there appears to be a strong link between gender parity in the enrollment ratio in tertiary education and gender parity in internet use. Unsurprisingly, given our experience in the Caribbean, the only region where a higher percentage of women than men make use of the Internet is the Americas, where countries also score highly on gender parity in tertiary education.
Access to the internet offers incredible opportunities for its ordinary users as the internet opens a world of information which can be harnessed for socio-economic and political development. It has definitely allowed persons with limited access to traditional media to share information in a manner which is unparalleled in modern history. In this way, it definitely contributes to democratic development as the new digital technology has expanded the possibilities for citizens to enjoy freedoms of expression and association. However, these very opportunities also have a flip side, and very negative undertones, for access to cyberspace without proper utilization and regulations can result in cyberspace abuse which takes many forms. We know that it has contributed to cyber prostitution, cyber fraud, cyber terrorism in much the same way that it has permitted persons to engage in legal business in a more efficient way.
And the problem for democracy is all too real. It is a problem for Electoral Management Bodies (EMB’s) that must be concerned with ensuring that elections are fought in an environment rooted in fairness and marked by integrity. The internet, or should I say its misuse, is associated with disinformation and tremendous propaganda; especially political, not to speak of the use of electoral advertising as a tool of disinformation. And in our region, the EMB’s may be defenceless to the scourge of the misuse of the internet, for in the main, EMBs in the Caribbean primarily rely upon old tools in a new era and will lose the battle even before it begins. It is thus necessary to increase the resources (whether skills or finances) available to these critical guardians of the electoral environment. We are all too aware of what the Florida Times Union in a published piece of April 5, 2017, referred to as “the second cold war” with the Russians in the midst of the sandal to discredit the Democratic political party in the US during the 2016 elections. Facebook and Google (it seems we cannot do without them for a second) have now come in for a blistering attack, with persons accusing these two communication giants of compromising the integrity of elections by peddling “fake news.”
In Canada, there is tremendous debate on the need to regulate social media and a call has been made for the reform of the Elections Act in order to bring complete transparency to digital advertising. Under Canadian law, publishers and broadcasters are legally obligated to inform their audiences about who purchases political ads in election campaigns. Equally so, it is thought that Canadians have the same right to know about who is paying for digital ads and to whom they are being targeted. We can benefit from that kind of thinking in the Caribbean.
The traditional media as the fourth estate can play a role in assisting the weak EMBs regionally and in being proactive and aggressively countering the proliferating of fake news pushed by the users of the new technology. The fact is that today, it is much more difficult to manage the spread of disinformation and mischief because of the extensive usage of Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp for example. The media must respond to the spread of false information on social media which is so damaging to political reputations and thus contributes to an election which is not ethical. So too must the State in proactively tackling the abuse that occurs. Far, far too often, these new technologies have been used by political operatives to spread fake news which have been damaging to otherwise competitive candidates. These must be matched by a well-crafted education programme and an active civil society that engages in fact checking.
WhatsApp, for instance, which is used increasingly around elections, actively works with governments via training in the responsible use of its platform. It is a platform which may be less damaging than the others, given its protocols for use and the limited number of individuals to whom information can be sent with a few strokes of the finger.
So, everything that can be done to check what the Washington Monthly describes as a Frankenstein machine must be done; otherwise its “weaponization” will undermine elections and consequently democracy. And EMBs must be conscious of this as they can no longer merely concern themselves (if they do at all) with traditional media and other traditional issues impacting the electoral environment.
(Cynthia Barrow Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus)