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Electoral Commission to discuss use of social media in campaigns

THE Electoral Commission of Jamaica could soon arrive at a position on the use of social media in election campaigns on the day people go to the polls, as the phenomenon is fast becoming one of concern, not just for first world countries, but also developing states such as those in the Caribbean.

Speaking at this week’s Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange, Director of Elections Orrette Fisher said the issue had come to the fore during the recent general elections in the twin-island republic of Trinidad and Tobago. Fisher headed a Caribbean Community election observation mission to the neighbouring Caribbean island to observe the polls.

Leader of the then Opposition People’s National Movement (PNM) Dr Keith Rowley had raised concerns about reports that at least one candidate for the ruling party had continued to canvass the electorate on election day, using text messages.

Rowley said it was a clear breach of the laws. “The other party was very upset and was saying that this was in contravention of the law which says there should be no campaigning on election day,” Fisher recalled.

But he added that the development brought into sharp focus Jamaica’s own laws related to campaigning. “The definition that exists for campaigning does not take into account social media. So that is something I think we would have to look at prior to this election in terms of a position. If both parties use it then maybe the playing field is level, but if one is saying we are not going to because it’s against the law and the other is saying we don’t think its covered in the law, then you could have that seemingly unfair advantage being given. That is something that the commission will discuss, and at the appropriate time maybe put a statement out,” he stated.

At the same time, Fisher said he could not categorise the use of social media is illegal, “but I’m saying that it is real”.

He admitted that policing this type of campaigning would be very difficult because there is no way to pinpoint that a candidate had issued instructions for shoring up votes via Twitter, Facebook, or any other similar medium. “If I’m a candidate and I have a very ardent supporter, who I have no control over, decides to send out a tweet or message, then I don’t see how I could be held responsible when I did not even know he was going to do it,” he stated

Deputy director of elections, Earl Simpson agreed. “That’s a very hard one to regulate and monitor. How are you going to stop people from tweeting (etc); we saw in the US (United States) where social media played a significant role in the outcomes of their elections there (but) we have to consider it carefully. It’s going to be extremely difficult to stop an individual from sending out [a message] to their list of persons the instructions as to how to vote. Technology is moving much faster than we are, and we really don’t have a solution to that one,” he said.

Fisher said he had made a report to the commission on the matter upon his return from Trinidad, but that the commission has not yet discussed it.

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