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The unknown frontier -- social media campaign

Published:Saturday | September 26, 2015 | 3:05 PMDaraine Luton
Orrette Fisher
Modern technology such as cellular phone is an important campaign tool. Here, Barack Obama talks with a potential voter at his campaign office in 2008.
Jamaica's electoral authorities are now grappling with the influence new technologies such as internet-capable cellphones can have on the voting process.

Phillip Paulwell, the minister with responsibility for electoral matters, is adamant that there is no need to amend the Representation of the People Act (ROPA) to deal with the issues being created by the rise of social media.

Paulwell's declaration came even as Director of Elections Orrette Fisher warned that the country's electoral authority cannot afford to ignore the significance of new media in political campaigning.

In an interview with The Gleaner, Fisher conceded that the social media space "will be hard to police" but said "a position, a policy, or something ahead of any election would be in order".

"I have brought it to the attention of the Commission (Electoral Commission of Jamaica) that some position should be taken so that no party would be put at any disadvantage if one says it is going to stick with the letter of the law and the other is saying otherwise," he added.

But Paulwell, while noting that the spirit of the law could be offended by having social media campaigns taking place during the prohibited period, said it is not something the State would be moving to regulate.

"We know what our rules are - that campaigning ceases 24 hours before the election - and we don't expect the political parties to be engaged in any form of campaigning, whether the traditional methods or new media," Paulwell said.

The ECJ has proposed an amendment to Section 81 of the ROPA to include the cessation of political broadcasts and campaign advertisements 24 hours prior to election day. At present, the law prohibits the holding of an election march or election motorcade in any public place within 24 hours of the time fixed for the opening of the poll on election day.

parties not actively involved

Paulwell said it is not anticipated that the political parties would be sanctioning or actively involved in that campaign.

"As it is now, on election day, an individual can go and parade who he is supporting. That would not be an infringement of the law once it doesn't take place within a certain distance from the polling station," the minister said.

Paulwell said that one of the issues with social media is that it will be difficult to ascertain the people behind various posts.

"It is going to be very difficult to prevent individuals doing certain things, but we know what are the legitimate websites of the various political parties, their constituency websites, and I think those are what will be monitored to ensure they are not in breach of the law because the law does apply to all forms of communication advertising," Paulwell said.

Veteran campaigner Mike Henry told The Gleaner that the rise of new technology, "especially in the selfie age", should attract the attention of the electoral authorities, arguing that there should be regulations to prevent people from taking their cellular phones into the voting booth.

"We are talking about people being paid to vote and using their cellular phones to take pictures as proof that they have voted for the candidate who is buying the vote. That is something that needs to be looked at," Henry said.