Year in Review: Social Media activism in 2016
Social media activism kicked into third gear in 2016 in Trinidad and Tobago.
Whether it was advocating for the resignation of a mayor or drumming up support for a gymnast who saw her Olympic dream shatter before her eyes, citizens picked up social media as a powerful tool to get their voices heard. And in many cases, the keyboard warriors merged their online activism with real world action, taking to the pavements to demand change.
Janine Mendes-Franco, the Caribbean Regional Editor for Global Voices, traces the region’s rise of social media activism to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti when farmers banded together to protest Monsanto’s entry into the country after someone queried via Twitter about the offer they were making to farmers.
“People realised the medium is there for them to explore,” she said, noting that people feel freer to take a stance on issues via social media than they would in a public gathering.
She warned, however, that though some people think citizen journalism is a laughable thing, responsible citizen journalism isn’t and without a proper legal framework people could say what they want without consequences just because they have a following.
The upside, she said, is that because there is a general weariness about things happening in society, social media provides an outlet for people to vent concerns and realise that they are not alone. This, she said, was evidenced in the Life in Leggings movement and Shannon Banfield murder which saw people coming together in a real space to discuss the issues and look for solutions.
For Rhoda Bharath, a political commentator who shook social media with a series of Facebook Live videos questioning expenditure at the President’s House, social media was a preferred medium to traditional media.
“I am not sufficiently convinced that journalists are trained well enough and have enough of a nose for certain types of stories. A number of the things I choose to tackle via social media are complex things, legislation, joint select committees, public accounts and expenditures and I have to find ways to make it digestible and sexy,” she said.
She also believes that traditional media is dying, a point, she says, they do not want to admit.
“Traditional media is dead for a number of reasons, immediacy is a problem. The other thing is that they are not making an effort to curate themselves. That blows my mind. Social media allows you to create archives and hashtags, you can curate yourself…populations with long memories are those that can curate their culture.”
Bharath sees more people using social media to force change and hold public officials in the future mainly because of its very public platform.
“Social media allows you to vent. After venting your vent can pick up traction and then it has the potential to become a trending topic and then take on real social relevance. The one thing everybody responds to is public shaming and social media gives you the opportunity to do international public shaming and you become a trending topic and issue. It allows an efficient way to publicly shame people to do the right thing,” she said.
Here are some of the stories that became trending topics thanks to our social media activists.
The Thema Williams’ bumpy road to Rio story bubbled over from 2015 into 2016 as snippets of stories surfaced of the Gymnastics Federation favouring Canadian-born Marisa Dick over Williams despite her qualification for the Rio Test Event in Glasgow in November 2015. So, of course, it was a complete shock to the nation when, the day before she was due to compete at the event in Rio, that she was pulled from the competition and Dick was flown in to take her place. Williams’ friends and relatives immediately rallied the troops on social media, creating a hashtag, sharing media reports and doing their own sleuthing to unearth any evidence of wrongdoing and collusion between Dick and the TTGF. The campaign bubbled over into the real world as the nation rallied behind Williams, giving her a hero’s welcome at the airport, calling for the TTGF's funding to be cut and forcing some members of the TTGF to resign.
Port-of-Spain Mayor Raymond Tim Kee found himself in social media hot water when he made some unfortunate comments about women in the aftermath of the murder of Japanese native Asami Nagakiya on Carnival Tuesday. Immediately, netizens sprang into action demanding his head on a platter despite his apology and offer to donate three months of his salary to the rape crisis centre. A protest led by Womantra and a petition were organised demanding his resignation and despite support from some quarters, including the Prime Minister, Tim Kee stepped down as Mayor and Alderman.
Using Facebook Live, Rhoda Bharath, an author and UWI lecturer, took on President Anthony Carmona to expose what she believed were glaring lapses in accountability at the President’s House. In a series of FB Live videos, she revealed the existence of a Presidential wine and other suspicious expenditure following the Auditor General’s report that said it found discrepancies. In his Republic Day address, Carmona lashed out at “armchair” journalists, declaring that:
“Theirs has become the language of obscenity and racial slurs-yes, that small circle that is leading the national dialogue, you are not the voice of the people because you have unfettered and unfair access to the press and media, because you have created vlogs and videos that rely for viewership and followers, not on proper and responsible research and wisdom but on distortions and sensationalism.”
With mounting public pressure, the president eventually held a press conference to explain all the allegations leveled against him.
An import from Barbados, the Life in Leggings hashtag was created to raise awareness of street harassment and sexual abuse women face. The hashtag movement found fertile ground in among women in T&T and what followed was an outpouring of deeply personal and painful stories that highlighted common issues affecting women of all ages, races and social status which led to public discussions about gender-based violence.
On the heels of the Life in Leggings movement came the tragic news that 20-year-old Shannon Banfield was discovered dead in a store on Charlotte Street. The Republic Bank employee was reported missing after leaving work to do some shopping days before her body was discovered. Banfield’s death invoked shock and horror in many citizens and immediately social media was inundated with calls for action to end crime and calls for boycotts of the store, IAM and Co. Petitions, vigils, meetings, marches, protests and conversations were initiated and acted upon as citizens searched for solutions to the country’s crime problems. Her church, the Seventh Day Adventist Church set up a foundation for women in her name.
When a picture of a Colfire employee circulated on social media together with a letter threatening to terminate him if he didn’t adopt a more conservative hairstyle, pandemonium erupted. Calls to boycott the company ensued with many taking to the company’s Facebook page to indicate their desire to withdraw forcing Colfire to issue a letter via its social media channel in which it denied the allegations but refused to discuss it in the public domain due to confidentiality issues. Though the issue has died, the company’s name has now become synonymous with a certain hairstyle which calypsonian David Rudder dubbed via his Facebook page as The Colfire.
Brian MacFarlane came out of retirement to present a band for Carnival 2017. The theme, Cazabon: The Art of Living, dedicated to the famous Trinidadian painter Miche Jean Cazabon, sought to depict the glory of the Cazabon era. One costume in particular, however, incurred the wrath of many. La Belle Dame and Garçon de la Maison, depicted a barefoot black man in suspenders and pants alongside a well-dressed white woman, which many felt was glorifying a painful past for those of African descent. Reeling under the weight of social media backlash under the Know Your Place hashtag that accompanied the depiction of the costume on his Facebook page, MacFarlane apologised and pulled the offending section.
My intention was never to offend anyone, or to come across as ignorant of our truth, or to idealise insensitivity."
"It was to depict the clothing of the time. However, I understand how and why it hurt some of us. And it is with this realization that I have made the decision to not move forward with this particular section from the 2017 presentation. I am deeply, deeply sorry for the pain that I have caused."