Rausim! Social media and political protest in Papua New Guinea

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Papua New Guinea’s recent political upheavals follow an upsurge in the use of mobile phones, the internet and social media since the country’s telecommunications sector was deregulated in 2007. Mobile networks have expanded exponentially over the past five years to now cover some 75% of the country’s population. Phone ownership has increased apace, and some estimates suggest that over 30% of the population now has a mobile phone, dwarfing the number of fixed line connections. Internet penetration is still relatively low, at approximately two per cent of the population, but increasing numbers of Papua New Guineans are accessing the internet via mobile phones following the introduction last year of a mobile broadband service. Papua New Guineans are also using social media in ever increasing numbers. There are over 80,000 facebook members in PNG, mostly under 40, and this figure has doubled over the past year. Statistics on twitter users are less readily available, but the #PNG and #OccupyWaigani hashtags are active and regularly break news far faster than any other source in PNG.

The past two months have seen increased internet access put to good use, as bloggers and civil society activists have taken to the net to discuss recent events which are dire even by the Machiavellian standards of PNG politics, and to protest these events both on and offline. Events are constantly unfolding, but a standoff between the executive and the judiciary, general elections due later this year and the government’s ongoing attempts to postpone them, means politics looks set to continue in this contentious vein for the foreseeable future.

The internet and social media have two potentially important roles in this political maelstrom. The first is a part to play in facilitating political protest, and the second is an impact on the very practice of politics in PNG, particularly in terms of the role of civil society.

On the former, commentators have noted the role of social media in facilitating the organisation of events such as the large protest held over Easter in the capital, Port Moresby. Political protests in PNG often centre around concerns regarding mining and other land use. These protests are organised around local tribal identities, a key feature of PNG political life. In contrast, the protest held over Easter was arguably a rare example of a comparatively ‘pure’ civil society movement. This civil society identity has characterised recent protests and the social media associated with them. It has also been evident in earlier protests, following trends linking online and offline political activity. For example, large scale marches in 2010 against changes to anticorruption laws which were also organised via a combination of social media and traditional activism, similar to a largely online protest last year which culminated in the withdrawal of controversial amendments to environmental legislation.

However, the role of social media in protest action in PNG should not be overestimated. Its impact is limited by several caveats. The first of these is the limited numbers of social media users in PNG. Although the rate of increase is striking, overall user numbers are minimal – only about two per cent of the population. The Easter weekend protest was important in that it linked online activity with significant offline organisation activity in the planning phase: the organisation was not restricted to the online sphere but included significant offline coordination between traditional and non-traditional civil society actors. For example, PNG Social Networking Partners is an online/offline hybrid organisation, and joined with various unions and traditional civil society groups like unions, student representative associations and anticorruption groups in actual physical meetings prior to the event.

Given the limited numbers of actual internet users in PNG and the apparently significant role of offline coordination, it is perhaps useful to focus on the impact of mobile phone based interactions rather than social media in understanding and predicting protest action. The number of mobile connections far outstrips the number of internet users, and even further dwarfs the number of mobile broadband connections. Basic phone connections arguably facilitate certain types of protest. For example,  during Kenya’s 2007 post-election violence mobile phones fuelled protests via simple text messages delivered along rival tribal groupings, amplified via interaction with radio broadcasts. Radio has long been an important source of news in PNG, and some reports suggest that most cell phone owners in Port Moresby use their phones capability as an FM receiver to listen to up to 15 local FM radio stations. In any case, it is instructive to consider the organisational capacity of various technologies for protests which are not well planned and peaceful—as recent protests have been—but are instead chaotic, fluid and largely opportunistic. For example, anti-Asian riots in PNG in 2009 were ‘non-tribal’, but were definitely not oriented towards civil society.

Secondly, despite the temptation to make comparisons, the explosive impact of social media in protest movements in Egypt and Tunisia was due to political circumstances not evident in PNG. Scholars argue that repressive, authoritarian regimes with effective state security services induced a collective action problem in Arab states which social media helped to overcome by allowing individuals to establish an important collective protest identity. This identity reassured individuals of both their likely personal safety and of the potential success of the protest in ways not possible without the ‘many to many’ communication facilitated by social media. There is very little history of repressive government action against protests in PNG: the collective action problem in PNG is fundamentally different. As Effrey Dademo, program manager at key activist portal ACTNOW! noted in a recent interview, the problem in PNG is rather one of political apathy and fragmented political identity. Social media is therefore unlikely to provide a stimulus for unprecedented, fluid, protests in PNG in the same way it did in Egypt and Tunisia.

Although in the short term the impact of social media and associated ICT on political protest is at best uncertain, the technology is arguably already having an impact on political practice more generally, and thereby on the PNG-specific collective action problem identified by Ms Dademo.  The advent of mobile phones means PNG now arguably has a national communication network for the very first time, outstripping the relatively limited reach of PNG’s relatively free press and TV broadcasters and overtaking its ineffective and expensive fixed line network. Political blogs and facebook itself also expand the media landscape considerably. This adds an important element of new possibilities of political communication to the already evident economic benefits of the introduction of new technology.

Such technology also potentially affects important aspects of political participation in PNG. Reports suggest it has already had an impact on gender relations, and some studies of the impact of telecoms on gender participation elsewhere suggest both mobile phones and internet access increase the rate of participation by women in political activity. They can also facilitate new types of political engagement by those outside PNG – for example, 30% of ACTNOW!’s members are from the diaspora. The particular characteristics of the PNG cohort should be taken into account (although little research exists), but it is instructive to note the involvement of the Syrian diaspora in ongoing unrest there, and of the Indian diaspora in recent anticorruption protests in Delhi. Various studies show that diasporas can use their superior internet access and often educated/elite status to channel funds and lobby governments for particular political outcomes.

As in other developing countries, internet use also has the potential to effect change in governance issues via increased transparency – this is particularly important in PNG, which ranks as one of the most corrupt nations on earth. PNG blogs regularly post and curate information related to corruption and government transparency, and in 2010 the country experienced its first instance of attempted internet censorship based on leaked findings into a corruption enquiry at the finance department.

This issue relates to the role of the internet in influencing political institutions and political practice. Some studies argue that internet and mobile phone use can promote or at the very least transform civil society and both online and offline political participation. Still others suggest that internet use in particular can lead to greater political polarisation and extremism rather than enhance the hallmarks of civil society. Indeed, it may simply lead to disengagement: a recent study in Tanzania found that internet users had more negative perceptions of the fairness of elections, and that more critical internet users were less likely to vote.

Ultimately, like any sort of political participation, the relationship between technology and politics is influenced by cultural and historical features. Very little current academic work on this issue focuses on states exhibiting similar political and cultural features to PNG: weak political institutions and deeply rooted alternative forms of political organisation. Indeed, there is an almost complete absence of relevant work on PNG itself. The coming weeks will likely provide further evidence for or against the role of social media and other ICTs in political protest, while a longer time frame (and the right research questions) will allow us to understand the impact of this technology on politics in PNG more generally.

I wrote a discussion paper on digital politics in PNG  for the Australian National University’sState, Society and Governance in Melanesia program. You can access it here.

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