Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | The Pacific

26 February 2021

In New Caledonia, campaigners for and against independence used social media to mobilise new constituencies, Nic Maclellan writes.

New Caledonia’s Congress has elected a new government, after the resignation of five ministers brought down the multi-party executive led by President Thierry Santa. With supporters of independence holding a majority in the incoming government, New Caledonia will soon have a pro-independence president for the first time in nearly forty years. The latest political manoeuvring comes as the French Pacific collectivity prepares for the third in a series of referendums on self-determination.

New Caledonia has already has held two referendums on its political status under the 1998 Noumea Accord, on 4 November 2018 and 4 October 2020. Both referendums saw a majority of registered voters decide against independence, to remain within the French Republic. But the narrow margin of 57 per cent No to 43 per cent Yes in 2018, and a closer result of 53 per cent to 47 per cent in 2020, suggests the territory will move to the third and final vote by 2022, as proposed under the agreement.

Although traditional methods such as public meetings, rallies and posters still dominated during the referendum campaigns, all political forces in New Caledonia have increased their use of social media. The evolving tactics of the main independence coalition, Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS), and anti-independence actors, such as Calédonie ensemble and Les Loyalistes, is an important factor driving these campaigns.

In a system with voluntary voting, the independence movement targeted younger people, seeking to register and mobilise a key cohort who have often abstained during local elections. Social media also provided crucial mechanisms to share information about New Caledonia with neighbouring countries of the Pacific Islands Forum, as well as with other independence movements.

More on this: Is New Caledonia’s referendum a double dead end?

From the 1980s, independence voices were often marginalised in key media: the only daily newspaper Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes, commercial radio, and French state TV and radio. To challenge the dominance of conservative perspectives, the FLNKS helped establish the community station Radio Djiido in 1985, which still broadcasts today, operating on a shoestring budget.

While balanced coverage of competing perspectives has improved since the signing of the Noumea Accord, major media outlets still editorialise against the FLNKS, influenced by commerce and ideology. In addition, many media give less coverage to voters in rural areas and outer islands, who are mainly indigenous Kanak.

Journalistic practice has often caricatured indigenous perspectives. Marie M’Balla-Ndi has documented the constraints facing Kanak journalists, as well as cultural challenges for metropolitan French media workers in a land of Melanesian custom.

Given these constraints, social media has become a cheap and effective tool for political campaigners during the referendum campaigns — directly sharing information, music and symbols, as well as practical information on voter registration, policy and campaign events. At the same time, there is lively debate on these digital platforms, with sharp retorts and sometimes racist abuse. In 2018, a Committee of Elders issued a ‘call for moderation’, concerned about ‘anonymous diatribes on social media and insults, often racist, which could damage social cohesion’.

The rapid spread of smartphone technology in New Caledonia mirrors patterns in other Pacific Island nations. Nearly half the population of 271,400 has broadband access on mobile phones. There are significant variations, however, in access to quality broadband — and even electricity — between urban centres and isolated villages in the central mountain chain and the outer islands, where the population is majority Kanak.

A February 2020 study commissioned by the New Caledonia Chamber of Commerce and Industry focused on the role of social media in building local businesses, but contains useful data on the reach of these platforms. It found that 86 per cent of young people (age 15–29) use a smartphone to access the internet, followed by laptop (9 per cent), desktop computer (3 per cent), and tablet (2 per cent).

Two-thirds of the overall population are ‘active social media users’, while six out of 10 young people use one or more forms of social media: Facebook (92 per cent), Instagram (17 per cent), Snapchat (10 per cent), Twitter (7 per cent), YouTube (5 per cent), LinkedIn (2 per cent), and Pinterest (1 per cent). While political messaging peaks during elections and referendum campaigns, social media is mainly used for entertainment, especially by the young.

During the 2018 referendum campaign, social media content from conservative anti-independence parties was often produced by advertising agencies, with high production values. Mobilising a large publicity budget, Calédonie ensemble’s Facebook page distributed professionally produced videos that were also played during campaign meetings and official television broadcasts.

More on this: New Caledonia’s referendum on self-determination

French researcher Akila Nedjar-Guerre highlighted the popularity of Facebook in New Caledonia above other social media, noting: “Facebook is by far the most utilised social media by residents of the territory… In contrast, the use of Twitter by political parties is very weak in comparison to mainland France. Twitter accounts (such as the FLNKS) have sometimes been open for some years, but are very seldom used and sometimes even non-existent.”

Nedjar-Guerre reports that, during the 2020 referendum, the use of Facebook posts by the FLNKS increased markedly compared to 2018. In the week before the November 2018 referendum, the official FLNKS page issued six posts. In the week before the October 2020 vote, it issued 135. In contrast, Les Loyalistes issued 25 unique posts and Calédonie ensemble released 20.

Compared to past years, the independence movement has increasingly diversified its use of social media: livestreaming concerts and demonstrations; sharing memes, photographs and videos to promote a Yes vote; promoting details of campaign events; and circulating images and aphorisms of Kanak martyrs. The FLNKS distributed video clips, such as a 2018 drone shot of independence activists forming the word ‘Oui’ (Yes), through their official Facebook page.

In 2020, competing sides of the debate often used emoticons of the flags of Kanaky or the French Republic in their social media content, reinforcing the symbolism of the nationalist banners. Les Loyalistes widely promoted the French tricolour at a time of political and legal dispute over use of the flag during the campaign. Notably, French courts rejected a case by Kanak politicians arguing that the partisan use of France’s tricolour was a breach of French electoral law.

Social media amplifies the real-time sharing of information and expands social reach, when movements for self-determination are mobilising across Melanesia. The use of Facebook and YouTube has increased the sharing of information and images between Melanesian activists in Bougainville, West Papua and New Caledonia, interested in the lessons of the 20-year transition under the Noumea Accord, as well as with movements in Corsica and Catalonia that support the FLNKS.

Youth networks have increasingly used social media to hold Zoom meetings and share music, memes and messages of solidarity across the region. In October 2020, the youth network Youngsolwara in Fiji used its Facebook page to post solidarity messages from Fiji, Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and other nations. Another solidarity message on YouTube came from Jeffrey Bomanak of the West Papua National Liberation Army/Free Papua Movement. The West Papuan guerrilla leader, hiding from Indonesian forces in the Papuan Highlands, highlighted parallels between the Kanak and West Papuan nationalist cause.

Transcending language barriers, the sharing of photos and videos from New Caledonia has increased real-time awareness of events on the ground for media and politicians in other countries. This is especially true in the member states of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, which provides extensive diplomatic support for the FLNKS.

The significant turn-out by young Kanak in 2018 and 2020 — first-time voters who were not born when the Noumea Accord was signed — was a crucial element of the Yes campaign. This trend will likely increase with the third referendum in 2022 and there is a need for further research on the way social media was used to mobilise this youth cohort.

This article is based upon a paper published by the ANU Department of Pacific Affairs (DPA) as part of its ‘In brief’ series. The original paper can be found here.

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