The upcoming Fijian election offers a prime opportunity to more effectively utilise social media to increase political participation amongst disaffected groups, Jope Tarai writes.
Fiji’s next national election could be called at any point from 9 July 2022 to 9 January 2023, according to Electoral Commission Chairman, Mukesh Chand. With a total of nine political parties and 682,569 voters registered, the stage is set for an interesting electoral contest.
As voters seek to inform themselves before going to the polls, social media will be a crucial source of information and a platform for political engagement for many Fijians.
So, what does Fiji’s current digital landscape look like?
In early January 2022, there was estimated to be approximately 649,000 social media users in Fiji across a variety of platforms, with Facebook the most prominent with an estimated 556,000 users nationwide.
Whilst Twitter usage has grown in recent years, especially in 2021 during COVID-19 lockdowns, it still only boasts an estimated 24,000 users in Fiji, meaning Facebook is by far the most used platform in the country. It is also instructive to note the meteoric rise of TikTok as a platform, largely engaging Fiji’s younger citizens.
That said, Fijian youth aged 18-35 constitute the majority of Facebook users in Fiji, with most of these coming from the country’s two larger cities – Suva and Lautoka.
Significantly, the female social media users are also now in the majority, albeit only slightly. As of June 2022, 51 per cent of Fijian Facebook users are women, who are also more likely to ‘like’ Facebook pages, posts, share content, and click on advertising links.
But what does this mean for the upcoming elections?
For political parties, social media will be an important campaigning tool. Registration statistics indicate that 70-80 per cent of the electorate, or approximately 682,569 registered voters, can be reached via social media platforms, especially Facebook. The challenge for politicians and their parties will be sustained engagement with these voters – particularly women and young people – in the coming months.
This is vital given widespread political disengagement, particularly amongst the youth. Young people had some of the lowest turnout of any age group at the 2018 national election, and there is concern that this trend may hold, as the 2022 pre-election voter survey report showed that 52 per cent of respondents have only ‘a little’ interest in politics.
Even more concerning is the fact that voter registration statistics indicate that 18 to 30-year- olds comprise only around 27 per cent of registered voters so far in the 2022/23 election, despite around 60 per cent of Fiji’s population being under 35.
Whilst social media is the most accessible means to engage youth, parties and candidates have not utilised online platforms effectively, either to inform youth of their policies or, more importantly, to employ more creative ways to understand their views.
One group that is utilising social media actively, however, is Fiji’s traditional media. Much of Fiji’s legacy media, such as fijivillage and FBC News, have adapted and adopted a strong social media presence. Currently, five of the top 10 Facebook pages used in Fiji are mainstream media outlets, indicating their importance as sources of trusted information for voters.
This is significant for the upcoming election as the importance of mainstream media is often unacknowledged and understated, particularly in combating disinformation. An example of this was witnessed at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the Fijian media was successful in facilitating and verifying information to assist the country’s vaccination efforts.
The strong presence of mainstream media organisations in Fiji’s digital landscape offers a major opportunity for policymakers to not only work in partnership with these organisations to combat political disinformation, and for candidates to reach out to disaffected voters and increase engagement.
In sum, social media-based political campaigning could be a crucial feature of Fiji’s upcoming election, particularly for youth and women. Political parties and relevant stakeholders have the potential to engage and sustain interest to avoid another low youth voter turnout in the upcoming election, and to further engage female voters in the political process.
The role of media and social media in Fijian elections can be complicated but, if used effectively, they can lead to increased engagement among politically marginalised groups. To do this, leaders will need to support new research, and utilise social media more effectively and creatively.