Today in PNG is 'White Friday', with Papua New Guineans being encouraged to wear white to protest against the current political impasse. This peaceful political statement is organised by bloggers using text messages, Twitter and Facebook discussion groups.
It's a small example of the political power of social media, which is rapidly gaining strength worldwide. Developing countries are storming ahead, with participation rates in the Philippines, Indonesia, Brazil, Russia and India higher than that of the US.
The proliferation of this impulsive and wild medium petrifies governments, is adored by civil society, confuses and frustrates most baby-boomers (and some Gen X), and is being harnessed with immense skill by a select number of political activists, bloggers and media personalities to promote change.
The value of social media to stimulate and create change is disputed. Some argue that social media is merely the next step after websites (to push out information publicly) and email (to communicate with one another). Others believe social media can harness political and social power, and without access to social media, the Arab uprisings may not have been. To simplify this debate, Malcolm Gladwell's 2010 piece in the New Yorker (skeptical) and Clay Shirky's 2011 essay in Foreign Affairs (believer) are a great place to start.
In the isolated and sparsely populated Pacific Islands, where only 3.6% of the region had access to the internet in 2009, many people are surprised to see social media making waves. Yet, despite these constraints, the region is shaking off isolationism and using these tools to connect, share, promote debate and coordinate.
Fiji has an active blogging culture which sprung out of Fiji's lack of media freedom since Commodore Bainimarama forcefully came to power. These blogs playing an important role in keeping debate alive within and outside of Fiji and offer the only real alternative to censored Fiji news.
In Vanuatu, Facebook groups have been set up to host debates on social, developmental and political issues. Social media has changed the way citizens of the Marshall Islands participated in their 2011 elections.
Last year I was told so many times that 'the internet and social media is only for elites in the Pacific' that I almost started to believe it. But this is no longer true, and we have low-cost mobile handsets and cheap call/text rates to thank for that. In Papua New Guinea, the biggest user group of social media is the new 'digital generation', aged 18-34, which makes up the bulk of PNG's 66,660 Facebook users (17,840 of which have signed on in the last six months). The biggest gains in the past three months have been recorded by the 18-24 year-old bracket who are now leading the generational pack with 24,000 Facebook users.
In PNG, social media and blogs are being used to hold both the public and private sector accountable; they are informing, refining and influencing debate; and, increasingly, they are being used to discuss, plan and coordinate events.
Events like 'White Friday' will test the coordination power of social media in PNG. Despite PNG suffering from the lowest internet penetration in the Pacific Islands region, accessibility to the internet is made increasingly easier by the presence of the innovative telecommunications company Digicel*, which recently released a Facebook-enabled mobile phone; the number of Facebook users in PNG will presumably continue to rise sharply in 2012.
Whether White Friday is considered a success by its organisers remains to be seen, but this is really just the beginning. What's next?
* Digicel provided support to the Lowy Institute's 2011 Auckland event, 'Pacific Islands and the World: Realising the Pacific's Potential'.
Photo by Flickr user mikecogh.