Pacific Wayfinder: Social Media Security (Part One)


Voices from the Pacific Island region

Social media has created seismic shifts in the way that people connect and relate. As mobile phone usage and internet connectivity expands across the Pacific, the use of platforms such as Facebook has provided new economic and social opportunities for the region. It has also raised questions around the impact of disinformation, digital literacy and media censorship on the region’s security, Eliorah Malifa writes. 

The advent of social media and expanded mobile phone usage in the region, has become a focal Pacific issue. This was heightened in the face of Covid-19 disinformation in 2020/21, and in the regulation of Pacific elections both past (Samoa and Tonga), and upcoming (Fiji and Papua New Guinea).

On the latest Pacific Wayfinder podcast, I was joined by Head of Public Policy for New Zealand and the Pacific at Meta (Facebook), Mr Nick McDonnell; Research Fellow for the Department of Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University, Dr Amanda H A Watson; and Mr Jope Tarai, PhD candidate with the Department of Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University. In this first instalment of our discussion on social media use in the Pacific, we explore the dissemination of information through social media, the influence of gender, mobile phone use and the importance of digital literacy and online safety.

Presently, most aspects of urban life have a social media elements. This is also the case in the Pacific. Mr McDonnell commented on the significant opportunities and challenges in the use of social networks especially Facebook, in the Pacific.

“…in 2021 the Solomon Islands Chamber of Commerce and Industry did a survey, where they said that 72% of their members were using social media as an important tool to connect with customers.”

Specifically, a growing awareness in the organisation of the ways in which Pacific countries and their communities use ‘the blue app’, has lead to the development of online safety and digital programs in the region. Campaigns such as ‘I Am Digital’, promotes digital literacy for Pacific children and women, and has expanded to seven remote Pacific nations since it was launched in February 2021.

When thinking about the ways in which the Covid-19 pandemic affected social media usage, Mr Tarai, commented as someone who was in Fiji and noticed a sharp increase in Facebook use. This included the accessing of services and information regarding Covid-19, but also selling and exchanging items and property through the app. Mr Tarai also mentioned the tendency of island based communities to ‘say they were even able to survive Covid through community interactions [online]’.

Having noted the basic use of social media and Facebook in the region, it is vital to note that social media compliments other information sources in the Pacific, such as village meetings, mainstream media, and even the average telephone call. Says Dr Watson,

“social media has a role and is able to disseminate information, but it also fits into a communicative landscape where there’s a range of other ways that people can access and disseminate information.”

To this end, Dr Watson also reminds us that while urban centres in the Pacific grow in their mobile phone and social media usage, not everyone in the region has access to this technology for a variety of reasons.

Over time, gender has become a very interesting and fairly focal aspect of the discussion of social media and its use in the Pacific region.

Dr Watson noted stark differences between the use and ownership of mobile technology in females from East New Britain and the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea. As a matrilineal society, women in East New Britain were much more likely to possess a mobile phone than those in the Western Highlands. Dr Watson noted that in hundreds of interviews, she could recall only one instance where ‘a man said he didn’t own a mobile phone, but his wife does’.

The discussion of this rise in female social media use across parts of the region also then drives conversation around voter registration and the use of social media in Pacific elections. This is especially significant with the upcoming PNG and Fijian elections.

Of this increase, Mr Tarai says,

“this places pressure on big social networking sites like Facebook, because this means that women actively have a greater sense of civic duty… So now that there are more women released by the gender analysis that’s available online about the different distribution, that does place pressure on social networking sites in maintaining balance and calm especially at election time…”

The rapid growth of mobile phone and social media usage in the Pacific initiates security discussions on the influence of social media in election voter turnout, the agency of women through social media, and the distribution of accurate and authoritative information in the Pacific on social media. The significance of these dynamics are somewhat unknown, but also a fairly prevalent phenomenon to observe in real time throughout the region.

This blog is produced in alignment with the Pacific Wayfinder podcast series. This blog is also the first in a series of four blogs looking at the growing use of social media in the Pacific, especially it’s use in Pacific elections. The next blog will look at the advent of social media in the upcoming Fijian election.

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