Can social media transform Papua New Guinea? Reflections and questions

As of July 2012 there just over 100,000 registered facebook users in Papua New Guinea (PNG), most of whom are below the age of 35, and an increasing array of PNG related websites. The explosion in the use of social media by Papua New Guineans is changing the way that they are engaging in politics, business and social activities on the home front. It is also changing the way that the international community is engaging with Papua New Guinea (PNG). In an unprecedented style, resonant with tours made by highly public figures and dignitaries, a young PNG man (Martyn Namorong, prolific blogger, self described betel nut seller and grassroots person) undertook a privately sponsored two week visit to the Australian cities of Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra in 2012. This visit entailed an advance announcement and a highly publicised agenda and programme wherein he met with prominent Australian PNG experts, politicians, journalists, ordinary Australian residents and gave seminars to a variety of Australian audiences.

A number of recent articles and radio interviews (Radio Australia, ABC, 4 July 2012Radio Australia, ABC, 5th July 2012; Rausim! Social media and political protest in Papua New Guinea; Catherine Graue of Australia Network) with pioneering social media practitioners reveals some important features of the emergence of social media in PNG. These people include Emmanuel Narakobi (administrator of the Masalai Blog and the facebook forum Sharp talk); Tavurvur who administers the Garamut blog); Martyn Namorong, Alexander Rheeney , (PNG journalist and administrator of PNG Perspective); and Nou Vada (law student, blogger and administrator of The Edebamona Blog). In recognition of this emerging form of media Malum Nalu (Journalist and administrator of the Malum Nalu blogspot) was awarded the UNESCO/Divine Word Institute Award for Communication and Development in 2011.

In her paper, Rausim! Social media and political protest in Papua New Guinea, Sarah Logan talks about the use of social media in the recent political gymnastics in PNG. Inter alia, she highlights two roles of social media. The first is the role of social media in facilitating political protest and the second is its facilitation of civil society engagement in the practice of politics. She also highlights that the limitations on the use of social media include the limited numbers of users and the general sense of “political apathy” and “fragmented political identity” associated with PNG politics (Sarah Logan).

Martyn Namorong and Alexander Rheeney highlight (ABC Radio Australia) how PNG society is very community based and many educated and urban based Papua New Guineans remain closely connected with their rural based families. They point out that this means that the current numbers of facebook users represents a significant mass of PNG society whose engagement through social media has the potential of being translated and amplified through various offline networks. The far wider coverage of basic mobile phone services (phone calls and text messages) adds to this amplification effect.

Much of the discussion is focussed on how social media is revolutionising the way in which Papua New Guineans are engaging in the political arena. For example, Narakobi highlights that during the Easter 2012 political protests membership of the sharp talk facebook forum jumped from between 3000 and 4000 to over 6000.

Yet, other questions emerge beyond the potential role of social media in political transformation. Core to these is: How do social, development and political actors (national and international) translate this social revolution into something that matters for those that need it most? In this regard, two questions emerge:

  1. How can society manage the institutions that are created to ensure the principles of democracy – accountability, transparency, fairness, justice and equality – function to protect society as it shifts and responds to new and emerging power actors that are in a position at this point in history to harness the power of social media for a specific agenda?
  2. How can the power of social media facilitate a better engagement between, not only civil society and political actors, but also between civil society and development actors to bring about tangible development outcomes?

Both these questions are particularly important within the PNG context where lack of political will, corruption and lack of implementation capacity are the main impediments to development; violence is an explicit and blatant form of power; literacy rates are below 50%; over 30% of the population live below the poverty line; there are over 700 languages; and systems of law and order and law enforcement are dysfunctional at best. They are also important for development policy where an environment of functioning democracy, political stability and protection of society is the foundation for the achievement of development outcomes.

The following paragraphs are intended to highlight just some of the dynamics emerging in the social media sphere in PNG.

That the above referred social media pioneers have chosen different forms of public representation – real name versus pseudonym – is revealing of the social and political dynamics underpinning the use of social media in PNG. Namorong says that using his real name adds credibility and accountability to his writing. Another advantage is the direct credit that one receives for their contribution via social media. One disadvantage is the security of a person who speaks out on a sensitive issue such as corruption. On the other hand, Tavurur has blogged very successfully (high quality, high number of followers and sustained over a number of years) for several years now. In other cases, such as a facebook forum, the use of a pseudonym poses questions of transparency and accountability on the part of a forum administrator.

In a country where names are often synonymous with ethnicity, family and sometimes political affiliation and in a context where corruption and violence are widespread, it is understandable that some may wish to conceal their real identities when engaging in the public sphere. It is also interesting to see that many people use their real identities and openly write about issues such as corruption and violence. In one example, a woman in a forum of over 1000 people wrote how she did not support a relative who was a candidate in the election. She acknowledged that she might get in trouble with the family for speaking out but felt that she needed to have her say. In another example, in the PNGians against domestic violence forum, which has over 6000 members, women publicly plead for help to deal with violent situations. These examples reveal a civil society that is actively engaging on matters that affect their lives and that social media presents an accessible avenue to do so. Whether it is a safe and free median to engage is yet to be seen.

The table below provides a snapshot of some of the forum profiles and membership figures and reveals a variety of styles. Closed versus open groups; known administrators versus unknown administrators; provincial focus versus national or issue based focus. Membership of groups ranges from anywhere below 100 to over 6000.

Snapshot of some facebook forums in Papua New Guinea (as at July 2012)

National/Provincial focus Name of group Description of group No. of members
Central Central Province Papua New Guinea Open group, includes election updates 646
Jiwaka Jiwaka Elites Forum (JEF) Closed group with known administrator 105
Jiwaka Province Open group 503
Gulf Kerema, Gulf Province Closed group 342
Manus Head Toktok Open group 1872
Admiralty Islands Forum Open group 1017
Oro Province Better Oro province beyond 2017 Closed group, known administrator 479
Enga 2012 General Election updates 4 Enga Province Closed group. Known administrator 74
PNG Papua New Guineans against domestic violence Open group 6269
PNG The National Research Institute Closed group 144
PNG Institute of National Affairs Organisation page. No members
PNG University of Papua New Guinea Open group 1178
PNG University of Technology Open group 221
PNG Sharp talk Open group with known administrator (from around between 3-4000 it jumped to over 6000 during the constitutional crisis 6600
PNG PNG Elections 2012 Forum Open group, known administrator 348
PNG PNG Women in the 2012 National elections Open groupAdministrator not listed 82
PNG Against PNG Policy Brutality Close groupKnown administrator – profile image is a photo of a man brandishing a gun 516

I conclude by raising some issues for consideration in the hope of stimulating further dialogue.

  • How does PNG society ensure that this shift in power and voice towards those who master the art of social media is made in a way that new power actors are equally held accountable for what they say and do with their skill in an evolving social context?
  • How does society protect the rights and security of those who wish to speak up on corruption and violence?
  • How does society respond to social demands created by the opportunities opened by social media? For example the voices of women who publically seek help in violent situations invoke a joint social responsibility for immediate support but they also create opportunities for those in the policy and development arena to formulate appropriate responses.
  • Are issues on cyber education and safety, including the protection of children, being integrated into the formal and informal education system? Is funding being made available for organisations to run training courses on cyber safety in all communities?
  • In terms of public and private partnership, might we see a proliferation of bill boards, TV advertisements, mobile phone alerts akin to donor supported HIV/AIDS and other billboards promoting the safe and responsible use of social media?
  • Has the PNG Ombudsman Commission created an avenue to enable engagement with civil society through social media?
  • Has the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary created an avenue to enable engagement with civil society through social media?
  • Is there an Electoral Commission facilitated forum to enable feedback and election observation through social media?
  • Some development agencies, including donors, multilateral agencies, international financial institutions and NGOs are already engaging with civil society through social media in some of the countries they work in. Is it time for development partners and donors in PNG to embrace this social revolution in the same way?
  • Are those tasked with development policy formulation, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation, actively exploring ways of tapping into the opportunities presented by social media to engage with civil society?
  • Is it possible that in the near future PNG will have an online and social media facilitated “development partner” and “civil society” forum?

Whatever the answer to these questions, it is clear that there are huge implications for the practice of development in PNG. If social media is to make a difference in PNG beyond its ability to reshape the political arena, it must be utilised as a tool by all actors interested in the development of PNG to translate this new energy into tangible development outcomes.

Michelle Nayahamui Rooney is a PhD candidate with the SSGM, IPS, College of Asia and the Pacific, ANU. Her research focuses on exploring social transformations and responses in traditional socioeconomic protection mechanisms through the lens of inter-household income transfers. Prior to taking up studies Michelle worked as a national officer in the development sector in Papua New Guinea.

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Nayahamui Michelle Rooney

Nayahamui Michelle Rooney is a lecturer in the School of Culture, History and Language in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.


  • This is an amazing movement being seen in Papua New Guinea, agreeing upon everyone less in this discussion. I’m currently doing a campaign about technology, mostly upon mobile phones and presenting unknown and unseen experiences and talents that can only be shown outside of the digital space. I also will raise some concerns upon the future with this movement of bringing social media into PNG, as PNG can offer a range of hidden talents that aren’t shown to a range of countries until they have experienced the culture.

    The new addition of social media being a part of PNG will increase connectivity, but will it further extend the usage being seen upon younger generations in the near future? And will they still be able to reconnect with traditions?

    For further information on my campaign, I will leave them below.

    Thank you.

  • I appreciate the well presented information and also the comments. I suggest the People using the Facebook must register to the government in a social media act so that their identity is known. Unregistered pages shall be blocked as per the act. This will erase the abuse on social media. Filtering can be done.

  • Great article. I just returned from PNG last week and was shocked to see how many people were logged into Facebook and other Social Media sights. Just wondering if there has been any development in the research of this project? Also, I work for a youth training organisation that would is equipped to do education and training on Facebook I’m curious if you know others wanting to do the same in PNG? Thanks.

  • Thank you Michelle very informative,like Vanessa I must admit I am bit weary about reading blogs,tweets, facebook posts under pseudonyms, but I find Tavurvur’s information through his tweets and blogs are informative. Looking forward to reading more.

  • Good reflections and forward thinking questions especially on the development advantages of social media. Just my additional thoughts.

    If we step back a bit, we will see that social media is just one aspect of the global mobile phone and internet revolution or more generally Information Communication Technology (ICTs) and before the custodian of development –PNG government can truly embrace benefits and concerns of social media, there has to be a high level of tolerance of these innovations within its systems and process of development and service delivery.

    There was certainly a development edge in PNG government opting to ICT innovations and related policies including the liberalisation of the telecommunication sector. Just how delayed and intolerable government has been to embrace these technologies (mobile phone, internet) and now features like social media for its timely and immediate development and service delivery needs can be noted as waste of development opportunity and needs to be addressed. Businesses and people/voters appear to utilise these technologies more to their advantage and as they find these technologies useful in mitigating challenges of economic geography – but the government that faces far big challenges from economic geography in its service delivery is still far from utiilising this.

    If government is yet to fully built these innovations into its system and structures to a adaptable, tolerable levels, for example its e-government (e-health, e-commerce etc.) systems to improve service delivery, how far is it from appreciating social media to its advantages as well as the negative effects? A perfect bad example is PNG government for the start does not even have an official website compared to some of the other tinny island states in the Pacific.

  • Thank you Tavurvur and Vanessa. I agree with both your comments.

    In my mind there are three important areas that those in the policy arena could consider.

    The first is supporting government machinery in PNG to embrace social media in their engagement with civil society. This also includes supporting the traditional watchdog agencies to transform their modus operandi to use social media as a tool. One example I can think of is translating the photographic evidence on foul play in the elections from the social media arena into the legal and law enforcement arena.

    The second is to make funding available to the Department of Education and civil society/non government organisations to conduct training on what social media is, as well as the safe and responsible use of social media.

    The third involves those in the international development community considering how to use social media as a tool in their work in PNG. This is not just about civil society engagement but also about transparency and donor coordination. These are all basic principles of international development contained in many of the instruments signed by development agencies. It will also go a long way to prevent duplication of programmes.

    These are all major changes in the way things are done in PNG and will require some bold decisions and actions on the part of those in the policy arena.

    Given the poor performance on the development front in PNG I am sure there can be no harm done by thinking outside the usual boxes.

  • Really informative. Like reading blogs written by people who don’t have pseudonyms and provide reliable non-bias (well mostly non-bias) commentaries with facts and figures which keep me informed. I look forward to reading more on the same subject and others, Michelle.

  • A good piece, which raises some quality questions regarding the future roles of social media in PNG.

    I have blogged comprehensively on the political element of social media in PNG, referring to it as the “opening up of PNG’s consciousness” – and this element has been consequently picked up by observers of PNG and international media too. Although to date this has largely driven/defined the usage of social media thus far in PNG, thanks largely to the political developments over the past 12 months, and then of course Election 2012 (with people wanting to learn and share their own thoughts), we have yet to really see the type of influence social media will have – or its focus – when PNG settles down.

    There is no doubt that traditional media, civil society groups, and government agencies in PNG have been slow to react to the rise of social media in PNG, particularly in terms of engagement. Better engagement between social media users and such groups could be the next step in PNG’s relationship with social media, and this more efficient relationship could be a catalyst to effecting significant change.

    Although this sounds like a good idea, it is important that we don’t lose perspective of the numbers. PNG’s 100,000 Facebook uses make up less than 2% of our entire population, but about 80% of our internet population – or those that have access to the internet. This would be a good indication of the usages of social media in PNG too. There is a long way to go.

    What will be interesting to see in the coming months and years is how exactly the dynamics within these permutations or possibilities develop. I do hope social media can help to truly effect positive and progressive change in our country.


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