Health care, sewage, water availability and economic improvements: Many of the key issues for the 2011 election campaigns are the same ones that were discussed back in 2007. But this year, the conversations aren’t just happening at campaign rallies and town hall meetings. For the first time in the territory, the discussions are also happening online, as many candidates take their political messages to websites and social media profiles.

The potential to reach many people at once makes it easy to see why any candidate might want an online presence, especially after United States President Barack Obama showed what could be achieved with the help of the Internet. Mr. Obama is seen as having won the presidency at least partially because of five million online supporters and $30 million in donations raised with the help of his campaign website.

In the Virgin Islands, the potential audience is much smaller, but it includes a large percentage of the population. Facebook, for example, claims just over 10,000 active users in the territory. But according to Virgin Islands politicians and candidates, there are many reasons to take a campaign online.


Among the sitting politicians who have taken steps to move online, Virgin Islands Party member Alvin Christopher (R-D2) has been one of the most vocal, hosting an official launch of his website last month. “You cannot go forward in today’s world without having access to the Internet,” Mr. Christopher said at the launch, adding that the website would be just one forum of many to reach people during the election season.

Thanks to the Internet, people can go online at their own convenience, rather than being at the mercy of others’ schedules, he pointed out.

“This forum will be up at any time that you feel comfortable,” Mr. Christopher said. “Whether it be in the morning, at noon, in the evening, or at midnight. That’s the whole reason that we decided to do this: so you can visit at your convenience.”

Mr. Christopher’s site allows visitors to read about his accomplishments since he was first elected in 1995, in addition to providing information about how to reach him and a form to send him an e-mail.

Similarly, Andrew Fahie held a launch May 8 of a website he said is dedicated to his First District. At the time, Mr. Fahie, another VIP member, said the site would allow residents to interact with him and to post messages, but as of yesterday morning, contained information about the district and speeches from Mr. Fahie, but no forum or way for visitors to post messages of their own.

As the campaign season heats up, the public is more and more interested in political issues in the Virgin Islands, said Opposition Leader Dr. Orlando Smith. For Dr. Smith, this has meant more questions about laws and policies in the territory – both in person and on his Facebook page.

“I try to give them as much information as I can,” said Dr. Smith, the leader of the National Democratic Party.

He said his Facebook profile is a way for him to stay accessible to VI residents, who can ask him anything, whether they are his neighbours or live on Anegada.

“I think the questions and the interest will continue,” Dr. Smith said. “People are anxious to find out how we are going to help fix things.”

While many users comment to voice their concerns about crime or other issues in the territory, some ask more complex political questions. Recently, for example, Dr. Smith fielded a query about how he would like to change the structure of the House of Assembly: Legislators, he wrote, should have more authority to form oversight committees, regardless of whether they are members of government or the opposition.

And while the fastest-growing age group on Facebook is 40 to 60, the web is still seen largely as a place to find the young.

“You’re capturing the most media savvy parts of the population, which does seem to be the younger segment,” said Preston Stoutt, an independent at-large candidate. Mr. Stoutt was one of the first candidates to launch a website and Facebook page this season, and he still appears to be the sole “broadcaster” on the video-sharing site Youtube and the only Twitter user among the candidates.

Twitter is similar to Facebook in that users post updates and links to other pages, but it requires each update to be 140 characters or shorter. Global statistics show Twitter users are a much smaller group, but a younger one than those who are online or those who use Facebook.

“To reach younger voters, you have to go where they are,” said Myron Walwyn, an NDP at-large candidate who has been using his Facebook page to host town hall-style discussions with residents. “You have to use whatever medium they use.”

He said the discussions, typically held on Sunday afternoons, are very active, and that people of all ages participate. The next one is slated for Sunday and will cover the topic of crime.

A May discussion on issues facing young women in the territory sparked long discussion threads, mostly from women. Some posts were about more private issues such as the way parents dress their daughters, but others were about issues government has more control over, such as making sure that the challenges of being a young single mother are correctly addressed in family life courses at schools.

To have that quality and depth of discussion at one of his party’s “big tent meetings” would be impractical, Mr. Walwyn said. Besides, he added, “You just don’t see that many young people at the tent meetings.”


While the web offers candidates a megaphone to broadcast their message, it also offers the public a chance to chime in with suggestions.

“They’ve suggested things that the party would consider implementing,” Mr. Walwyn said.

And one potential candidate may put his future career in the hands of his online fans.

Devon Osborne, who hosts a morning show on the radio station ZROD and ran for the District Nine seat in 2007, posted a poll on his website to ask visitors to vote on his next focus: politics, music or the civil service.

Mr. Osborne has previously said he planned to run again this year, but has not officially launched a campaign. This week, Mr. Osborne said he won’t announce the results of the poll or his plans for the immediate future until next week at the earliest. So far, 26 percent of those who have voted on Mr. Osborne’s website have said they want him to pursue politics.

It’s just the beginning

Even online, most of the candidates are clearly moving to boost their in-person interactions.

Dr. Smith uses Facebook to promote NDP events such as this Saturday’s big tent meeting and candidate launch. Mr. Walwyn’s women’s issues discussion ended with a group planning to form a committee to reach out to young women in the territory. Mr. Stoutt uses to recruit volunteers for tasks like going door-to-door or hosting house meetings.

The candidates may have different approaches to the world of Internet campaigning, but they all said their online efforts are still not as important as personal interaction with the public.

“Face-to-face is still the best,” Mr. Stoutt said.