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Social Media Use and the Humanitarian Sector


In recent years, humanitarian professionals have undertaken various initiatives that draw on the world’s expanding social media use.  Many humanitarian agencies have developed robust presences on Facebook and Twitter, and numerous recently founded non-governmental organizations (NGOs) — such as Ushahidi and infoasaid — are devoted to increasing the effectiveness of communications technology in humanitarian crises.  Additionally, in 2009, the United Nations Secretary-General created Global Pulse, an initiative geared toward, as the agency’s web-site states, “harnessing today's new world of digital data and real-time analytics to gain a better understanding of changes in human well-being.”
 
But critiques have arisen that, despite the prevalence of such initiatives, the humanitarian sector has insufficiently kept pace with social media developments.  A policy brief published last month by BBC Media Action asserts, “[A]id workers often dismiss sites like Twitter and Facebook as either frivolous, irrelevant to the communities in which they work or beyond the reach of the poor.”  And a recent AlertNet article notes that many humanitarian professionals believe that deeper engagement with social media is necessary for effective humanitarian action.  
 
As the BBC Media Action policy brief states, “evidence suggests that communication matters more than ever to affected communities, especially communications technology, and especially in the hours and days immediately after a disaster.”  In some cases — such as the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, as examined in a 2011 report published by Internews — crisis-affected communities have undertaken their own social media initiatives.  In other cases, though vulnerable populations may not have direct access to social media platforms, traditional media sources upon which these communities rely for information increasingly gather data from social media.  In these instances, beneficiaries who do not use social media technologies themselves may still benefit indirectly from social media platforms.
 
Additionally, the Kony 2012 video demonstrates the potential power of social media for humanitarian advocacy.  Released in March 2012, the video was seen by millions of Internet users within days.  Many analysts critiqued the video’s content — for example David Rieff, writing for Foreign Policy, called the video “dangerous propaganda” and criticized the video’s creators for not asking: “What might be the risks to Uganda's civilian population if the U.S. government were to give aid and more advanced military equipment to the Ugandan military to track Kony, thus strengthening a regime in Kampala whose hands are anything but clean — as anyone who was in eastern Congo during the Ugandan intervention there in the late-1990s can attest?”  But such critiques actually underscore the significant role — whether positive or negative — that social media can play in humanitarian action.  

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