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Social media and inclusion in humanitarian response and action

Working paper

Written by Oliver Lough, Mariela Torrealba, Yorelis Acosta, Chris Dolan, David N. Tshimba, Gilbert Nuwagira

Image credit:Hannah Bass Image license:CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

This suite of papers considers inclusion in relation to social media within various humanitarian contexts. How can humanitarian actors better use and understand social media? Has the use of social media and digital technology facilitated or hindered humanitarian commitments to impartiality and inclusion?

The first paper outlines the issue and arrives at key considerations for humanitarian actors to shape future responses. The case studies provide in-depth insight into the use and impact of social media in two different humanitarian contexts: migrants and refugees travelling primarily or exclusively by foot along the the Venezuela–Colombia border, and refugees and internally displaced persons in Uganda.

This work was conducted in partnership with Medianálisis (Venezuela) and Refugee Law Project (Uganda).

Social media and inclusion in humanitarian response

Social media has occupied an ambivalent space within narratives of the formal humanitarian sector over the past decade. Techno-optimist approaches have focused on its potential to deliver better outcomes for people affected by crisis: as a way to make responses more ‘data-driven’; as a powerful broadcast tool for sharing vital information; as a way to reduce distance and engage more closely with hard-to-reach groups; and as a way to democratise both aid delivery and decision-making. Meanwhile, growing realisation of social media’s role in the spread of hate speech, rumours and disinformation; questions around how user data can be exploited or misused by different actors; and a steady drip-feed of revelations about the questionable ethics of how platforms are designed and run have all driven a growing focus on the risks.

This study explores how the presence of social media in humanitarian crises intersects with efforts to make humanitarian aid more inclusive. It finds that, despite almost a decade of bold claims regarding the potential for social media to support humanitarian action, practical engagements among humanitarian actors are, for the most part, still on the starting block.

Yet, given the steady expansion of internet access and smartphone use worldwide, social media is likely to play an increasingly prominent role for affected people in current and future crises. Consequently, it is not a phenomenon humanitarian actors can continue to side-step. Given the tendency of social media platforms to mirror and amplify existing dynamics of marginalisation, a specific focus on promoting inclusion will need to be at the heart of efforts to engage more deeply as part of fundamental humanitarian commitments to impartiality and to ‘do no harm’.

The study offers four key considerations for humanitarian actors to consider in this respect as they plot their paths forward.

Social media and inclusion in humanitarian response: ‘caminantes’ at the Venezuela–Colombia border

This study seeks to understand the role of social media in humanitarian action in the Venezuelan refugee crisis. It focuses specifically on the experiences of Venezuelan caminantes – migrants and refugees travelling primarily by foot – as they move across the border from Venezuela to Colombia.

Reflecting HPG’s wider research focus on inclusion, caminantes were selected as a highly vulnerable, socially isolated, mobile population with limited access to humanitarian aid or other support. This choice was informed by the hypothesis that social media could provide specific opportunities for people on the move to better access information or connect with service providers.

The study explores how caminantes use social media, and how far it supports their inclusion in the humanitarian response in Venezuela. Through conversations with aid actors, it also situates the specific circumstances of the caminantes within a wider lens of how social media is being used in the transboundary response more broadly. It challenges the idea that people move steadily forward into more connected lives as their encounters with new digital technologies proliferate. It also sounds a note of caution against assumptions that people displaced from middle-income settings are likely to be more connected. Ultimately, caminantes were found to be victim to a 'double exclusion': the digital divide, and an exclusion from aid due to a lack of visibility.

Social media and inclusion in humanitarian action – the case of refugees in Uganda

This study highlights a disconnect between refugees’ expectations of social media on the one hand, and humanitarians’ ability and willingness to engage with those expectations on the other. While humanitarians are right to engage with caution given the risks to themselves and to their beneficiaries if they simply rush in, the rapid evolution and usage of social media suggests that humanitarians would do well to adopt more intentional approaches to developing systems in order to use these media to mutual benefit. This has never been truer than during the current pandemic in which the imperatives of social distancing continue to re-socialise refugees and humanitarians and their interactions.

The qualitative field research on which this study is based involved refugee populations in a variety of settings (self-settled urban and settlement-based rural) in Uganda and humanitarian workers delivering different types of assistance to these refugee populations. It draws on both the findings from this qualitative research and an in-depth understanding of the particular context faced by refugees (both settled and self-settled) in Uganda, to arrive at a set of recommendations for humanitarian actors working in this particular space.