Dangerous Assumptions About Social Media in Developing Nations

An assumption we’ve seen made by some large international aid organisations and Western governments about citizen use of social media in developing nations is that their citizens don’t use it. That because official literacy rates are high and broadband Internet access is assumed to only reach the elites, the general population isn’t engaged. This is a very dangerous assumption and one we’ve shown to be wrong on a number of occasions. Here’s our findings;

¬†1. Underground Internet: In projects with partner research firms and from other independent findings we often uncover a larger than expected “underground Internet” population. These are people who access the Internet from Internet Cafe’s and pirated connections. In countries like Haiti, Iraq and Afghanistan, it is not uncommon for someone in an apartment complex or neighbourhood to buy a DSL or high-bandwidth line and then rent access to others around them either wirelessly or through a hard wired router. Assuming that the non-elite can’t or aren’t buying PC’s is again a misconception. There is access to these machines through black markets and retailers. Granted, they may be Windows 98 running IE4, but they can still access online forums and basic services – enough that people can engage in online dialogue.

2. Assumed¬†Illiteracy: On the ground surveys and “official” reporting by a government may allude to high illiteracy rates. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Measurement of literacy is questionable. People learn character recognition and find literacy by many different means. Often, programs run by NGO’s, especially religious NGO’s are not counted. Yet they are increasing the literacy rate far faster than might be assumed by a foreign government. In our research projects we found computer literacy rates to sometimes be higher than 20% of what the official government reported. The government of a developing nation reporting low literacy rates helps ensure more aid funding to improve its education programs.

3. The Mobile & Wireless Connection: In many cases, developing nations completely bypass landline infrastructure and go to wireless mobile infrastructure. The systems than get installed range from Edge to G3 networks with many being 3G networks. SmartPhones are affordable, as are data packages. More so than in western nations where data packages are often more costly. Coupled with real literacy rates, the accessibility of mobile devices by those in developing nations translates to quick use of social media apps like Twitter, Facebook and others.

4. The Facebook Delusion: We see this quite often. An assumption by a Western NGO or government that because the population in a developing nation that uses Facebook is primarily elites, that non-elites are not connected to social networks. The reality is that outside of Western and developed nations, Facebook is often not the primary social network. In fact, Facebook will often be far down the list. Those in developing nations and other parts of the world will likely use a social network more integrated with their culture. Like Latin Americans using Orkut ahead of Facebook or Haitians preferring forums over Facebook.

5. False Frame of Reference Assumptions: In developing nations, we primarily use Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Flickr and Blogger or WordPress as the top social media apps to access. It is often assumed that these are the only social media channels available. The truth is that there are literally thousands of other tools out there for blogs, images, videos and microblogs as well as social networks. When an NGO or government agency doesn’t see activity in a quick Facebook search (and by the way, search in Facebook is terrible) they assume there is little to no engagement. It is natural for people to make assumptions based on our known frames of reference.

6. The Unconsidered Digital Diaspora: Almost every developing nation has diaspora; sometimes first generation refugees, and often second, third or fourth generation. Regardless, there are always diaspora connected to their country of origin. These communities often collect information from families and friends living in the home nation and then communicate events and issues via social media platforms. This can be a rich source of information often untapped and unrealised by their host nation.

As a result of these assumptions, larger NGO’s and governments may miss several key opportunities that could help them a) improve aid delivery, b) engage in deeper digital diplomacy and c) understand better the situation on the ground politically and in aid terms. Unfortunately, this gap in understanding can’t be laid at the feet of government centres like Ottawa, Washington or London. Such assumptions may also reside in the central cities where their field headquarters are by staff who may not be as connected to the ground as sometimes is assumed.

We see this as a transitional phase in truly understanding the impact of the social web in the developing and developed world. As many people in government do not use social media tools for more than entertainment and family communications, it is easy to assume that is how others use these tools. These are complex times and the communications dynamic is shifting daily and weekly. A lot has to be learned and just blindly jumping in can also be dangerous.