Social Media’s Role in Aid Delivery & Programs

While there is much discussion regarding the use of social media for crowdsourcing during humanitarian crises, there are other relevant applications of social media analysis and engagement on an ongoing basis. But first, some assumptions need to be addressed – namely that there is little use of social media by non-elites in developing nations. Such an assumption has lead to some missed opportunities and more based on some of our research.

Often, in developing nations, social media services are accessed through mobile phones, either by texting to a social network or accessing it directly through an app on the phone. Non-elites or general society often access the Internet and social media services through Internet cafe’s or buying from an individual who has set up a private ISP service from their home. In our research projects in Sudan, Haiti, Benin, DRC, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries we estimated Internet use by the general population (non-elites) was on average, 43% higher than official estimates taken from reporting ISP’s in the country.

By researching and analysing social media usage by civil society (both non-state organisational actors and individuals) aid agencies, governments helping in reconstruction or aid and other organisations, can gain some key insights into topical issues. They may identify areas where aid isn’t reaching or be able to better define political atmospherics, new groups to engage with and more meaningful dialogue opportunities.

These are but some of the benefits to researching and understanding the engagement of civil society in social media today. Others become apparent when research is undertaken and aid organisations or governments can enhance their digital and public diplomacy activities.

Twitter, Emerging Markets & Digital Diplomacy

Twitter announced on May 7th of 2012 that it has made significant changes to its software for mobile devices (iPhones, iPads, tablets and BlackBerry’s etc.) so that it uses less bandwidth than previous versions – all ostensibly to benefit users in emerging markets (read: developing nations.) The first obvious intent of such a move is for marketing purposes to drive revenues. That is of course, the initial strategy. But it has deeper implications in terms of public diplomacy or eDiplomacy.

In Moldova in 2009, citizens planned to use Twitter to start a revolution. It failed miserably. In 2009, Twitter featured prominently in the Iranian failed Green Revolution (although some research indicates most “tweets” in support of the Iran revolution were coming from non-Iranians outside Iran.) The use of Twitter by the Occupy movement and during the protests against Keystone XL Pipeline are examples more regionally. In terms of revolutions, Twitter cannot and will not create revolutions, that is the work of humans. But Twitter can, and has, played a critical role in organising and communicating. Such was the case in Egypt and during the Arab Spring as a whole.

With the app for mobile devices now to become more accessible in low-bandwidth areas, the can provide a critical tool to those in less democratic nations who want to rally people to a cause or create attention in Western nations. It is key to realize that Twitter enables a more global engagement than ever before; but that’s another blog post.

For those practicing Digital Diplomacy or eDiplomacy, this is yet another tool that becomes more readily available in terms of reach and engagement. Although it is interesting to note that most “emerging markets” that are building wireless/cellular networks often end up with better bandwidth and cheaper access to more services than found in Canada and the U.S. and many EU countries. As an example, Haiti has implemented a 3G network, rivalling that of Canadians and many American cities at comparable lower cost. Still, a lower bandwidth Twitter app is good in many ways.

Analysis of Foreign Language Usage in Twitter: Tunisia

It’s common knowledge that Twitter today can play a key role in communications and organising for not just marketing, but civil society issues, such as the Arab Spring and Occupy. Most of our research is for multi-national corporations and governments around public policy and diplomacy. As part of this, Twitter is one of many channels that we look at. This means we have to work in multiple languages. And we’d hazard a guess that very few firms deal in langages in social media like we do. With that context set, we’ve found some interesting aspects to the use of Twitter around languages.

It is often assumed that for the country in question, citizens will use mostly if not always, the native language. Turns out this isn’t the case. Languages will be mixed up with up to three languages in a single “tweet” and multiple hashtags. In research into the use of Twitter in Tunisia, Haiti, Sudan and Afghanistan we found that these languages will comprise of; 1) native tongue (Arabic, Kreyol, Tribal), 2) English and 3) the Colonial country’s language such as Spanish or French. In the case of Tunisia (and other former French colony countries) we also found that French words/numbers may be used that “sound” like an Arabic word. Not even Google Translate can manage this level of complexity, especially when you add numerical characters and an ever changing Lexicon of words.

Here’s an example of a tweet in Tunisia around the recent election: “j’ai vote ta7ya tounes #TyElec #vote” Which basically means “I voted in the Tunisia election” and what “ta7ya tounes” translates to is Arabic for “long live Tunisia.” The use of “ta7ya” is French and a number that makes up the sound of an Arabic word. Our study looked at 16,700 distinct users all located in Tunisia. We found that 67% of all tweets contained at least one English word with 14% of tweets being fully English. 92% of the tweets we looked at (over  a 1 month period from February to March 2012) contained a hashtag. Overall French and English dominated the tweets, which is interesting given it is predominantly an Arabic speaking language. We anticipated a high level of French with Tunisia being a former French colony.

The use of hashtags in Twitter for civil society issues has a complex set of communications goals that are used to identify; 1) Event, 2) Location, 3)Timing, 4) Opinion or view. They may also be used to establish political standing, tribal or community standing and a sub-set of events or issues and at times to add another layer of context. An example of an added layer of context is the use of the #Syria and #tugov (means Tunisian government) where the Syrian ambassador to Tunisia was asked to leave. This event took place during the election period and was a subset issue of the national election.

In the cases of Haiti we found little use of Kreyol (at only 12% of all tweets examined) and a much higher use of English (68% of the tweets) than French where we had expected French to be used. The Haitian tweets we looked at were from Haiti and we excluded Haitian diaspora. This is an interesting finding for a country that until the 2010 earthquake used very little English in social media. In Sudan we found that hashtags are often used by people to first identify their tribe or region of Sudan. Arabic and English dominated with very little use of tribal languages.

All of this goes to show that Twitter has become a key communication tool for people around the world. For those that don’t understand Twitter and only see the “silly” tweets, this finding we are releasing and our other research shows that Twitter plays a key role in the voice of civil society today and we suspect it will only increase. For building any analytics with natural language processing, it will be a daunting task and always be limited by the rapid changes in hashtags, short life-spans for some hashtags and their evolving nature in  Twitter communications. We also posit that the dominant use of English and French is that nationals and civil society groups are intending to reach an international audience, including news media.

This issue also adds a layer of complexity for foreign governments with digital diplomacy and public diplomacy programs that use social media. They will need to develop an understanding of the meanings and context of hashtags as they evolve and to understand how words may be played with and what the use of former colonial languages may be signalling, if anything.

Facebook Dangers for Global Marketers

You’re a global company, or maybe a small to midsize business and your marketing your products around the world. For your social media marketing efforts the first natural assumption would be, of course, Facebook. You’d be partially right. But focusing all your efforts on Facebook may mean you’ll miss between 30% and 50% of your target market. While Facebook is certainly the world’s largest, there are hundreds of other social networks like it and they service cultural, special interest and country or region-specific peoples. Here’s what you need to think about;

Orkut - This is the choice for people in Latin America – majority in Brazil. While it has people from other countries, it is a superb channel to reach Hispanics and Latin Americans. Note that Orkut is owned by Google. They are building tight integration with Google+ and it is working.

Google+ - Our research here has found an increasing engagement by Eastern Europeans, Asian countries and the Middle East. In the Middle East it is seen as having more privacy controls than Facebook and being more “trustworthy”.

India: You’ll want to look more closely at Fropper and Ibibo (Ibibo is more games focused) for the top social networks in those countries. Especially amongst youth. In India, Facebook is more often used for international business, students and family members (diaspora) living/working/studying abroad.

hi5 - Yes, it still exists and it’s thriving in Jamaica, Romania, Latin America (the most), Thailand, a bit in India, Mongolia and Central African countries like the DRC. It has also begun to shift more towards games for youth. A trend we see in some of these sites that have no doubt lost some traffic to Facebook.

iWiW – Pretty much exclusive to Hungarians with some Latvians thrown in for good measure.

Nasza-Klasa or NK: Very popular with Polish youth and some Polish diaspora, especially those that study in other countries. Average age is about 25.

Renren – Pretty much China, with the added enjoyment of government overseers so you’ll want to be sure you tout the party line in your marketing efforts here. Remember, Facebook is banned in China, though there are indicators of workarounds and spotty reports you can access Facebook in Shanghai.

Vkontakte – This is Russia’s Facebook and if you really want to reach Russians, this is the channel. Recent reports however, indicate that government may be monitoring this channel. With the upcoming federal elections and protests being organised, we may see a shift to Google+ and Facebook.

Xing – This is the choice mostly of Germans, Austrians and Swiss with a smattering from other European countries. It has also changed its consumer focus to become more targeted to businesses competing with eCademy in Europe. - A more game oriented site, but targeting Greek youth and young adults.

NetLog – Another European centric social network. Like Bebo in the UK, NetLog is now targeting youth more and more. Still it is a platform worth looking at if you’re targeting youth in Europe. For some reason it has a good number of Canadians – likely diaspora.

SkyRock - Mostly the French speaking community. France-centric but Skyrock has French and English speakers around the world. It is also popular with former French colonies in Africa.

CaribShout - Want to connect to Caribbeans? This is their social network. Very popular with young adults up to 35 and for dating.

These are the “mainstream” social networks around the world. There are many others, over 200 in fact. Other social networks become increasingly “niche” such as hobbies, sports and special interest (as noted in a previous blog post.) There are a few business focused social networks as well, like LinkedIn and we’ll review those in a future post.

If you’re focus is international, do your research first. Find out where the best opportunity may rest and develop a strategy accordingly. Also consider that many social media monitoring tools don’t access these services and so you’ll need to do that more manually.

The Role of Social Media in Foreign Policy

Most discussion on social medias impact on society has been around business – marketing and public relations. But in 2011, we began to see that social medias are playing an increasingly important role in the world of international relations; both democratic and otherwise. This increasingly important role of the Internet in international political affairs arguably started in 2009 with the failed green revolution in Iran and came to the forefront in the Arab Spring start in  January 2011. But as we point out below, social media engagement is not just about security intelligence matters – it can help make our world a better place, in a peaceful way.

Governments are increasingly seeing opportunities for engaging citizens in other countries, and of engaging their own citizens living and working in foreign countries. In our hyper-connected world and seemingly smaller world, such engagement by governments is increasingly important. Citizens in conflict or dictatorial states can, although often not easily, connect with and understand how democratic countries operate and potentially connect with them for support or advice.

Prior to the Internet and the advent of social medias, governments of one country relied on the industrial media of the foreign country to communicate their message; not an easy thing to do in open, developed nations. Impossible in closed states. Now, with citizens in fragile states engaging increasingly in social media, even through mobile devices, it means developed nations can gain better insights into the real concerns of civil society, not just the political elite. This can mean better aid policy decisions, improved trade negotiations and peace operations activity.

For a comprehensive look at the darker side of these issues, we recommend The Net Delusion by Evgeny Morozov for a sobering viewpoint. While he makes some interesting points, he does miss the benefits and the fact there are signs of changes in dictatorial countries. Changes that may take time, but are underway. One democratic state that doesn’t see value to social media however, is New Zealand, who has a policy of non-engagement.

International relations and global politics today is all about seeking dialogue to resolve disputes. That dialogue may be negotiations or using organizations such as the UN or WTO for dispute resolution. This may take longer, but is far better an outcome than war. As governments become more comfortable and develop social media engagement policies, we can be sure to see further engagement in these channels. The question is – will citizens be interested? Can such engagement have the influence governments hope? Our research in this area so far indicates yes, but it depends on a large number of factors and it is still early days.