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.

Why Governments Engage in Digital Diplomacy Through Social Media

The US State Department and the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) are perhaps the most engaged Western governments when it comes to social media. Following them is Sweden and Australia. Lagging is Canada, Germany and other major Western nations. Even terror groups like Al Qaeda use some social media tools such as Twitter. Russia is engaged and Hugo Chavez, when not in Cuba for health care, is madly “tweeting” on Twitter. But why? Does it make sense in this new area called Digital Diplomacy? Very much so and public diplomacy is nothing new. It’s been going on for hundreds of years.

To understand why Digital Diplomacy is a natural part of Public Diplomacy, just look at how foreign governments have a long history of reaching out to citizens of a foreign land. Public Diplomacy has been a staple part of Soft Power for centuries. Modern public diplomacy has mostly been shaped and defined by America; and they do an exceptionally good job. It’s aim is to influence the general public in the country in which the instigator has a foreign policy interest – everything from trade negotiations to peace operations. Traditional public diplomacy tactics range from advertising and editorial coverage in foreign newspapers to bringing youth to a country to study at universities and exporting cultural elements (exporting culture is considered an aspect of Soft Power.)

Digital Diplomacy is simply extending the aims and goals of Public Diplomacy into cyberspace/Cyburbia. Today, Cyburbia is an increasingly deeper part of our every day lives; from email to classifieds, online dating, social networking – over 2 billion people worldwide connect to Cyburbia every day in some form. That doesn’t mean you have to open a browser on your computer to access the Internet. Your email comes to your SmartPhone, you might access Facebook or Twitter through your SmartPhone or iPad, never once opening a browser or watch YouTube videos through your DVD player or, Roku box or AppleTV.

Countries that understand the complexities of today’s fractured media landscape know that public diplomacy through traditional channels alone is no longer enough. Added to this is the aspect of being able to develop a dialogue with non-state actors and groups as well as individuals. With citizen groups and individuals having the ability to form groups and communicate at virtually no cost, effective use of Digital Diplomacy by a foreign government advancing an agenda, can become much more effective. A foreign government knows that if it effectively communicates its agenda and gets more support in Cyburbia, it can add political pressure by citizens. This is most effective in democratic countries, a lot harder in less or non-democratic states. But different tactics are used and messaging can help encourage citizens in a difficult country.

The key to Digital Diplomacy is a) the ability to shape a message quickly and adapt it as conditions change and b) to be able to actually engage in dialogue with the target audiences in the foreign country. Two elements that have never before been possible. These two factors are very powerful. Governments that understand this and engage with a strategy will have an effective Soft Power tool.

Digital Diplomacy is A New Soft Power Element

Digital Diplomacy…is it worthwhile? What is the impact if any? Why even bother with digital diplomacy? And there are more questions than that as the U.S. and the UK lead the way in digital diplomacy. So what does digital diplomacy even mean? In short, it means a government putting out it’s foreign policy messages via social media channels, looking to engage in dialogue with the target countries. It’s not without some controversy and there are those who suggest it’s just a form of cultural export…

Digital Diplomacy is certainly an aspect of Soft Power, of which one element is cultural exports. Hard Power is the use of force, such as military elements deployed to project force to ensure a foreign power understands the threat and the potential of damage to them from the use of Hard Power. On the other hand, Soft Power is a complex set of tools ranging from embargoes through to exporting ones culture; such as Bollywood movies entering the Western entertainment field and American television being broadcast into European households. Or MacDonalds in many countries.

Digital Diplomacy is a new element of Soft Power. It enables countries that use it well, to reach an audience through social media channels that it might not otherwise reach. By the US State Department and the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) use of the same tools, they have the ability to project their foreign policy views into other countries. It also enables the average citizen of the U.S. or UK to participate in communicating the message of a government through their own choice. A prime example may be the diaspora of a country living in America sharing and discussing US foreign policy issues to people in their homeland.

As a result of this citizen to citizen (C2C) engagement, a foreign government can engage in dialogue and undermine a dictatorship or ensure a greater understanding of their objectives, bypassing the rhetoric of a totalitarian regime such as in Burma or Syria. It can also bolster the support of rebel groups, such as those in Syria, that a foreign country acknowledges their issues and mission.

The Best Part of Digital Diplomacy
Diplomacy is all about ideas, ideologies and views of how the world could be. Most importantly, when properly executed, digital diplomacy can help foster more open dialogue. When we understand each others views, opinions and concerns more clearly, we are less likely to seek conflict as a method of resolution. By the U.S. and UK and increasingly Norway and Sweden, use digital diplomacy by engaging in dialog through Twitter, blogs, Google+, Facebook and other tools, they provide a second viewpoint than that of a particular State.

When such engagements deepen the reach into civil society in a state of conflict or where the leaderships rhetoric is more violent in its intent, dialogue might more easily happen. This is a good thing. As long as people are talking, there is less chance of violent outcomes. Social Media tools enable an opportunity to engage civil societies in more dialogue. That can’t be a bad thing can it?

Why Social Media Really Works in Civil Actions


Issues for protest or causing some form of unrest aside, the real reason social media tools have been a key technology in driving significant societal changes comes down to one reason we propose – lowered individual risk and group comfort. One person protesting in front of city hall is unlikely to cause a change. You need a lot of people. Our research into Keystone XL and the use of social media by civil society groups showed how now even groups can connect with other groups to take action on issues.

Herd Mentality
The truth is that we as humans prefer to act in groups. We have to. One person alone cannot build an office tower. When we see others gathering, we are more likely to join in when we share that groups values, ideas, opinions or vision.

Social Media Shows Commitment
Look at a Facebook group page on an issue of society, a celebrity or brand. If one group has thousands of followers we assume that group is generally more popular. A group page with just a few members isn’t as compelling. We’ll go for the group with more people – in general. An individual will go where there’s the perception of others with similar views. As social media tools thrive on high volumes of users, require little to know technical skills and are available through mobile devices as well, a person can quickly see when something is becoming popular. When we see others are committed, we’re more likely to commit.

Digital Mob Mentality
When an issue takes off, like #Occupy, Egyptian revolution or the London riots of 2011, people go into what we term Digital Mob Mentality. They are fast to comment and quick to share with their peer networks. This becomes a feeding frenzy of information. Coordination is quick, communication is essentially at zero cost and there is no friction. To those that suggest “slacktivism” takes place, yes, to some degree. But as the above events and many others show, the slacktivists are far less than those who can and do actively participate in the issue.

Hyper-Momentum & Networks
Because of the significant increases in the use of mobile data devices (SmartPhones and Tablets) and the easy access to social media technologies over increasingly higher bandwidth networks, an issue gains what we call hyper-momentum. The story spreads fast and furious. Far faster than ever before in human history. No one has to wait for mail to arrive or has to be at home to take the phone call. And every one of us has social networks of friends, family, co-workers etc. And we trust news and actions of friends very quickly. More so than official government communications. In several research projects we’ve done for governments around the use of social media in both natural and man-made disasters, we see a greater reliance on information passed through social networks or the social graph than that coming from government (including policing and fire services.)

In Summary
When we see other people taking part in something we are curious. Whenever we see a crowd, we are curious as to what has drawn other peoples attention. These behaviours are simply translated to online services through social media. The more we see others with a similar view are committed to an action, the more likely we are to participate. It’s as simple as that. And we have plenty of evidence.

Social Media As a Soft Power Tool in Global Affairs

Based on much of our research, social media is not just a tool for promoting democracy (although that is hotly debated) but we see it as becoming a “soft power” tool on global issues. Perhaps one that even citizens can use to garner influence and attention from other nation states. For those not familiar with hard and soft power, in a very simple way it is this; “hard power” is the use of military forces in a direct way (i.e. bombing Libya recently to aid democratic forces) whereas “soft power” are tools like sanctions (economic) that can impact a country (e.g. sanctions against Syria’s dictatorship.)

Social Media and The Art of Political Perceptions in Soft Power
Perhaps one of the best examples of using social media tools in the ongoing game of “soft power” is the US State Department. Closely followed by the UK government. On the dictatorial side is Iran with it’s army of counter revolutionary bloggers and the likes of Hugo Chavez using Twitter (given all the coffee Chavez drinks Twitter would seem to suit him.)

These tools become just another part of the arsenal of persuasion and perception development/management as part of a governments communications strategy. But they are not insignificant as some might think. In ways small and large, these messages enter the Cyburbian stream of concsiousness, they are shared, edited, discussed, debated and added to. They can also add context to a situation that may not find coverage in traditional news media.

Defining Positioning
Using social media services, governments can define their positions more clearly using text, images and video. This then becomes a relied upon source by academia, think-tanks and other governments. We’re not indicating the “truth” of a statement or definition of a position, just that this is how they can be used. How they are used.

Civil Society Has a Big Voice
The other side of this is that civil society groups (from Greenpeace to PETA to Medicins Sans Frontiers) now have a global voice. They can and do use these tools to shape views, opinions and perceptions. Influential citizens can join the conversation as well and become thought leaders both for an against issues in any language or culture. This new ability for civil society to participate in the global dialogue and have influence is a new dynamic in applying to soft power.

There is a whole new dynamic to global communications and their impact on the use of soft power tools. One that will offer some fascinating areas of study for many years to come.