Social media is all over the news lately. In the last few weeks, Ugandan officials blocked all social media apps on election day, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen freed a wrongly accused prisoner on the basis of a video posted to his Facebook wall, Mexico City officials started using Periscope to publicly shame people who break the law with impunity, and a Facebook executive was arrested by Brazilian authorities for refusing to share WhatsApp conversations between drug dealers. Governments, the private sector, and The People are all well represented in these stories. Development organizations are not.
For all the chatter about the power of mobile and the impact of putting phones in the hands of millions of women, patients, entrepreneurs, farmers, etc., there has been relatively little discussion of how the most popular tools on these devices – social media apps – can be leveraged to scale programs. Development organizations do use social media to drive education and awareness of their programs, but they could get a lot more mileage out of popular social media platforms. A few organizations are trying. The UNDP has a dedicated social media team that manages global Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn activities and posts content from 170 branch offices to YouTube and the UNDP blog. One of their main aims is to be more responsive and transparent during project implementations, rather than at the end of the project reporting cycle. Another example: the Swedish Embassy in Uganda promoted a “midwives4all” program by creating a “social media storm.” Picture 40 young, influential bloggers posting and tweeting and snapping and tumbling tightly focused information on maternal mortality for an entire day. The campaign’s organizers can tell you exactly how many Twitter users were reached during the event (631,512), and they offer useful advice to other organizations.
Social media can yield valuable data, helping organizations understand the real-time needs and challenges of program beneficiaries without the need for a special app or tool. End users and other stakeholders can directly engage in programs (e.g., as citizen activists), creating a relationship with development organizations that is more immediate and fulfilling than training sessions or informational notices. Social media can also help organizations expand the reach of programs by leveraging local networks and community influencers. On the downside, privacy, security, and data ownership could be issues, and the chaotic nature of social media makes it tough to get and use data in a timely way. Organic, even uncontrollable growth of social media stories can also result in miscommunication or unintended consequences. Despite these potential pitfalls, the rapid transition to smartphones and expanded broadband access will only intensify the use of social media. Development organizations can increase the impact and scale of their programs by creatively incorporating these under-utilized tools.