Humanitarian Aid and Social Media: Possibilities and Considerations

16 May 2012 | 15:40

Humanitarian Aid and Social Media: Possibilities and Considerations

The rise of social media has dramatically altered the way we communicate and interact with each other. Numerous articles have explored the use of social media as a political tool or a means for raising awareness and mobilisation. This can have both positive, as well as negative outcomes.

The humanitarian community is increasingly looking into ways how it can capitalise on the recent rise of social media, as well as other advancements in technology. A quick search on several social media outlets, such as Twitter and Facebook suggests that most of the major humanitarian agencies are actively using social media to raise awareness on their activities and ongoing crises in the world.

Generally speaking humanitarian agencies use social media in two interlinked ways:
- For information sharing purposes, to raise awareness on crises;
- And linked to this, to spur (civil) mobilisation to facilitate fundraising efforts for crisis response.

Humanitarian agencies also increasingly recognise the need for better communication with, and information delivery to beneficiaries, to establish greater understanding of their needs. A recent article on AlertNet highlighted several initiatives that promote the use of social media and other information sharing technologies to improve the effectiveness of aid delivery, in particular in relation to fostering relations with beneficiaries.

One such initiative is a project called Infoasaid. This is a joint initiative by BBC Media Action and Internews with the objective of “improving the quality of humanitarian assistance through enhanced information exchange between crisis-affected populations and aid agencies.” The website offers e-learning modules, a library and several tools to aid community profiling and assessments.

Will Twitter put the U.N. out of the disaster business?
Source: AlertNet 24/03/2012

Social Media Use and Humanitarian Action
Source: HPCR 19/04/2012


Social Media & Security
Improving information sharing and communication with beneficiaries will not only better enable humanitarian agencies to deliver according to needs, but is also of great importance when thinking about security concerns. A better understanding by communities and beneficiaries of the intentions of aid agencies might lead to greater acceptance and thus a safer and more secure operating environment.

Jason Cone, Communications Director at MSF also highlighted this recently in an article on the ‘Promise of Social Media for Humanitarian Action’. As Cone pointed out “it remains to be seen whether social media can be a relevant tool in helping our field teams to close the […] gaps in understanding. What is clear, however, is that the issue of perception can have important implications for the security and effectiveness of our aid programs.” Cone also mentions that currently most aid agencies lack the human resources to effectively use, monitor and analyse the information that comes from social media.

During a seminar by Harvard University’s Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research (HPCR) Jason Cone also admitted that MSF is still exploring the ways how social media can influence current and future security issues. What is clear, however, is that social media should be used in different ways, depending on the context. Eventually it is nothing more than a means to an end. In the wake of a natural disaster open information sharing might be more appropriate than in politicised environments, such as a conflict. In the latter case, closed communication means such as Skype or blackberry messenger might be more appropriate.

The Promise of Social Media for Humanitarian Action?
Source: HPCR 10/05/2012

Real-life Examples and Considerations
In addition to the considerations above, the NGO Security Blog posted an item on the topic of social media and security. In this post, real-life examples are used to indicate how the use of social media by humanitarian aid workers can compromise their safety and security. Some examples are:
• “Blog posts about upcoming program site visits (including dates, destinations, and routes) in an area noted for banditry
• An interview that appeared in an online magazine where a staff member discussed the details of refugee camp security measures
• A Facebook page belonging to an ex-pat staff member working in a Muslim country that contained culturally insensitive photos and comments”

The author of the NGO security blog highlights the need for management of humanitarian agencies to consider a good social media policy that includes information on acceptable online behaviour, as well as educating staff about the risks that can occur as a consequence of unguided use of social media.

One practitioner, Joel McNamara (Humanitarian Security Advisor) points to the inherent challenges of using social media. On the one hand “personal transparency is widely encouraged and rewarded by all of the outlets. But quite often there's not much thought given to the potential impact and repercussions of sharing certain types of data. While organisations can always dictate policy, it seems to me much better to raise awareness and get people to think about and understand possible security implications of blogging/tweeting/Face-booking.”

Social media and security
Source: NGO Security Blogspot 25/9/2011

Social Media and Crisis Management
Organisations would also do well to consider how social media can impact on crisis management. Think for example about:
• The speed at which news spreads after an incident. This is often much faster than through traditional media outlets (e.g. newspapers/news channels).
• Information about staff being available to hostage takers through online networking websites. This will make it much more difficult to control the staff member profile.
• An increased reliance of traditional media on social media (especially Twitter) as a major source of breaking news. If a topic appears on Twitter, e.g. news of an incident, it is likely to appear pretty soon on news channels. This means it could be harder to keep the early stages of an incident quiet.

Generally speaking, it is much harder to control outputs and information flows on social media compared to information that is disseminated through traditional types of media. Organisations should be aware of this and adapt policy and practice where appropriate.


Social Media Use in Practice
On May 10, the HPCR at Harvard University organised a live seminar on 'Social Media as a Tool for Humanitarian Protection.' During this seminar the results of a recent survey on the use of social media by humanitarian workers were discussed. The survey included responses of 820 participants working in the humanitarian sector. Interestingly the majority of the respondents came from Africa (24%), followed by Asia and the United States (both 20%). The survey found that the most common usage of social media is for the purposes of: news and information; exchange of information with peers; professional networking; and research. Around 50% of the respondents also use social media for advocacy or marketing purposes or to promote their organisation.

The most commonly used social media outlets are LinkedIn, Facebook, Youtube, Blogs and Twitter. The discussants noted that Twitter will likely take on a leading role in the coming years. Organisations that are based in the United States/Canada are most likely to have a social media strategy, with organisations in the Middle East lagging behind.

Regarding perceptions on the future of social media, the majority of the respondents indicated that they believe that the use of social media will increase and will have an increasing impact on humanitarian action. Even higher percentages of the respondents expect to use social media over the next 3 years. The discussants pointed out that this indicates that organisations need to take social media into account in their strategies and planning.

For a full recording of the seminar, including presentation of the survey results, go to the following link.

EISF intends to do further research on the topic of social media and its impact on security of humanitarian operations. If you are interested in this topic and would like to share ideas, please contact


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