Chapter 6: Social media in the humanitarian space – Public Interest and Private Rights in Social Media


Social media in the humanitarian space

Claudia Gonzalez and Alan Rosenblatt


When any individual or entity engages in activities for the benefit of social good, it is beneficial to use social media tools. Greater integration, especially among like-minded entities, increases information flow, as well as the global visibility of critical issues. Humanitarian missions, thereby, become more effective. This chapter provides clear guidance for communications and promotions personnel who are engaged with resolving humanitarian issues. In addition, lessons learned indicate the need for more thought in relation to engaging with the broader audience through the use of social media. This applies as much to connecting at the grass-roots level in areas requiring assistance as it does to the general public that has the capacity to provide needed support and funds. Of particular importance is for organisations in the humanitarian space to be true to their own identity before exploring ways of communicating anything to the world at large. In addition, a strategic approach to social media usage allows for direct and effective interaction with individuals and communities all over the world.

Key words

social media

humanitarian space

social good


non-government organisation

civil society


World Economic Forum

evolution of social media


Global Fund to Fight AIDS

Tuberculosis and Malaria

Born HIV Free campaign

prevention of HIV from mother to child

World AIDS Day

civic mobilisation

crisis response

best practices


The definition of what exactly encompasses the so-called ‘humanitarian sphere’ has become blurry due to different approaches taken by related stakeholders. A specialised perspective would differentiate between what falls within the humanitarian field and that of the development sector. However, for the purpose of this chapter we will follow a more general interpretation of what is the ‘humanitarian sphere’, with this deemed to be the delivery of services and advocacy from individuals and organisations towards a social good.

Furthermore, although we might find diverse individuals and organisations that play a part in creating and maintaining the humanitarian sphere, in this chapter, we will focus on those that we consider are key participants, particularly in the communication process. These include media, civil society, governments and non-governmental organisations.

Governments, traditionally, as donors and recipients, are main actors in the humanitarian sphere, followed by various non-government organisations (NGOs) that emerged with specific humanitarian missions, as well as with the intention to tackle various issues more effectively and with a global perspective. Their non-governmental status helps these entities serve humanitarian needs in an otherwise politicised conflict area.

Nowadays, civil society has become a significant focus, and the NGOs promoting civil society are playing an increasingly significant role, especially given the introduction of new technologies that overcome barriers of distance and time, thereby allowing for more immediate communication, mobilisation and organisation. This has also expanded the role of the media – even what constitutes the ‘media’ – as an important participant that now goes beyond reporting, and on to influencing the different players, as well as creating a dynamic relationship.

Networking offline and online

The notion of connecting

In order to have a positive outcome when delivering social good, it is crucial that there is an effective relationship between all the players within the humanitarian sphere. This connection between individuals and organisations creates communities formed around a common goal. Therefore, enhancing the flow of information across the globe to allied organisations, and similarly aligned individuals, offers ever-greater opportunities to create robust humanitarian efforts that are sustainable and, perhaps, even achieving related outcomes with less resources than were required in the past.

With the emergence of social media technology, robust networking is possible today and more than ever. Once, traditional offline networks were limited to relatively small geographic regions, utilising sporadic and narrow- bandwidth interactions with allies across the globe. Now, social media technology is creating long and wide bridges that enable a constant flow of communication from offline communities to online communities, and back again. As a direct result, communities are larger, fewer of them feel isolated, and more resources are able to flow throughout these social webs.

Among the implications of this deeper and wider social graph, knitting the humanitarian world together is generating greater global attention in relation to a wider range of humanitarian concerns. Historically, concerns for a humanitarian crisis in one country would capture the world’s attention, while similar crises in neighbouring nations were left unattended. Today, we can easily see and tie together the plight of several countries that share the same predicament. By doing so, we can keep the full scope of the associated crises in front of the global audience. Thus, issues of genocide in Sudan lay the foundation for a global awareness and mobilisation for combating genocide across the African continent, instead of just focusing on Sudan.

Even where global communities are forming to address a single crisis, communities doing the same to address similar crises in other countries quite easily and naturally connect with each other. This sense of an integrated, global community allows for greater information sharing and, thus, facilitates the development and delivery of more effective solutions to the humanitarian issues at hand.

Also, within the world of social media technology, we see the benefits of these meta-integrations. In the early days of social media, different countries and regions embraced different social media platforms, furthering the separateness of the communities addressing humanitarian concerns within those countries and regions. In recent years, the combination of cross-social media platform integration, and the growth of mega-social networks (e.g. Facebook), is breaking down organisational and communal silos online as well as offline.

Clearly, greater interconnection leads to positive outcomes. While Facebook quickly approaches a billion users, that application (as well as other social network platforms, and even ordinary websites) is developing ways to cross-post from one social network to another, and from one website to all social networks.

Thus, the fluidity of the social graph is not only offline to online to offline, but also online to online. As a consequence, and as can be imagined, the ever-growing possible configurations for connecting communities in different parts of the world, and on different online social networks, is shrinking the world. This makes the humanitarian mission more effective. From any vantage point in the world, individuals and organisations can now play a substantial role in addressing nearly any humanitarian crisis. It is notable that we are only just beginning to see the implications of this remarkable development.

The fact that networking is essential was understood early on by the World Economic Forum (WEF), an independent international organisation committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas. In 1971, the WEF built its networking model around the idea of becoming a platform that enables the exchange of ideas between leaders of different fields. When that defining moment came, it was a natural transition towards online networking, and in 1996 the WEF created ‘Welcome’, a first attempt of an internal platform for all meeting participants to engage, discuss and create online. However, this didn’t have the desired impact due to a lack of knowledge and understanding that participants had of the new technology at that time. In spite of this issue, the first significant step was taken, and the organisation continued to look for different ways to take advantage of new technologies.

In 2004, the WEF launched a blog in which key people could share the valuable content that was created through exchanges with their members. Later on, the WEF went a step further and made available the vast majority of WEF content. This was achieved by using Livestream in most WEF sessions, as well as making all WEF press conferences available online. This initiative has had great impact since journalists don’t need to be present at WEF events to gather the news. Also, by going online, the WEF can reach a larger audience. In addition, there are online debates that act as warm-ups for each WEF event and that also feed into subsequent discussions. This communications strategy has proved itself to be a perfect way for the WEF to involve a greater audience, and so capture key interests of the general public.

Nowadays, since the WEF engaged with a community that is involved in content creation, the online efforts are paying off. For instance, the WEF has around 1.5 million followers on Twitter and, from its Annual

Meeting in 2012, the WEF garnered a total of 160 000 mentions, which includes a great part of the online presence.

As is very apparent, among international organisations, the WEF was a pioneer in the use of new technologies. This strategy allowed the WEF to expand its horizon, become more inclusive in relation to all associated stakeholders and tackle very effectively the issues that were interesting to its ever-expanding audience.

Evolution of social media usage

As is generally understood, humanitarian causes have always existed. But the strategies to reach social good have changed drastically over time. In the eighteenth century, Thomas Clarkson, an English abolitionist, devoted all of his time and efforts to the fight against slavery in Britain. This tireless campaign started with the publication of one of his essays, which caught the attention of the right people. Even so, it took him years of travelling around the country to collect evidence of slavery and thereby create the right amount of awareness to create social change.

This exemplifies the beginnings of significant humanitarian movements that were possible due to the creation of a community that rallied around a worthy cause. However, the methods available at the time meant a longer process and a smaller audience. Compared to the apparent speed at which governments have been toppled in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, it is clear that timetables have dramatically shrunk in the social media age.

Introduction to technology: the Hindenburg example

With the advancement of technology, messages were able to reach larger audiences, across greater distances, in a shorter amount of time. This led to increased awareness of critical issues and made advocating for a humanitarian cause much simpler than was the case previously.

A good example of the power of technology, and also of media, was the case of the crash in 1937 of the ‘Hindenburg’, a large German commercial passenger-carrying rigid airship. Even before pictures and filmed footage of the crash were distributed, a live eye-witness radio report by Herbert Morrison conveyed the horror and ‘the humanity’ of the tragedy to the world. Once people had heard the radio broadcast, they were able to spread related details via word of mouth. But in those days, literally, word of mouth was the process of people talking to each other. Today, once people hear a story of such great import or even of no import at all, they are able to use social media technology as their own personal broadcast channel to spread the word-of-mouth message to their networks online. In essence, every member of the audience has become a potential re-broadcaster. Also, unlike the days of radio, the buzz about a story bounces back and forth in a multitude of simultaneous conversations, rather than just a stream of one-way transmissions.

With each generation of new communications-related technology, obstacles to building global communities around humanitarian issues stop working. Early breakthroughs in broadcast technology (such as radio and television) not only overcame the barriers of time and distance, but, because these vehicles had massive penetration into the home, the delivered information was pushed into everyone’s living room.

Telephones added the ability for people to share information with their friends interactively, albeit via one-to-one conversations. With the advent of email, individuals were able to share with larger groups of people the information that they had acquired and do so on an interactive and simultaneous basis. Essentially, both telephones and email have enhanced the ability of individuals and organisations to share information with more people, thereby engaging audiences in the conversation; but both methods of communication were fundamentally limited to closed networks. For instance, conversations via phone and email can only take place among people who are already connected to each other. Also, that conversation takes place in a private space.

Social media changes all of that. Social media applications allow people to share information that they acquire with larger personal networks than was possible via email, and certainly via phone. Yet the sharing takes place in a very public space. Conversations once held in the private sphere are held in such a vast public domain that Jürgen Habermas, the German sociologist and philosopher who is best known for his theory on the concepts of ‘communicative rationality’ and the ‘public sphere’, must be smiling. Certainly, Twitter, Facebook, Google + and a host of other social media spaces play host to conversations that can become global in an instant.

For the humanitarian space, development social communications and that of social media in particular means the world can learn about crises as they are happening. Plus, it means that humanitarian crises need no longer happen in isolation. Crises of hunger, drought and disease do not need to be seen as crises with borders. Against this enthralling backdrop of rising and comprehensive global awareness, the world can now be mobilised to tackle humanitarian crises systemically, as well as in specific locales.

Using social media for social good: Born HIV Free campaign

The progressive development and use of technology has brought us to the point where global support can make an immediate and positive change. However, this can only be done if the tools are used correctly and, in this regard, it must be said that the use of social media for social good is still in the early learning stages.

One example of how social media is used to generate positive impact is the ‘Born HIV Free’ campaign. This was an online campaign from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. This campaign had two goals, specifically: putting the goal of no child being born with HIV by 2015 on national and international political agendas; and rallying support for the Global Fund’s work and mission.

Launched in May 2010, the Global Fund’s Born HIV Free campaign was designed as a six-month awareness and advocacy campaign that ran until 5 October 2010, which was the day when donors made their three- year (2011–2013) contribution pledge to the Global Fund.

The campaign narrative, and call-to-action, was focused on the goal of virtually ending the transmission of HIV from mother to child by 2015, with this being one of the ambitious (but achievable) goals that the Global Fund could help to realise if ample resources were available. The campaign ‘ask’ was simple – sign your name to the digital petition that stated your belief in that goal, and affirm your support for your government’s contribution to the Global Fund.

Social media was used as a catalyst to rally supporters, drive discussions, educate followers on the issues surrounding prevention of HIV from mother to child (PMTCT), and even recruit bloggers to come and see life-saving programmes in Africa for themselves. Subsequently, the Born HIV Free campaign helped put PMTCT on the global development agenda. Facebook and its application ‘Causes’ proved to be useful tools to drive the narrative and support advocacy efforts. YouTube was essential for engaging the public around PMTCT issues with a variety of video content that was both educational and entertaining. Less emphasis was put into driving campaign activity with Twitter, but this still proved to be a valuable tool for creating buzz during key campaign moments.

Importantly, during the Born HIV Free campaign, the Global Fund made a conscious choice to push an issue rather than its brand. Media vehicles like YouTube, celebrities like Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, Bono and Jean Paul Gaultier, as well as grass-roots advocacy leaders like Avaaz and ONE, all helped to champion the issue. The broad elite awareness survey that was conducted following the conclusion of Born HIV Free showed two key results:

1. When prompted, one in four people made the connection between the Born HIV Free campaign and the issue of prevention of HIV from mother to child (PMTCT).

2. Those who are campaign aware are more likely to think that PMTCT is a top issue in the fight against HIV/AIDS than those who are unaware.

The discussions, debates and optimism that began with the Born HIV Free campaign have nurtured more champions than ever before. For instance, in a speech during late 2011, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, indicated that the United States is fully committed to seeing an HIV-free generation by 2015. Only one month later, on World AIDS Day, PRODUCT (RED) and ONE launched a PMTCT campaign at an event in Washington DC where President Barack Obama, along with former US Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, business leaders, and artists like Bono and Alicia Keys all came together to champion the issue of PMTCT.

Fundamentally, a movement of hope that began online with the Born HIV Free campaign has evolved into a dialogue of great historical consequence, particularly the beginning of the end of the AIDS pandemic.

Humanitarian Needs Win Over Politics: Susan G. Komen Restores Funding to Planned Parenthood for Breast Cancer Screening

We write this chapter fresh on the heels of a powerful example of how social media helps humanitarian concerns trump politics. Within a span of less than a week, a social media uprising forced ‘Susan G. Komen for the Cure’, a major funder of efforts to detect and cure breast cancer, to reverse its decision to defund Planned Parenthood’s early breast cancer screening services for low-income communities. The online campaign also forced the resignation of Karen Handel, the Senior Vice President, who was the driving force behind the decision to defund.

Some related details are useful at this juncture. Following an unsuccessful bid for Governor of the Commonwealth of Georgia, in which a key component of her platform was to stop state funding of Planned Parenthood, Karen Handel was hired to be Senior Vice President for Public Policy by the Dallas-based Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation. In her position at Komen, Handel pushed to change the rules for funding women’s clinics across the United States in a way that would disqualify Planned Parenthood.1 The rule change prohibited funding of organisations that were the subject of investigations for illegal activities.2

Since the rules only required an organisation be under investigation, rather than be convicted for illegal activities, the rule opened the door for politically charged investigations to trigger defunding. Given Planned Parenthood’s other activities in providing birth control and abortion services, it was a lightning rod for such investigations.

In response to Komen’s decision to defund Planned Parenthood’s breast cancer screening services under this new rule, there was a nearly instant uproar on social media.3 In the first 24 hours, more than 4000 people posted protest messages on Susan G. Komen’s Facebook page and Planned Parenthood raised over $400 000 from more than 6000 donors. Also, by that week’s end, it had raised over $3 million.4

Meanwhile, across the social media landscape, a cry went up for Karen Handel to resign. Twitter petitions,5 a constant flow of posts on Komen’s Facebook page and other online petitions were added to by tens of thousands of angry activists, with all of that culminating in Handel’s resignation.

It must also be said that the response to Komen’s decision to defund Planned Parenthood was so fast that it took everyone by surprise – everyone except those who had been watching the spread of the women’s movement across social media. Long before this controversy erupted, the women’s movement in the United States had coalesced on social media. Communities that grew out of popular blogs like and gathered some of the most social media-savvy women in the country. In addition, conferences (and resulting communities) like Feminism 2.0 ( connected the tech-savvy feminists with the movement’s old guard. These social networks were so well entrenched prior to the Komen decision that it was inevitable many people would rise up as one to force Komen to reverse course.

Social media as ‘central’ to the humanitarian spher

Social media, in many ways, is an ideal tool for the humanitarian sphere. The Internet is recognised as unique media, whereby all the parties involved (organisations, businesses or individuals) have the opportunity to interact with one another, and create a one-on-one level of communication. This way, all the actors realise the power of connecting directly with individuals, and doing that without needing an intermediary.

As stands to reason, the idea of global interaction to tackle social problems is not new; guidelines were already put into place with the Cluetrain Manifesto that enlisted a series of behaviours in order to have a two-way conversation (between organisations and individuals) online. This evolution of the relationship between the different actors in business can be applied to the humanitarian sector. There, no longer do the traditional actors – such as governments and large organisations – only give information to the general public, but the audience can have an active role and let the traditional actors know what their specific needs are, thus enriching the anticipated results.

In effect, social media has been mainstream within the humanitarian sphere since about 2007. From that time, organisations have experimented with the associated tools, individuals have learned how to create online communities around social causes and all the related actors have used these means as a way to connect with each other.

Of course, the need for non-profit organisations to use social media is being widely recognised. Once this need was detected, the market tried to fill the recognised void with numerous products and services. Consequently, we can now find books, seminars, toolkits and more that are selling how to implement social media in this niche market. The need to introduce social media to non-profit organisations is such that it is becoming a business in itself.

Uses of social media in the humanitarian space: from conversation to action

Civic mobilisation and crisis response

As indicated earlier, social media is widely used to empower individuals by turning them into communities, to amplify the voices of civil society movements and to make change bubble up from the masses at the grassroots level. In the humanitarian field, there are two main ways that this is taking place: civic mobilisation and crisis response.

As has become apparent, individuals are taking matters into their own hands and are becoming part of the anticipated solution by working with organisations that are trying to address humanitarian crises. That the beneficiaries are the ones assessing their own needs, instead of being reliant upon external parties, makes the process even more effective.

An organisation that needs a quick crisis response in order to function properly is the International Committee of the Red Cross. Previously, that entity conducted all needs assessments by relying on knowledge of the organisation. But soon enough, key people in that organisation realised that there is the possibility to get more accurate knowledge on the ground with tools like social media. This approach has a positive impact on the efficiency of relief (since it can be done faster) and effectiveness (since the local needs are met with more accuracy).

However, in order for this information flow to work, such efforts must engage ‘crowds’ that are willing and able to collaborate with organisations. Consider the next example.

Ushahidi is an NGO based in Kenya that allows you to send online coordinates, data and photos to local organisations for different humanitarian purposes. The service was used in situations like the tsunami in Japan, after the earthquake in Haiti, and in African countries to collect data about stock in government pharmacies or to document voting patterns. The potential for this type of service is great, but it requires active engagement of the population in order to create civic mobilisation. The organisation knows this and is trying to reach a larger audience; they have made it accessible through different apps, such as SMS, Twitter and email. All of this is in addition to reaching out to local institutions in order to build trust in the service. Through concerted effort, Ushahidi has proven to be an effective new way to use knowledge on the ground to make a difference. This particular NGO understands its potential, and so does the private sector. Now, all that remains is for them to find their larger crowd.

Information and data gathering

Thanks to new technologies and social media, there are tools readily available that allow information to be gathered and used towards a social goal. Individuals and organisations can collaborate with relevant information flows, and sources of these, and move forward on the crucial step of data gathering in the humanitarian sphere.

A good case in point is the organisation Refugees United, which is an online network that acts as a database to help locate refugees all over the world and reconnect them with their families and friends. This organisation has explored the potential of digitalisation in finding missing persons and, thereby, realises the importance of collecting information for a humanitarian purpose. Furthermore, companies like IKEA, Maersk and Danfoss are supporting the network, and this gives it a wider reach in terms of audience and partnerships.

Other uses that involve data gathering are mapping, information sharing and disaster relief. The first one is used by organisations like the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) in order to effectively locate and plan the different refugee camps; this tool helps to build sustainable villages since it allows locating the various resources, then deciding how to grow the camps, determine how many families are in each one of the camps and make better use of the space.

It is noteworthy that information sharing through social media goes beyond the regular online exchange when it has a targeted focus on social good. A good example of this is Text4baby, an organisation that tries to tackle the health challenges of pregnancy and delivery by sending timely information to pregnant women through SMS.

Finally, there is the use of information for disaster relief efforts. For instance, when you can gather all the needs assessments made in the field, you can be more effective in helping to locate the needs of the beneficiaries. Better yet, this approach gives companies, governments and individuals an immediate point of contact to avoid duplicating relief efforts, so ensuring the efficient and effective delivery of goods and services.


Most humanitarian organisations use social media as part of their communication strategy. Unlike the previous examples, this is mostly a top-down approach that is initiated by a traditional actor, rather than by individuals at the grass-roots level. Non-profit organisations have always had the need to create awareness of their cause, as well as create a community of supporters and raise funds to maintain operations. This is why most organisations are using social media as a communications tool.

Social media seems like the ideal platform to deliver a message and reach your audience – just think about the millions of users that Facebook or Twitter has and that you could target. The reality is not that simple. Although there is power in numbers, and a great potential audience, actually, the challenge is to do with reaching a portion of that audience and getting your message across.

One of the most interesting uses of social media for the humanitarian sphere is fund-raising. Having your fund-raising efforts in social media represent a low-cost, high-impact strategy. Still, this will only be true if you have a great and committed network, in addition to a good fund- raising strategy, and the resources to make that happen.

There are successful examples of fund-raising through social media, and one of them is PRODUCT (RED). This is an initiative that partners with different companies, such as American Express and Nike, to develop ‘red’ products and donate part of their revenue to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. PRODUCT (RED) has a very strong presence in platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, which has allowed PRODUCT (RED) to engage the community, doing so to the point of making their products trendy and supporting the Global Fund too.

Another success story is that of the American Red Cross where Twitter is used to run a fund-raising campaign. However, with the use of new technologies come new challenges, like those experienced by that particular organisation. There was an incident when the person running the Twitter campaign accidentally tweeted a personal message on the organisation’s account; that specific tweet mentioned drinking a certain brand of beer. This faux pas could have brought about a significant amount of negative attention to the organisation. However, the American Red Cross did successful damage control by responding quickly, and with humour about that rogue tweet. A surprisingly positive response came from that mistake, to the point that the beer company mentioned in the wayward tweet picked it up and joined the fund-raising efforts on their own social media platforms.

Besides fund-raising, large organisations use social media as a key part of their communication strategy. An example is the UNHCR, which joined efforts with Google to create awareness for the situation of refugees. Since UNHCR personnel were already using Google Earth to map the refugee camps, they decided to repackage the information and add different Google Earth layers, including a video and stories from the refugees. By doing this, the UNHCR was the first organisation to allow members of the public to come in direct contact with their humanitarian efforts, plus engaging the community while educating them on their mission.

Lessons learned: where are we going?

Best practices

Without a doubt, social media is a great tool for the humanitarian sector. Nevertheless, in order to take full advantage of its potential, we must follow certain guidelines that have proven to be successful in the past. For instance, realise that content leads the conversation, engage with your audience, remain authentic and always pursue a long-term relationship with the public.

First of all, you need to be aware that social media is just a tool, and by this we mean that it doesn’t matter if you are in every platform available if you don’t have something to say. Organisations that want to use social media need to restructure themselves in order to allow the production of quality content; this means reallocating staff for that purpose, changing the chain of content production, creating synergies between different teams and so on. A harsh reality is that international organisations are not good at telling their own stories, even though there are great ones to tell. The general trend among organisations is just to compile content from different sources instead of creating their own. Of course, this is easier, and it requires fewer resources. But it won’t get you the results that you could achieve if paying more attention to the task. You need to be compelling, know the strengths of the organisation and build upon them to showcase quality content.

It has been only a couple of years since humanitarian organisations became involved in a real two-way conversation. This has to do with their own nature, since their particular mindset is not accommodating enough to allow for such an open dialogue. Whether it is because they are concerned with the safety of their beneficiaries, or because their leadership is still too traditional, the reality is that it has taken these organisations much too long to be more involved, and some are still reluctant to do so. A two-way conversation requires taking risks, changing the mindset of those involved and putting a human face to the organisation in order to incite a response and prompt an actual dialogue. If done well, all this could transform the organisation into an open entity.

We’ve discussed the importance of content and creating a conversation; while doing both, it is essential that you remain authentic. The first step before any communication occurs is knowing who you are and, although social media may be a new way to engage with your audience, it is important to be true to your own identity. You need to showcase what makes you unique and, therefore, what makes you stand out among all other humanitarian causes. This will get you more followers and additional committed ones too.

When using social media, you are looking to engage with your audience; this means building a relationship between the humanitarian actor and the public. Like any relationship, you need to nurture it and aim for a long-term relationship in order for it to work. There are many organisations that have a presence in the social media space. But, often, these entities only address their public when they have a specific ask, such as a particular fund-raising campaign. This way of doing things won’t give them a favourable response. Basically, humanitarian actors need to be constant in order to get their message across and also engage with the public in any opportunity. That way, when it’s time to call for action, your audience will have a clear idea of who you are and will be more prompt to react, since you’ve already made a connection.

Just as the aforementioned practices will deliver to you a better result in social media, there are certain practices that you must avoid. Although online activism might trigger offline action towards the humanitarian mission, you must be careful since there is also a portion of the audience that is attracted by the simplicity of engaging online (just a click, a retweet or a like away), can stay in a superficial interaction and never move towards a higher level of commitment.

In order to avoid the superficial online interaction that only gives the illusion of social engagement, the humanitarian actor needs to be clear, and use that simplicity to make a bigger change. When there is no clear call to action, it doesn’t matter how many users are reached, or how engaged they are willing to be, since they won’t know what is the next step to take towards that anticipated social change.

Unfortunately, many organisations have failed to set up such a clear message for their audience. This can be as a result of disjointed efforts within the organisation itself, that in the aim to be active in social media, communications personnel in the organisation have forgotten that you require – as with any other media – a cohesive strategy in order to be consistent, and to move forward with your message.

Social media trends that will impact the humanitarian sphere

Social media is constantly evolving. New tools and platforms are launching all the time. Existing tools and platforms are upgraded frequently. Against this ever-changing backdrop, it can seem daunting to humanitarian organisations that are trying to keep pace.

As these new opportunities emerge, we must take note of who is using the new tools and what they can do to enhance the humanitarian mission. If a new social network is able to reach people in need, or get in touch with people who can help, we need to embrace it. If new social media tools provide functional opportunities that will enhance the delivery of aid, or the mobilisation of people, we need to use them.

There are two emerging trends in social media of particular note. The first is the rise of mobile access to social media, including geo-location services. The second is the increased capacity for visualising information.

Mobile access to the Internet generally, and social media specifically, is a real game-changer. Especially in regions where hard wires simply do not exist, mobile access to the Internet enables anyone with a phone, tablet or wireless laptop to connect with social networks and all the opportunities that these present.

Even in areas where electricity is scarce, solar batteries can be used to charge mobile devices. Hand-crank powered devices are also available. This means that we can steadily extend the reach of social media into areas that once were inaccessible. For example, in the hills of northern Sudan, mobile, wireless devices make it possible for embedded reporters and rebels to keep the world informed about their struggles against violent oppression inflicted by the government.

Even in cities where electricity has been cut by oppressive governments, such as in Syria, mobile access to the Net allows information to flow out to the rest of the world. It is with this information that humanitarian responses can be mobilised more effectively.

Geo-location services permit us to create more accurate maps, with this allowing for more effective delivery of humanitarian aid. By crowd- sourcing the collection of geo-data points, detailed maps of vast expanses of land can be created with relative ease. Even in areas where there are few smartphones, consider that SMS text messaging that essentially works on every mobile phone allows for the quick flow of information that is vital to the delivery of humanitarian aid.

The second emerging trend is all about visualisation of information. Tools that map the connections between and among blogs and social networks allow us to see who is talking to whom. Mapping out these links within a country gives us advanced warnings of emerging political coalitions.

Satellites feeding data to social networks, like the Satellite Sentinel project (see, give us real-time visual information that can detect imminent attacks on villages, and also help us to find mass graves. With this information, we can save lives and bring justice down on those committing crimes against humanity.

On a much simpler level, new social networks, like Pinterest and Tumblr, facilitate the sharing of visual images. These rapidly growing social networks6 will make it much easier to share images from humanitarian crises, allowing for crowd-sourcing and real-time distribution across the globe. Also, with more images coming from the crises, it will be easier to mobilise an international response.

Clearly, in terms of better methods of communication, the seeds have been planted. Communication around the world is easier and faster, as allows for communities to come together like never before. Social media has great potential. It gives humanitarian actors what they have been waiting for, such as an easy, low-cost, mass distribution of messages, as well as organising and mobilisation tools, thus allowing direct and effective interaction with individuals and communities all over the world.

For any who seek to strengthen their effectiveness in addressing humanitarian issues, and resolving them, we must take the next step forward and take full advantage of the tools and networks that available. It is no longer enough just to recognise the existence of the tools, nor to use them as a secondary part of the communication strategy. In order to learn, grow and obtain results, it is necessary to turn online conversations into key actions that will, for the better, transform the humanitarian sphere as we now know it.