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#5 from 2017: The role of social media in development

Rosie Parkyn's picture
Our Top Ten blog posts by readership in 2017. This post was originally posted on May 1, 2017.
Why should development organisations care about social media? Rosie Parkyn looks at social media’s potential to enhance development outcomes in the Global South and how this stacks up against the evidence.  
At BBC Media Action, we take our content to people wherever they are, be that  a refugee reception centre in Lebanona homestead in rural Ethiopia  or their Facebook feed. Our work as a media organisation makes the biggest difference when we succeed in getting people talking, whether face-to-face or across virtual networks. Social media enables such discussion, broadening it beyond geographically defined communities and existing editorial agendas, and at a scale hitherto unimaginable.
As a development organisation that predominantly produces mass media outputs, social platforms allow us to see how people respond to our content and debate the issues we raise in our programmes. We can observe and interact with audiences in a way that isn’t possible with legacy media like newspapers and TV.
It’s true that many of our most important  audiences in the Global South are yet to gain access to social media. Nonetheless, its role and influence within the information ecosystems we work in will only grow and its ability to support positive development outcomes demands exploration.
Facilitating discussion, inspiring action and enabling engagement
Perhaps the most obvious advantage social media brings to the table is  its potential to rival mainstream media in giving voice to people on their own terms. It can grant visibility to their experiences, provide a venue for discussion and offer a platform for direct participation, even enabling people to speak directly to the powerful. And because of its built-in multiplier effect, social media can vastly speed up the diffusion of information, ideas, practices, values and social norms that support positive change.
It’s also worth emphasising that social media needn’t just reinforce echo chambers. Our experience shows that it can be used to  cut across existing societal divisions and expose fabrications and hearsay. Libya, for example, is the home of our first  Facebook-only serviceEl Kul (For Everyone) which strives to bring people impartial and trusted information in an environment where journalism is  highly polarised and politically motivated. When working to end Ebola in Sierra Leone,  we used WhatsApp to identify what rumours were circulating, allowing us to quickly address them in radio shows broadcast across the country.
Social media can also serve as a tool for organising and taking action. This is critical for achieving what many see as its most transformative potential: enabling people to  coalesce around solutions to problemsset out elsewhere in the media.
In addition it has the potential to reach segments of society who don’t consume much mainstream media. Our shows in  Bangladesh and  Cambodia are using Facebook to spark discussion and participation among young, urban audiences who don’t watch a lot of terrestrial TV, relying increasingly on Facebook on smartphones for entertainment and information.
But what does the evidence say?
Yet despite the optimism about what social media can achieve, evidence appears limited – and sometimes contradictory.  A recent World Bank report simply states that there isn’t much evidence of the impact of social media in developing countries.
The most intensive scrutiny of the relationship between social media and politics is found in analysis of the Arab uprisings. Social media was instrumental to the uprisings because it provided a means to transform individualised, localised and community-specific dissent into a collective consciousness and shared opportunity for action. As one Egyptian protestor put it at the time: “ We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate and YouTube to tell the world”.  
In this way,  as Pippa Norris argues, social media reinforced “cultural values conducive to participation in popular protest movements”.  A US Institute of Peace report further argues that sharing videos relating to regime violence and electoral fraud appear to have contributed to new norms against such behaviour.
However,  social media may be less effective in representing the interests of ordinary people on a sustained basis.  A number of critics bemoan ‘clicktivism’, arguing that it gives a perception of participation that may actually reduce effective, real world action.
In addition, greater transparency doesn’t necessarily equate to better debate or meaningful participation by politicians.
recent study of the intense social media usage in the run-up to the Ugandan election notes that both President Museveni and his then-challenger Amama Mbabazi are “active tweeps with huge numbers of followers”. Mbabazi actually announced his candidacy on YouTube and held a 3-hour online press conference at his home, running under the hashtag #AskAmama.
However, throughout the campaign, online analyses of policy positions and political objectives were mostly overshadowed by discussions about rumours, allegations of misconduct, personal attacks and which candidate pulled the bigger crowds.
In  The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov issues even harsher warnings about the way in which some regimes use social networks to spread propaganda and suppress nascent democratic movements.
What we do know for certain is that social media is here to stay. It’s consequently incumbent on media and development organisations alike to figure out how to use it – and to use it well. That’s why we’re escalating our own efforts to build the evidence base in this continually exciting area.
This blog was originally posted on the  BBC Media Action Insight blog. 

Photo credit: Arne Hoel / World Bank

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