For many, the words ‘social media’ conjure images of cat videos, photos of acquaintance’s dinner plates and hashtags on Twitter. But social media’s potential as a tool for information dissemination and individual empowerment is vast and only beginning to be recognized. Social media and communication technologies present an opportunity for individuals and institutions to challenge powerful political actors and enhance the efforts of an organized public sphere. Social media provides additional strategies for digital refugees to flee dangerous situations. It eases access to information, facilitates group coordination and supports free public speech. It helps organized groups share knowledge and mobilize members efficiently.
Social media empowers any user of an internet-connected device to quickly and independently publish information. It can be an effective tool to help displaced citizens assume control over available communications systems and regain the power to control information flow, maintain a sense of social stability, protect the vulnerable and address the public sphere.
Social media has become an essential tool for Syrian refugees and the organizations trying to support them. Mobile phone use is the predominant method of communication among Syrians and 49% of citizens in the Middle East have internet access (^). There are approximately 87 registered phones per 100 residents in the region.
Not all refugees have access to social media. In Africa, only 27% of the population has access to the internet and certain areas, like Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, have access rates of less than 25%. In places like these, social media is less effective as a strategy for refugees.
Syrian refugees make use of technology to communicate with aid actors and with each other. They use sites like Google Maps to navigate politically and geographically complex routes to sanctuary. First-hand stories told in images and sound bites also help bring refugee experiences directly to the global community in a vivid way. That community can then use social media to share posts and links; volunteers and refugees can share firsthand content to makes appeals for aid and document abuses.
Twitter categorizes shared posts and links, making it easier for many-to-many conversations and opinion sharing to occur. Currently, the top three refugee-related hashtags are #syria, #humanrights and #refugee.
For more in-depth conversations and engagement, Facebook is the user’s choice. Individuals can post content and have one-on-one conversations within organized groups; they can share relevant posts and participate in multi-layered conversations.
Zaatari Camp Coordination is a Facebook page that functions as a media outlet for the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, which currently accommodates more than 80, 000 refugees. The Facebook translate feature gives non-Arabic speakers access to the events and conditions in the busy camp. The UN High Commission on Refugees says that Facebook use by ground level coordinators is an efficient distribution method and better for information that requires trust than Twitter; however, information published on FB does not elicit the degree of trust that face-to-face conversation does. The reliability of the information source is crucial, especially when bad information can mean the worst outcome.
Social media and communication technology can make it easier for refugees to make their way to a new life but not all refugees have access to these tools. Those with low incomes may not be able to afford the necessary devices. Some refugees originate from areas where there is little access to the internet. The challenge is to reflect on internet penetration statistics as a rough measure of power in the public sphere and to provide connectivity to all. Internet and social media is increasingly seen as an important human right. Accessibility and evenness of distribution is integral to the role of social media and communication technology as a global, humanitarian asset.
Communication technology can facilitate groundbreaking social change in situations where the infrastructure and integrity of traditional media has been compromised. Social media places the power of storytelling in the hands of any individual with a capable device and an internet connection. It creates the potential for a well-rounded public sphere and provides an excellent wayfinding system for refugees in transit - but only if Internet and social media are accessible and uncensored.