Foreign Policy Blogs

Just Tweet It.

Since the the unrest and protests in Moldova and Iran in 2009, everyone’s been talking about a “Twitter Revolution.”  Breathless media reports have cited Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms as the great democratizers of the 21st Century.  After the earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, the Red Cross raised $24 million in five days through text-messaging.  There’s no doubt that the advent of social media, cell phones, and other new technologies has had a huge influence on global emergencies, crises, and other geopolitical events.  But the jury’s still out on how much impact new technologies are really having and whether this impact is a good thing.

What does this mean for health and human rights?  There’s a definite connection to freedom of information, or the right to information, a human rights concept that has gained complexity since the invention of the Internet.  The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCR), which was developed alongside the ICESCR to further define certain aspects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), states in Article 19, Paragraph 2:

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.

Most people would support the right to freely express oneself; the second half of the paragraph, around the right to receive information, gets a bit trickier.  Recently, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton introduced a $30 million initiative meant to help people in autocratic and repressive regimes bypass firewalls and protect themselves from digital surveillance.  Tension arises, however, when discussing whether freedom and transparency can become too much freedom and transparency: WikiLeaks’ release of thousands of diplomatic cables, for example, was a thumb in the eye of the US government, and the US Navy blocked news sites that had published the cables.  Much back-and-forth around WikiLeaks’ disclosures has been about where security and safety of individuals should take precedence over freedom of expression.  Of particular note is Wikileaks’ refusal to redact the names of local informants in its “War Logs” releases, which was in keeping with the organization’s commitment to full transparency but put many Iraqis, Afghans, and their families in danger.  There’s little doubt, however, that countries that routinely block access to websites, such as China, Iran, and North Korea, tend to have less-than-savory records in other areas of human rights.

Two initiatives recently highlighted at the Skoll World Forum also illustrate the inspiring yet somewhat problematic nature of combining social media with rights, and/or health.  The global design firm IDEO has launched OpenIDEO, a crowdsourcing platform that asks the online community to provide solutions to large-scale problems.  They’re currently partnering with Oxfam and Nokia on the following question: “How might we improve maternal health with mobile technologies for low-income countries?”  Participants submit ideas and gain in “design quotient” as they contribute more and as other participants “applaud” their contributions.  The project is currently in the “refine” stage: it’s not a wholly open-source initiative because it gives IDEO, Oxfam, and Nokia the final say.  Some of the twenty concepts are intriguing, such as paying health care workers by mobile phone, which could create clear “paper” trails and decrease corruption by cutting out the middleman (or not).  Some are quite conventional, such as an illustrated booklet for pregnant women (with an automated phone service).  Others are unsuitable, such as the concept called “SMARTmom,” which outlines a series of smart phone apps for videos, information on clinics, and other features meant to encourage women to come to pre-natal support groups.  On the surface, it sounds great, especially since more people in sub-Saharan Africa have a mobile phone than have a bank account…but I’m betting that few moms in low-income countries can afford prohibitively expensive smart phones, much less the Internet package (not to mention the fact that web access can get a bit spotty in rural locations).  The OpenIDEO platform is meant to provide checks and balances, since the three partner organizations get veto power, and is therefore not a true “open source” platform but rather a hybrid.  All the same, this idea made it to the late rounds of the project.  However, OpenIDEO offers up an interesting method for addressing one of the most pressing problems of global health, and furthermore, it allows people from around the world who wouldn’t, perhaps, volunteer in an antenatal clinic in Ethiopia, to contribute knowledge and expertise.

Another organization, Ushahidi, came into being during the 2008-09 post-election violence in Kenya.  Local Kenyans would text in reports of violence and Ushahidi would map them online, helping rights and relief organizations and providing a way to document (“ushahidi” means “witness” or “testify” in Swahili) atrocities as they were ongoing.  This is also known as crisis mapping.  Following the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Ushahidi helped provide guidance to first responders.  Two volunteers set up computers in Port-Au-Prince, supported by a group of graduate students in Boston.  As reports came in on the ground of trapped survivors, Ushahidi used Skype, Facebook, Twitter, local Haitian radio, and other media sources to map out, with GPS coordinates, where they were.  You can watch Patrick Meier, Director of Crisis Mapping at Ushahidi, outline how it worked in the video below:

[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="344" allowfullscreen="true" fvars="fs=1" /]

However, this initiative is not without critics.  As one article points out, these new “upstarts” didn’t have connections to the government and NGO bodies on the ground in Haiti.  Ushahidi and others were called “open sourcer-ers” who were outside of the traditional relief structure.  And while people in the open source, crowdsource, and crisis mapping fields (among other new techie activism) tend to promote transparency and “spontaneity,” well-regarded organizations, such as the Red Cross, are so successful and so powerful because they operate with a strict code of confidentiality and tried-and-true processes.  Groups like WikiLeaks have also undermined the reputation of other web-based innovators.

Social media innovations have the potential to spur widespread change and to offer solutions to complex problems.  OpenIDEO’s crowdsourcing platform, which harnesses the potential for invention and the expertise of the Internet community to improve solutions for maternal health is one such innovation.  Ushahidi is a powerful tool to map out where and how crises occur, pinpoint where help is needed, and document rights abuses.  These two initiatives have the potential to shine a light on human rights violations and to find ways to prevent and to end them.  In the case of Ushahidi, locals are given the chance to contribute to and participate in relief efforts and human rights promotion.  OpenIDEO solicits ideas from “armchair humanitarians,” who may have novel solutions to age-old problems.  There’s much hope that these types of collaborative, social media platforms have the potential to help change the world.

Especially in the past few months, much has been said about the power of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites and innovations to inspire and sustain uprisings against autocratic, repressive regimes and to help relief workers’ efforts after natural disasters.  However, for every techno-optimist touting “Revolution 2.0,” there’s someone voicing doubts, including heavy-hitters like Malcolm Gladwell.  In a New Yorker piece, he criticized the thin connections between people through Facebook and Twitter, writing: “Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools.”  Gladwell acidly concludes: “A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teenage girls.  Viva la revolución.”  Even as the Obama administration celebrated its internet freedom program, the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Michael H. Posner, said: “People have a view that technology will make us free…No, people will make us free.”  There is a very real danger that “armchair humanitarians” will remain just that: that they will believe they are making a difference by clicking a mouse.  Or, worse, that social media innovations will cause more harm than good (or perhaps simply waste money).

I believe, however, that’s it’s easy to mumble “groupthink” or “lemmings” while supporting established, accepted approaches that haven’t been so successful to date but that have the security of familiarity.  It’s also very easy to sit on the sidelines, wring one’s hands, and post links on Facebook with sad emoticons in the “comments” section.  Tweeting will never replace doing, but it can make the doing a whole lot easier and more effective.  Using a website to tell your friends that you’ll be protesting in front of parliament and watching them rally their friends (by the way, this is a time-honored tactic dating back to the Civil Rights movement in the United States at least–phone chains, where one would call ten, and each of those ten would call ten, etc, to communicate about strikes and marches).  Calling up a virtual army to brainstorm on how to best text mothers to remind them about their prenatal visits.  Using mobile and web technologies to provide education, health alerts, and financial freedoms to marginalized populations who would not have access otherwise.  Promoting community-based participation and local agency through text messaging.  Geo-locating where and how a human rights violation occurred.  The possibilities are endless.  Margaret Mead said all it took was a small, thoughtful, and committed group to change the world (“indeed, it’s the only thing that has”).  Those people are always going to be on the ground, stitching up wounds and putting their bodies into peril.  But what if, behind them, there was a limitless virtual community pointing out where to go, writing down what they’d seen, and holding the rest of the world accountable?  Just tweet it.



Julia Robinson

Julia Robinson has worked in South Africa at an NGO that helps to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV and in Sierra Leone for an organization that provides surgeries, medical care, and support to women suffering from obstetric fistula. She is interested in human rights, global health, social justice, and innovative, unconventional solutions to global issues. Julia lives in San Francisco, where she works for a sustainability and corporate social responsibility non-profit. She has a BA in African History from Columbia University.