Working paper
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Social media and inclusion in humanitarian response

Social media Digital communications Humanitarian assistance

Social media has occupied an ambivalent space within narratives of the formal humanitarian sector over the past decade. Techno-optimist approaches have focused on its potential to deliver better outcomes for people affected by crisis: as a way to make responses more ‘data-driven’; as a powerful broadcast tool for sharing vital information; as a way to reduce distance and engage more closely with hard-to-reach groups; and as a way to democratise both aid delivery and decision-making.

Meanwhile, growing realisation of social media’s role in the spread of hate speech, rumours and disinformation; questions around how user data can be exploited or misused by different actors; and a steady drip-feed of revelations about the questionable ethics of how platforms are designed and run have all driven a growing focus on the risks.

This study explores how the presence of social media in humanitarian crises intersects with efforts to make humanitarian aid more inclusive. It finds that, despite almost a decade of bold claims regarding the potential for social media to support humanitarian action, practical engagements among humanitarian actors are, for the most part, still on the starting block.

Key messages:

  • Take a more systematic approach to incorporating social media in humanitarian work, to avoid exclusion by absence. This will involve shifting from risk avoidance to risk mitigation, as well as developing more contextually grounded understandings of the specific risks and opportunities that different approaches to using social media involve for different people within different information ecosystems.
  • There is a need for partnerships and collective action. Given that ‘messy’ and open feedback via social media rarely fits within agency programmes and mandates, working collectively offers a way to better share and analyse information between organisations.
  • Decentre humanitarians. At a basic level, this involves taking seriously how people want to interact with humanitarian actors, which may not be in ways that are most convenient or comfortable to them.
  • Move from ‘yes, but…’ to ‘yes, and…’ approaches to digital inclusion. Focusing on the most acute needs remains at the core of humanitarian approaches to inclusion, and this will always involve trade-offs. However, there is a need to ask whether working to communicate offline with the most marginalised people, who are cut off from social media by digital divides, must come at the expense of engaging in online spaces with those who are not.
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