Social Media and Peace Operations

Social Media and Conflict
Training at Civilian Protection Site, Juba, South Sudan, UN Photo - JC McIlwaine, 2016

Over the past several years, the meteoric rise of social media has been an integral part of uprisings and revolutions across the globe. On an individual level, outlets such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram allow people to connect instantly with friends and family, even when thousands of miles apart. After participating in an online brainstorming for NATO’s Innovation Hub, I began to think more broadly about the utility of social media in peace and security operations. As our recent past has demonstrated, utilizing social media in conflict zones can indeed help further the goal of “consulting with women,” as required by the Women, Peace and Security mandate.

Both women’s participation and the protection of women and girls in armed conflict are key pillars of the Women, Peace and Security mandate. The full participation of women relies, in large part, on “consulting with women.” This is a key action point to enable women to fully participate in matters of international peace and security decision-making.  NATO’s Bi-Strategic Directive 40-1 on Women, Peace and Security recognizes this, as does the UN Department of Peacekeeping’s policy on gender in peacekeeping operations.

But finding key entry points within local communities to actively engage with women’s organizations and women leaders can be challenging.

New media tools can help peace operations in this regard in several ways: through crowdsourcing a gender perspective on armed conflict, using mobile devices to consult with women, and using social media platforms like Facebook to recruit more women into national forces.

1.  Crowdsource a Gender Perspective on Armed Conflict

Social media tools, like crowdsourcing, are being used to track timely information about specific protection issues–like incidents of sexual and gender based violence in conflict situations.  Crowdsourcing is when a community is mobilized to do specific tasks on behalf of an organization, without the support of the physical presence of an organization, but with virtual management by the organization using social media tools. The Women Under Siege project, which uses crowdsourcing to track sexual and gender-based violence incidents is a good example.  Peace operations can either work with organizations like Women Under Siege, or develop their own crowdsourcing tools to track similar gender-specific trends. Social media tools are also being used to monitor and verify specific forms of violence as early warning signals.  For example, tribal and ethnic violence, like gender-specific violence, are often early -warning indicators of escalating conflict. Uchaguzi, another crowdsourcing tool, was used to monitor hate-speech in Kenya during the 2013 elections.[i] Crowdsourcing tools like Uchaguzi could also be used to track gender-specific violence, such as hate-speech targeted at women around elections, peace processes, or in other fragile political situations.

2.  Use Mobile Devices to Consult with Women

Humanitarian relief agencies have found that social media tools enable the voiceless and powerless to have a two-way dialogue with first-responders in crisis situations. For example, right after the crisis in Libya in 2012 erupted, humanitarian workers and key decision-makers faced a huge information gap about what was happening on the ground. In response, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs activated a Standby Task Force comprising more than 150 volunteers skilled in online crisis mapping. Andrej Verity, information management officer at UNOCHA said “Given that the UN had virtually no access to the country, we now had situational awareness.” You can find the full story here

Similarly, mobile devices in the hands of both local women’s groups and peacekeepers can add value and increase situational awareness in peace operations. For example, a Standby Taskforce comprised of women’s organizations in a conflict zone can enhance situational awareness through a coordinated effort to share real-time updates about what is happening on the ground.  It can also identify barriers to full participation in the election process, as well as pressing needs for protection, food, and healthcare, in order to help inform interventions.  Micro-tasking of information during crisis is “the key to the future” says Patrick Meier, thought leader on new media technologies and humanitarian response.

3.  Use Mobile Devices to Collect Sex-Disaggregated Data

It is well known that sex-disaggregated data collection and documentation of the gendered aspects of peacekeeping is sparse and ad hoc. Mobile devices such as iPhones or tablets with video cameras in the hands of local women’s organizations, and in the hands of Military Gender Advisors and Focal Points in peacekeeping operations, can support a more systematic documentation of positive and negative effects of peacekeeping operations.

Micro-tasking using tweets to carry out a rapid security assessment is something that women’s organizations could easily do to engage with peace operations. Micro-tasking through tweets has been used to carry out a rapid damage, loss and needs assessment (DaLA) by the UN through the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN). On December 3, 2012, The DHN carried out DaLA in response to Typhoon Pablo in the Philippines. More specifically, the UN requested that Digital Humanitarians collect and geo-reference all tweets with links to pictures or video footage capturing Typhoon damage.  Of course this is new technology that faces several challenges, including setting up the appropriate workflows and technologies and enough time for the tagging, verification, and analysis of the multimedia content pointed to in the disaster tweets. More details on this project are here.

In addition, part of the work of Military Gender Advisors and Gender Focal Points in operations is to track and monitor how a gender perspective is impacting the operation. “Citizen journalism” techniques and tools can enrich their reporting on lessons learned, and on good and bad practices. Regular video updates from the field mission to headquarters can provide a rich source of data. Even basic internet tools and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter can be used to gather background documents, identify key issues, and contact key women’s organizations and leaders in the fact-finding phase of a mission’s work.

4.  Use Social Media Platforms to Recruit Women Peacekeepers

Although the UN set goals to increase the number of women in peacekeeping operations, the recruitment of female uniformed personnel into operations has many challenges.  Social media platforms like Facebook can be used to target and recruit more women into national forces, and into peacekeeping. For example, the Irish Defense Force is currently conducting a social media campaign using Facebook to recruit young women into its armed forces. Similar campaigns could be targeted at potential female peacekeepers—for civilian, police and military positions within operations.

These are just a few examples and ideas of how to use social media in peace operations to implement the Women, Peace and Security mandate. It’s clear that social media will alter the way peacekeeping is done on the ground when civil society groups have more access to mobile devices and are trained in how to use these new media tools skillfully. But first, we need to get new media tools into the hands of women. Instead of asking “how does social media impact peace operations,” we need to start asking “who is using it, and why?”

[i] For more on the private sector’s role in preventing election violence in Kenya in 2013, see: “The Role of Kenya’s Private Sector in Peacebuilding: The Case of the 2013 Election Cycle”