Opportunities and Challenges of Social Media in Development

February 26, 2013 · Posted in ICT, Social Media 

Mobile and fixed line web-based social media in developing countries has the potential to empower individuals and groups when applied to activities such as citizen reporting, crowd sourcing and education. It may also contribute to poverty alleviation by facilitating sharing of resources and information, opportunities for capacity building, and enables collective action and influence.  It could even reduce corruption and increase institutional transparency, strengthening state poverty initiatives. (Afridi 2011, Bertot et al., 2010).

But, while many organizations, groups and individuals have heralded social media and open development as a panacea to increased inclusivity in society, the results show that –in the short to medium term – those that benefit include the “haves” rather than the “have-nots”. Limited or restricted access to the Internet as well as socio-economic, political and other factors are challenges encountered when addressing the inclusion of marginalized populations. Further obstacles to actualizing forms of open development include opposition, cultural resistance, lack of technical expertise and a lack of understanding the concept. There are also continuous disputes about what new media is for, who gets to use them and who decides on the current rise of alternative and new activist media projects (Lievrouw, 2011, p 28).

Lievrouw (2011, p 28) points out that theorists have also noticed that new social media draws better educated “knowledge workers”, who frame their grievances in symbolic and cultural terms rather than as a struggle over material goods or economic class interests. Additionally, although there are many opportunities for expression and interaction through social media-as well as resistance of dominant media culture, politics or power – there are still complex problems of social equity and solidarity, privacy and security, political and economic participation, freedom and control etc.

Lovink & Zehle (2005, pg. 5) refer to ambitious info-development projects, which struggle to find a role for themselves either as basic infrastructure, supportive of all other development activity, or as complement to older forms of infrastructure and service-oriented development. Often they are expected to meet a host of often contradictory aims: alleviating info-poverty, catapulting peas­ants into the information age, promoting local ICT and knowledge based industries, or facilitating democratization through increased participation and local empowerment.

Pieterse (cited Lovink, Geert & Zehle, Soenkie, 2005, page 20) believes that the digital divide is a deeply misleading discourse and that the divide is not digital but so­cioeconomic and further, that representing the divide in technical terms suggests technical solutions and reasoning that correlates connectivity with development performance and economic development. According to Granqvist (cited Hemer, Oscar & Tufte, Thomas, 2005, p 272) the mere highlighting of this so-called divide reflects a modernist worldview and development approach, implying that what most urgently needs to be done is to fortify the deployment of ICT in marginalized countries, thus adapting them to the socio-economic model of the economically powerful regions.

Lievrouw (page 12) says it can be tempting to assume that new media, and particularly the Internet, have transformed communication and culture, rendering previous modes of expression and communication obsolete. Additionally, the problem with social media is that in-depth knowledge of experts is sometimes replaced by “Daily me” – a case where immediate, personal information becomes more important.

TED Fellow and journalist Evgeny Morozov talks about what he calls “iPod liberalism” — the assumption that tech innovation always promotes freedom and democracy — with chilling examples of ways in which the Internet helps oppressive regimes stifle dissent. Evgeny Morozov wants to know how the Internet has changed the conduct of global affairs, because it certainly has … but perhaps not in all the ways we think.



So when does social media work? There are many examples of how it has changed the way we communicate, empowered individuals and enabled communities to share information and have a collective voice. It has been used by international development agencies and NGOs to crowd source information during disasters such as the Haiti earthquake. NGOs have also employed social media to raise awareness of humanitarian issues, fundraise and report from the field.  Read more about this http://social-media-for-development.org/can-social-media-save-the-world/

Social media and mobile technologies offer a wide range of benefits for people working in development: a potentially cheap and efficient way to link citizens with their governments, the chance to monitor real-time progress on projects, and the ability to connect people from remote parts of the world to share experiences and teach best practice. http://blog.usaid.gov/2013/02/advancing-development-through-social-media/ and http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2013/jan/04/saving-world-social-media-development-digital

There is a growing awareness, within civil society and other organizations, of problems of Internet or social media use including access fragmentation and an acknowledgement of the importance of diversifying media strategies. It is essential not only to rely on new media but also traditional media such as radio and other community media, where access, participation and feedback can be increased. Cammaerts (2007, p 220) emphasizes  that activism cannot be confined to the media realm and online action: establishing trust, collaboration and direct contact is vitally important. Interaction between – and a combination of – social media and direct contact is needed to mobilize and organize.



One Response to “Opportunities and Challenges of Social Media in Development”

  1. Tove Stenqvist on March 23rd, 2013 10:52 am

    In addition to what have been discussed, there is also the matter of democratization and how internet in fact could impede on the functions of a democracy. A faulty assumption according to Evgeny Morozov, is; if you give people enough technological devices, democracy will automatically and inevitably thrive. This has not been the case in the past, where many humanitarian crises has actually been fuelled by the influence of technologies as used for propaganda purposes and distribution mechanisms of distrust between social groups.

    In simplifying the message of the referred TED talk, there are two possible theories on new media’s impact: 1) cyber utopians believe that new media can solve the global emergencies where so many attempts have failed and 2) Internet works in advantage of totalitarian regimes and transforms the public into digital captives.

    Of course the reality does not have to solely consist of either of these theories, but a mixture of them both. The traditional saying applies here; with good comes bad, although, the fact that there are better outcomes does not justify the worse ones. As a first step on a very long road to trudge, a middle ground needs to be globally established. This indicates what has already been mentioned in earlier posts; the function of internet as a purely good tool might be in a longer term perspective, if at all.

    The balancing act between good and bad can be assisted with the awareness that empowerment through internet is not always about quantifiable technology but instead about the empowerment of the civil society.

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