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Could social media have stopped the Rwandan genocide?

Monday, 20 July 2009 — by

The rise and rise of Obama showed us the real power of social media. More recently, Iran brought into focus the flip side of social communications, bringing much needed world attention to their political plight. As good as social media and global networking are, could they have prevented the genocide in Rwanda?

scarred head of a Rwandan man

This was a question British Prime Minister Gordon Brown reflected on recently:

“You cannot have Rwanda again because information would come out far more quickly about what is actually going on and the public opinion would grow to the point where action would need to be taken.”

Chris Williams had his own ideas, regarding Gordon’s thoughts on Rwanda. Thing is, Chris makes one point by missing another all together:

“We’d like to see him try Twittering that to people in Sudan, or Northern Sri Lanka, or Somalia.”

The point he missed is that of communications technology and infrastructure, something Sudan and Sri Lanka and Somalia probably don’t have much of.

I suppose it’s easy to say that Gordon was just making a lazy attempt at political point scoring, but he does have more of a point than Chris does, out-doing myself on the cynicism front.

In an attempt to break into a large but largely very poor market, Nokia have been conducting research in Africa:

“The majority of Africans have extremely low income level and less than 10% of the population has access to the fixed electricity grid.”

As an aside, access to reliable and cheep energy in most parts of Africa need not be a problem, what with more cost effective solar panel technology coming along. That would help anyone with eyes on Africa, not least Nokia. However, such enabling technologies are subject (and likely to fall prey) to political will, or a lack thereof, than a lack of finance.

In the meantime, the lack of key infrastructures, like communications, in far off places like Rwanda, Sudan, Sri Lanka and Somalia mean that whatever horrors are taking place remain mostly hidden from the gaze of the world.

Yes, we occasionally see these tragedies on the news, but we are all cynical; more skin & bone black people starving to death. Why is this? I think I have an answer.

When cultures cut the technology ties that bind

When we see these starving, barely clothed and emaciated people, they are as far removed from our world as if we were to be looking at ancient man of some 50,000 years ago. For us to empathize with them, we have to first relate to their plight, and I don’t think that’s really happening.

But what happened in Iran made a connection with people all over Europe and the Us in the so-called developed first world countries. At once, we saw the plight of people with lives very much like our own, if still culturally different.

We saw their daily lives disrupted, people fleeing homes and cars, abandoned on streets that look very much like our own. And we also saw the ugly and punitive face of the law, dressed in dark uniforms armed with batons, shields and fire arms, much like we’ve all seen in now infamous video clips shown all over the web, from the Rodney King beating to the G8 protesters being attacked.

When see Sudan and Somalia, we see people living in homes made of sheet metal and dirt, with no running water, dirt tracks for roads and the more fortunate among them sat upon a horse, perhaps.

Enforcing the connection even more was that those people were talking to us by familiar means, such as Twitter and Facdebook, among others. This enabled the various stories to unfold rapidly, as one person shares quickly with others — those stories then spread virally through websites like Digg, driving the penetration of the story ever deeper and higher, often before the popular media picks up on events.

There’s a world of difference between metropolitan Iran and more rural Rwanda.

Zimbabwe brings such issues into stark focus. There is a country which had a communications infrastructure, but it has since collapsed. News emerging from there is now sparse. There in Africa, access to the internet is a luxury, rather than a utility and almost a basic human right, as it is here.

China recognize the power of social media only too well, suppressing its potential when the moment takes them, to compromise the potential of civil unrest or disobedience.

Clearly, communications technology is a fundamental and essential part of bringing broader attention to any situation. After all, how else would news be delivered to us at all?

But if we assume that places like Rwanda had access to similar technologies, would those same stories unfold as quickly, or would they unravel, given some crucial yet capricious social or cultural difference between us and them?

You could argue that Band Aid and the like raised awareness of the plight in Africa. But then you’d have to concede that they did that on behalf of the people, because they don’t have the means to do it themselves.

Also, another way of looking at this is, is our reaction to the problems in Iran more to do with the attack upon the people, or the attack upon democracy itself?

If I’m right (which I’d rather not be), our inability to connect both literally and metaphorically would severely hinder our sense of injustice and we might cynically look upon Rwanda as yet another massacre in yet another part of war-torn Africa…

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Simon Wilby → Monday, 27 July 2009 @ 2:31 BDT

I am speechless. I don’t know what to say about this. All I know is, African people and they country really needs help.

Advice for women → Tuesday, 4 August 2009 @ 6:17 BDT

“As good as social media and global networking are, could they have prevented the genocide in Rwanda?”

Maybe yes, maybe no. It couldn’t if the news is prevented from coming out in the first place.

Adam → Wednesday, 5 August 2009 @ 16:03 BDT

I seriously doubt that because the level of internet access in Rwanda was not as high then as in Iran now. Moreover, the Western powers have Iran in their cross hairs whereas who cares about what happens in Rwanda or any place in Africa for that matter.

James → Sunday, 9 August 2009 @ 6:37 BDT

“When we see these starving, barely clothed and emaciated people, they are as far removed from our world as if we were to be looking at ancient man of some 50,000 years ago.”

I would agree, but that would show that people have too little imagination or capacity for empathy. I don’t think that is the case.

“Clearly, communications technology is a fundamental and essential part of bringing broader attention to any situation.”

This I agree with. Communications technology brings more awareness, especially on a global scale.

Anon. → Tuesday, 11 August 2009 @ 0:57 BDT

“More recently, Iran brought into focus the flip side of social communications, bringing much needed world attention to their political plight.”

Social media has helped the world find out what is wrong all over the place. This is technology working for a humanitarian purpose.

“As an aside, access to reliable and cheep energy in most parts of Africa need not be a problem, what with more cost effective solar panel technology coming along. That would help anyone with eyes on Africa, not least Nokia. However, such enabling technologies are subject (and likely to fall prey) to political will, or a lack thereof, than a lack of finance.”

Isn’t harnessing solar energy a pricey venture? However, solar energy is indeed a good alternative to African countries that lack access to electricity.

Anon. → Monday, 7 September 2009 @ 15:57 BDT

“Clearly, communications technology is a fundamental and essential part of bringing broader attention to any situation.”

Communications technology can help yes, but in an impoverished country like Rwanda, will this have any impact at all?

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