Texts, Tweets, and Social Change: How Can Communications Contribute to Development?

October 24, 2013
Internews staff present research on Burma and Indonesia at an Australian National University forum

At a forum entitled “Texts, tweets, and social change: How can communications contribute to development?” held at the Crawford School of Public Policy at Australian National University, Internews Regional Director for Asia, Oren Murphy, and consultant Matt Abud explored the opportunities and challenges of harnessing information and communications technologies (ICTs) for political change and economic growth. The two drew from their research and experiences across Asia, placing a particular emphasis on Burma and Indonesia.

Asia’s ICT industries are marked by explosive growth, both in terms of Internet connectivity and mobile phone ownership, explained Murphy. But this phenomenon is far from uniform, as the statistics for mobile phone ownership between and even within Asian countries indicate. What’s more, this growing level of ICT consumption is not matched by a corresponding high level of ICT literacy.

Development Challenges

Indeed, the challenges development experts face in this respect are numerous: How do you implement a successful media project when what was true yesterday won’t be true tomorrow? With such heterogeneous ICT usage across the region, is it possible to design a pilot project that is scalable and replicable? Where do you even begin when reaching out to “media dark” regions with little to no access to conventional media? Will the local laws allow it?

Though Murphy advocated a varied approach to these obstacles, he did note the mantra underlying all of Internews’ work in this realm: technology will never be a silver bullet.

“We have to better understand how people use ICTs before we design interventions,” he noted. “There still exists a great deal of time until ICTs are a central component of everybody’s lives, and it is crucial to design projects that combine technology with offline tools and practices.”

Burma and Indonesia demonstrate the differences in media landscape between two geographically similar countries.

Case Study: Burma

In Burma, access to technology still remains woefully inadequate following the wave of civil reforms in 2011, but social media has preceded, and arguably sparked, the relaxation of censorship laws. Until recently, the government reviewed all print and broadcast publications, all but preventing investigative journalism. Because Internet outlets were not subject to such oversight, Facebook became the most effective platform for quickly reaching audiences.

Today, Facebook in Burma not only provides a national forum for discussion of the most pressing issues, but also serves as a de facto means of exchange between civil society and its elected officials: government officials are increasingly creating their own public pages. Murphy cited one case in which the President’s staff printed out both a news article and the associated Facebook comments to include in his briefing.

“Facebook didn’t create this transparency,” Murphy said, “but I would say it’s been a fundamental instrument in enabling people to get a better idea of what’s going on in their government.”

Case Study: Indonesia

Indonesia, on the other hand, has a thriving technological and media sector, at least on the surface. But these numbers can be deceiving, said Matt Abud, who recently authored the report Indonesia: New Digital Nation?for Internews. Indonesia is ranked fourth worldwide for Facebook usage, has the fastest growing number of Twitter users, and has a mobile phone ownership rate of over 100 percent. And while ICT has somewhat served as an avenue for change in the country, its ultimate influence has been limited.

For one, Abud explained, the bulk of social media mobilization has centered on humanitarian issues, not political or social reform. Even in the case of humanitarian disasters, such as the January 2013 floods in Jakarta, there was a high volume of information flow across much of the middle class and wealthier neighborhoods, but poorer communities – the most vulnerable to the flooding – were both absent in local coverage, and unable to access the information they badly needed. 

That said, online outlets, once a laughing stock, are now gaining in exposure and popularity, and the government is increasingly utilizing an array of online tools to promote transparency and facilitate dialogue.

“[ICT in Indonesia] has changed the media sector,” Abud said. “It’s not tied so much to political changes the way it is in Burma – political changes in Indonesia happened before this technology came along – but it’s definitely changing media practice.”