Social media can play role in times of upheaval
Kigali: Twitter and other forms of social media could have helped prevent the Rwandan genocide that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in the 1990s if such technology had been around at the time, says the author of a new book on how the United Nations can harness high-technology for its missions.
Walter Dorn, a professor at the Canadian Forces College, says that social media can be used by the UN and other agencies to gather intelligence and tips about impending violence or as a method to warn the public about such dangers.
"It could be using Twitter, Facebook and various social media to send out information directly to the public but it could also be receiving a lot of information from the public," said Dorn, author of the new book Keeping Watch: Monitoring, Technology and Innovation in UN Peace Operations.
Twitter, Facebook and images captured by cellphone cameras have played a key role in the uprisings in the last several months in the Arab world.
They have been used to transmit details about violence by security forces in Egypt and Syria while Facebook was employed by protesters in Tunisia to spread dissent about the ruling regime.
Facebook launched in 2004 and Twitter in 2006.
Dorn, who has served on UN peace operations as well as a consultant for the world body's Department of Peacekeeping Operations, said social media could have provided Canadian general Romeo Dallaire with either a way to warn the population in Rwanda about the mass killings taking place in 1994 or to gather information about the coming genocide.
"I think it's much more likely it (Rwandan genocide) could have been prevented had there been social media at the time," said Dorn.
"We could have had much better intelligence. If there had been more direct connection to a lot of activities going on in the field then the UN could have been much better suited to take the measures that should have been taken, like raiding the arms caches."
An estimated 800,000 people were killed in 1994 when Hutu extremists turned on the Tutsi minority in Rwanda.
Most of the killings were done over a 100-day period.
Dallaire, the UN force commander on the ground at the time, could do little to stop the slaughter.
In his forward to Dorn's book, Dallaire writes that the Rwandan mission showed the problems of a lack of intelligence and analysis in UN peacekeeping.
"We found ourselves working in an information vacuum, a times groping in the dark to identify and confront shadowy forces and unofficial networks that became apparent only after the genocide began," wrote Dallaire, now a Liberal senator.
He said the UN has to make better use of modern technology and "needs to be aware of the enormous potential of advanced technology to save lives and alleviate human suffering."
Dorn said intelligence gathered from social media sources would have to be corroborated by the UN but they could be used to provide raw data.
He pointed out that social media is an attractive form of communication because it is becoming so prevalent in the developing world.
Cellphones are now a standard form of communication in Africa, with nearly one in three people able to make or receive a phone call using a mobile.
One report noted that mobile subscriptions in Africa jumped from 54 million in 2003 to 350 million in 2008.
"There's this huge penetration of cellphones and smartphones into the developing world," Dorn explained. "They're skipping a whole generation of technology of the landline."
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