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Voices on Afghanistan: Social media grows as Afghans come online

Urbanisation and more plentiful are 3G networks are bringing Afghans online and giving them a voice through social media, says Ahmad Shuja
An art student uses his mobile phone as he stands next to graffiti on a wall at a cultural and educational centre in Kabul on March 7, 2014. Morteza Nikoubazl / Reuters
An art student uses his mobile phone as he stands next to graffiti on a wall at a cultural and educational centre in Kabul on March 7, 2014. Morteza Nikoubazl / Reuters

Greater access to mobile data networks is empowering Afghan citizens, says Ahmad Shuja the co-founder of Impassion, Afghanistan’s first digital media agency, which recently launched a citizen journalism project that relied on social media and telephones to monitor the presidential election. Follow Mr Shuja on Twitter: @AhmadShuja

Afghanistan is rapidly urbanising. That’s because cities have greater opportunities and services and also, unfortunately, because internally displaced people flee to urban areas. This is not just Kabul where IDPs end up in. It is also Herat, Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif, Jalalabad, and Khost city.

Along with the urbanisation there is greater access to 3G networks. This allows Afghans to make more use of social media. While certain stereotypes about Afghanistan might make that surprising, the whole premise of Impassion is that the idea of Afghanistan being alien to social media is just wrong.

Afghans are also rapidly becoming more literate. They can use Facebook and they can Tweet. Internet connectivity prices are also going down rapidly. There are four telecom companies and they all offer 3G services and they are competing against each other. The government has just launched a new company also that is offering services at half price, which will lead to further decrease in 3G connectivity prices.

Just a few days ago the UN put out a statement saying that Afghans should display more restraint when it comes to publishing on social media so they don’t inflame the political environment. A senator even announced jihad against social media because people were expressing opinions freely and without government hindrance or regulation. Those are some indicators of how much of a voice Afghans have on social media.

Another sign of how important social media is in Afghanistan was that all the presidential campaigns had Facebook pages and even invested money in Facebook advertising.

Our project, Paiwandgāh, a citizen journalism platform that uses social media, grew out of Afghanistan’s first social media summit in 2013. We got the top influencers and users from 25 of the 34 provinces in the country. About 35 per cent of them are female and there was an incredibly rich variety of voices.

We then launched Paiwandgāh and trained people in the use of social media for advocacy, business, and marketing. We taught them some basics of journalism.

With the recent presidential election there is a lot of insecurity and monitors could not be everywhere. In places that were too remote or if there were problems with security there was the possibility for citizen journalists to monitor fraud. Now, there could be as many citizen election monitors as there were voters and in as many locations as there are polling centres.

We used the lowest common denominator technologies to empower them to be observers of the election.

What I mean by that is if the citizen journalist was not literate they could call a IVR, basically an integrated voice response system, to leave a message reporting the issues that they saw.

If people couldn’t afford to make a call, they could just give a missed call and we’d call them back.

If they were literate they could use text messages, or if they were literate and had access to 3G services, they could use social media with hashtags.

In the first round of the election, we had 568 responses from 34 different provinces.

This gave us a live picture of what’s going on, and we posted the reports to our website throughout the day and mapped reports based on location.

In the second round of the election, we did the same thing. We got responses from 27 of the 34 provinces. Through using technologies available to the people, Paiwandgah allowed us to include Afghan voices from across the country in Afghanistan’s most important exercise of democracy, its election.

Will 3G connections continue to grow in Afghanistan and bring more social media and connectivity? It’s hard to say. It depends on the security situation. If the security situation is that telecoms can’t install antennas with 3G then it won’t happen. For now, prices are trending downwards and subscribers in major cities are increasing. Internet service delivery in rural areas will be more difficult because of the security situation, difficult terrain and scattered population.

Now about 80 per cent of Afghanistan have access to cell phones in rural and urban areas, which means internet and social media adoption has a lot of room for growth.

Because Afghanistan is rapidly urbanising, I think the majority of the population will live in cities within the next few years. That means that they will automatically have 3G and thus a greater voice.

Read more Voices on Afghanistan

Published: June 28, 2014 04:00 AM

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