Giving a Voice to Voiceless Afghans through Social Media

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People’s Voice Parliamentary Edition is a TOLOnews initiative to prepare citizens - from all of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan - for the upcoming Parliamentary Elections. The name "People's Voice" was chosen to reflect the key objective of the initiative -–to bring a voice to the thousands of Afghans across the country, and give them an opportunity to express their hopes, fears, dreams, and explain the reality of their day to day lives. The program has an important role to play; due to limited internal mobilization and opportunities for national discussion this information is otherwise rarely shared with the government. During filming, we gave roughly 10,000 Afghans the chance to speak their minds – a process I attended to collect data, discussion points, and images for a nationwide social media campaign.

During these travels, I was privy to the facts of life across Afghanistan that most never get the opportunity to see or hear. I heard from citizens who reside in extremely remote areas; giving these people a platform to express themselves for the first time through the program was a special experience. "People's Voice" gave these citizens hope for the future - and particularly for a democratic Afghanistan which represents their interests. More importantly, we were able to show the participants the power of free speech - a journey that I am continuing through the use of social media today.

Although still a growing medium in Afghanistan (Internet penetration is at 9.6% nationally, with social media sites being the most popular), digital platforms are increasingly becoming important to the population - bringing them entertainment, news and information.  Although the Internet in Afghanistan is still largely focused on urban populations (approximately 22% penetration, as opposed to a mere 5% in rural areas) using social media to spread the voices and the messages of people from more insecure provinces country is still a worthy endeavor. It is vital that those who live in insecure provinces - where armed insurgent groups are often more powerful than the government – are still given a voice. These groups who may never have seen a video camera before and often feel so far from Kabul that they might as well be in a different country must be given a chance to be heard if we are going to build a strong and united country.

Whilst in these provinces there were obviously a number of challenges. Initially many people did not understand how the use of social media could help the government hear their concerns or how it could help make the government more accountable. However their confidence for the program, for TOLOnews, and for me, helped them to realize that social media was a viable tool for them as well – as internet penetration grows it certainly won't be long until more and more groups’ utilize social media to participate in the democratic process. It is my belief that social media use can drive higher levels of awareness of key political issues, which in turn will lead to their engagement in non-violent civil rights movements which will ultimately help to hold the government to account. An accountable government is the real representation of its citizens' dreams and hopes.  

After all of the traveling was complete, we started working on the social media strategy for the program - finding that by and large the people of Afghanistan had portrayed the facts of their lives honestly, truthfully, and powerfully. It was then my job to ensure that what they had articulated was shared in an engaging manner. Our aim was to represent all of Afghanistan, inclusive of gender, age, and ethnicity, to ensure that we were giving a voice to the population, and providing both reliable and relevant information. We created an online discussion so that those who were not able to participate while we were in their provinces could take part in an online conversation and speak up regarding their concerns. I started connecting with our online fans- replying to them, and asking them to tell us about the situation of their province. Through this process we gained not only significant insight but also now have a loyal fan base who trust what we portray through social media.

We are now in the implementation phase, where the  campaign switches from the theoretical to the practical, and the results are extremely positive. We have reached the so-called "endorsing" stage, which means that our fans are successfully a part of the online community; observing, following, and engaging in all that we do. Once we measure the results, we will then progress to the "contributing" stage, where we hope fans will start discussions amongst themselves. We were able to present the theoretical dimension of the strategy versus the implementation of our campaign in the third Afghan Social Media Summit organized by Impassion Afghanistan. Our presentation was focused on our journey around the entirety of the country, and the importance of them going online before we went online. The summit was a wonderful event, and we found it immensely useful for our campaign. I invited people to get engaged with the campaign, and to deliver their messages through social media so that they too could be a part of a nationwide conversation. With the help of initiatives such as “People’s Voice” I truly believe that Afghanistan is moving forward, and that now it is the time to mobilize Afghans and give marginalized citizens a voice through social media.