GIVING A VOICE TO VOICELESS AFGHANS THROUGH SOCIAL MEDIABack to musings
People’s Voice Parliamentary Edition is a TOLOnews initiative to prepare citizens - from all of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan - for the Parliamentary Elections. The name "People's Voice" was chosen to reflect the key objectives of the initiative - to give voice to the thousands of Afghans across the country, and provide them with the opportunity to express their hopes, fears, dreams, and share the reality of their day to day lives. This was an essential role for the program as these insights rarely reach the government due to limited internal mobilisation and opportunities for national discussion. During filming, we gave nearly 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 almost never make it to the mainstream. I heard from citizens who reside in extremely remote areas. And giving them a platform to express themselves for the first time through the program was indeed a unique 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 in 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 growing in importance - bringing entertainment, news and information to the people. Even though the Internet in Afghanistan is still primarily focused on urban communities (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 endeavour. It is vital that those who live in insecure provinces - where armed insurgent groups are often more powerful than the government – are even given a voice. These groups who may have never seen a video camera before and often feel so far from Kabul that they might as well be in a different country must have the chance to be heard if we are going to build a strong and united nation.
Meanwhile, in these provinces, there were many 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 in the program, TOLOnews, and in me, helped them understand that social media was a viable tool for them as well. As internet penetration grows it indeed won't be long before more and more groups utilise social media to participate in the democratic process. I believe that social media can drive higher levels of awareness of crucial political issues, which in turn will lead to their engagement in non-violent civil rights movements which will ultimately help hold the government accountable. An accountable government is the real representation of its citizens' dreams and hopes.
Once the travelling was over, we started work 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 my job then to ensure what they articulated was shared in an engaging manner. We aimed to represent all of Afghanistan - inclusive of gender, age, and ethnicity - to ensure that we were giving voice to the entire 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 in their province. Through this process, we gained not only significant insights but also 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 incredibly 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 organised 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 part of a nationwide conversation. With the help of initiatives such as “People’s Voice” I genuinely believe that Afghanistan is moving forward and growing in its ability to mobilise Afghans and give marginalised citizens a voice through social media.