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A Women’s Voice in Conflict: Social Media Monitoring as a Policy Tool » Women's Courage

A Women’s Voice in Conflict: Social Media Monitoring as a Policy Tool

March 3rd, 2011 by adakulen Leave a reply »

Date:          March 03, 2011

To:             Department of State Policy Planning Staff

From:         Ada Kulenovic, Stanford University

Subject:      Women’s Rights in Conflict: Establishing Social Media Monitoring as a Policy Tool


Women play many roles in modern warfare—from victims of systematic violence to combat professionals— however, regardless of what status a woman has in conflict, it is in the interest of the United States to ensure women’s rights and long-term health consequences are taken into consideration in the crafting of wartime policy. International women’s stories present an opportune educational tool for policy makers to better assess the needs of women in war situations. Further, increased international access to the Internet and social media sites have bolstered the potential to effectively monitor and respond to human rights abuses against women.

Global Trends:

  • The spike in ethnic and religious civil wars targeting civilians has resulted in disproportionate numbers of women and children victims. [1]
  • In regions where democratic principles and transparency are scarce, women’s rights violations are being methodically concealed: local authorities turn to falsifying reports and classifying records and statistics. [2] These governments are failing to uphold the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and there is a lack of appropriate mechanism for reporting these abuses.
  • Not only civilian females are victims of abuse in wartime situations; there have been record high reports of abuse of military personnel within US troops. [3] The safety of our female combatants must be made a priority.
  • The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants gives the world total of displaced peoples as approximately 62 million; about one-third are officially recognized as international refugees, and 80% of these refugees are women and children who are more vulnerable to their unstable conditions. [4] Subsequently, the health consequences facing women during and after conflict (including both physical and mental traumas) constitute an issue that affects US demographic standards and the US healthcare system.

Assessment of Current Approaches:

Current policy does not effectively address the varied needs of women in conflict. While the US has made effective efforts to curtail mass human rights abuses such as the ones seen in the Balkan wars of the 1990s [5], there remain many gaps in policy with respect to women’s issues because there is no mechanism for giving a voice to the female population.  International journalists and popular media have long played a key role in disseminating information on civilian conditions in war. [5] Their efforts supplement the investigations undertaken by US intelligence agencies.

Over the past decade, however the Internet emerged as a new resource for accumulating information regarding human rights atrocities. It is estimated that one third of the world has access to the internet. [6] Global internet usage has grown by 444.8% in the last decade; regions that have seen the fastest growth include Africa (2,257.3%) and the Middle East (1,825.3%). Additionally, world internet penetration rates are steadily growing, meaning more people than ever before are gaining access to the internet on a daily basis. [6] In 2010 Facebook reached over 400 million users worldwide, and Twitter hit a benchmark  reporting of 50 million tweets per day; last year both sites saw number of global users nearly triple, while time spent on social media sites increased over 80%. [7] In many developing nations, social media is driven by the usage of mobile devices. Currently, about half of the global population has a mobile phone. Studies suggest that internet via mobile will become a primary means of internet access in developing countries. [8] Lastly, technology-based development researchers suggest that mobile internet access in developing countries could drastically change the basis for social determinants of healthcare and social service access. [9] The internet it creating a new medium for information exchange and social participation. Current events trends affecting revolutions across the Middle East support theories of the rising importance of social media as a tool for community organization. [10]

Furthermore, as I am sure you are aware, Secretary Clinton and president Obama elevated technology to a high priority for the State Department as a new tool for diplomacy. Jared Cohen’s persistent promotion of the use of existing technologies, including Facebook, Twitter, and Google, transformed the State Department’s approach to diplomacy by bringing the State Department up to speed with existing technology for international mass mobilization. [11] A number of notable projects were initiated to bring together tech delegates across the world to promote the use of social media as a device, particularly in war-torn countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan.  [11] One venture to be highlighted is the 2008 delegation trip to Baghdad, during which Silicon Valley representatives traveled with local engineering students, professors, and government ministers to assess how to make technology more accessible across Iraq. [12] The trip resulted in several innovative ventures including the tweaking of Twitter code to allow basic cell phones to make posts and the introduction of blogging and coding partnerships among youth activists and engineering representatives. [12] The Iraq experiment poses an interesting model for future endeavors.

Another notable predecessor of social media monitoring is the Haiti response effort. The creation of a universally accessible tracking number ‘4636’ used by people to text for help was credited for the success of a series of rescue efforts, and provided a tool for tracking missing persons. In addition, during the Haiti disaster, organizations relied heavily on posts coming in from social media sites to organize relief missions. [13]

There is a need to expand the usage of the internet for policy monitoring– especially with regards to women’s issues. Through social media, women across the globe are given a new means of expression and self-organization. The internet provides a means for an otherwise voiceless group to have clout in the international arena.

Policy Recommendations:

The next step is to take the basic frameworks for social media monitoring that are already coming to fruition and to extend them to the most high needs regions and populations—focusing heavily on targeting women’s empowerment grassroots organizations in regions with a propensity for civil strife such as Africa and the Middle East, where social media and cellular device usage continues to grow.

There is a need for:

  • Support for the strategic use of online media for women to voice their complaints to the international community; including addressing issues of accessibility, awareness, anonymity, and safety.
  • A method by which to monitor abused populations’ complaints and locations across a range of existing social media servers . This monitoring system should track short-term and long-term reporting trends.
  • A coordinated effort to address the concerns provided by this new apparatus, and to manage effective response across government and non-government organizations.
  • Continued tracking and follow-up on the health status of women and children refugees and female veterans in the US.

In order to push forth with these goals, the Policy Planning Staff must designate a Women’s Rights Monitoring Task Force which will help promote the continued establishment of technology delegations comprised of entrepreneurs, political leaders, local community figures, and students, much like the ones championed by Jared Cohen and Alec Ross in 2008. [13] In addition to the delegations, the Task Force should seek to partner with organizations that work with women in war, such as Women for Women International and CARE, to promote the use of social media and cellular devices as a medium for crisis help for use by all women, especially women in the US military. Female military representatives should be trained to report both instances of abuse with the troops and amongst local populations. Further, the Task Force must seek to establish potential monitoring agencies modeled after the monitoring attempts carried out by State Department, Pentagon, and humanitarian groups after Haiti.  These monitoring systems should serve as a means of coordinating response efforts, and continuing metrics measurement post-conflict. The reports generated by these agencies can serve as the basis for further studies, policy recommendations, and immediate action mechanisms.

Given the politically volatile situations facing countries across the Middle East region in the wake of revolutionary reforms, and the strategic importance this region to international security and stability, now is the time to act by instating monitoring of social media across Lybia to assess the situation on the ground.

By pushing for social media access, we ensure Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, securing citizens’ access to information. This is a direct means of promoting transparency and fighting corruption in places that need it most without the use of US military force. The strategic application of the information that results from the use of these social media channels allows for direct citizen communication, gives voice to a silenced minority population under severe repression and helps ensure smart policy-making rooted in the needs of the population.  This policy helps implement smart top-down policy by involving local communities and pushing for bottom-up involvement in political affairs.


[1] Broken bodies, broken dreams: violence against women exposed. Jeanne Ward – Zana Briski – Lisa Ernst – UN. Office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs (OCHA). Integrated regional information networks (IRIN) – 2005.

[2] Camareno, Rodrigo. “The War on Drugs’ Female Victims.” The Guardian | Guardian.co.uk. Web. 27 Jan. 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/jan/24/mexico-usa-women.

[3] Benedict, Helen. “The Private War of Women Soldiers.” Salon. 7 Mar. 2007. Web. http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2007/03/07/women_in_military.

[4] “Frequently Asked Questions About Refugees and Resettlement.” International Rescue Committee | The International Rescue Committee Goes to Crisis Zones to Rescue and Rebuild. We Lead Refugees from Harm to Home. Web. 04 Mar. 2011. http://www.rescue.org/frequently-asked-questions-about-refugees-and-resettlement.

[5] Brussels, Belgium. UNFPA. Sexual Violence Against Women and Girls in War and Its Aftermath: Realities, Responses, and Required Resources. By Jeane Ward and Wendy Marsh. 2006. Symposium on Sexual Violence in Conflict and Beyond.

[6] “World Internet Usage Statistics News and World Population Stats.” Internet World Stats – Usage and Population Statistics. Web. 02 Mar. 2011. http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm.

[7] “Led by Facebook, Twitter, Global Time Spent on Social Media Sites up 82% Year over Year | Nielsen Wire.” Nielsen. Web. 03 Mar. 2011. http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/global/led-by-facebook-twitter-global-time-spent-on-social-media-sites-up-82-year-over-year/.

[8] Tryhorn, Chris. “Developing Countries Drive Explosion in Global Mobile Phone Use | Business | Guardian.co.uk.” Latest News, Comment and Reviews from the Guardian | Guardian.co.uk. Web. 03 Mar. 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/mar/02/mobile-phone-internet-developing-world.

[9] Boyera, S. “White Paper on Mobile Web for Social Development.” World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Jan. 2008. Web. 03 Mar. 2011. http://www.w3.org/2006/12/digital_divide/ajc.

[10] “Mass Media, Women and the Middle East.” Home. Web. 04 Mar. 2011. http://www.waccglobal.org/en/20072-mediating-the-middle-east/454-Mass-media-women-and-the-Middle-East.html.

[11] BusinessWeek: Interview with Peter Elstrom & Spencer Ante. BusinessWeek. Video.

[12] Ante, By Spencer E. “Twitter Diplomacy – BusinessWeek.” BusinessWeek – Business News, Stock Market & Financial Advice. Web. 04 Mar. 2011. http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/09_26/b4137050286263.htm.

[13] Gentile, Carmen. “Cries for Help via Text Messages Are Used to Direct Aid to Haiti.” New York Times Online. The Nw York TImes, 20 Feb. 2010. Web. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/21/world/americas/21text.html?_r=1&th&emc=th.


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