On January 25, a day before Rwanda’s annual Miss Rwanda beauty pageant was to be concluded, the national anti-genocide commission raised an alarm.
In a lengthy statement, the national commission for the fight against Genocide (CNLG) detailed a coordinated campaign on Facebook using ethnic language to promote one of the pageant candidates Josiane Mwiseneza.
Social media allows users to remain anonymous, a feat the accounts cited by CNLG used.
It meant not even the laws criminalising ethnic divisionism and genocide ideology could affect the individuals behind the pro-Josiane campaign accounts since they were anonymous.
With tech, it took no time to identify and denounce the campaign.
Supposing the case had taken place before and during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, could it have been that quick to highlight the campaign and perhaps galvanize the international community or regional powers to stop it?
It is had to say considering the genocide had been meticulously planned well in advance.
No significant research has come close to determining whether the genocide could have been as ferocious as it did had social media been available.
The United Nations has for its part been told Twitter and Facebook can be to gather data about impending violence.
Author and former UN advisor Walter Dorn says Gen Romeo Dallaire, the commander of UN forces in Rwanda could have been able to see the massacres coming from testimonies of victims.
If social media platforms were available at the time, the UN and other agencies could have gathered intelligence and tips about impending violence or as a method to warn the public about such dangers, says the academic.
“I think it’s much more likely it (genocide against Tutsi) could have been prevented had there been social media at the time,” said Dorn, in a 2011 interview following his book on that also tackled the subject.
“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.”
Twitter, Facebook and images captured by cellphone cameras are presumed to have played a key role in the unrest that has gripped North Africa and the Arab world. What started as small demonstrations rapidly evolved into the over-throw of leaders that had entrenched their power for decades.
In Egypt for example, demonstrator posted details of how the security forces were suppressing them with unprecedented force.
As for Tunisia, protestors used Facebook to spread dissent about the government that they accused of all sorts of abuses.
The UN “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,” says Dorn, author of the book: ‘Keeping Watch: Monitoring, Technology and Innovation in UN Peace Operations’.
Mr. Dorn has served on UN peace operations as well as a consultant for the world body’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations. He is currently a professor at the Canadian Forces College.
Gen. Dallaire, the UN force commander on the ground during 1994 genocide, could do little to stop the rampaging militias, which according to available data, slaughtered more than a million people.
In his forward to Dorn’s book, Gen. Dallaire writes that the troubles which the force known by its acronym UNAMIR experienced as it struggled to come to terms with what was happening were a result of 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 Canadian Senator, also regular visitor to Rwanda and public speaker on the genocide in Rwanda.
He has repeatedly emphasized that 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.”
In his book, Mr. Dorn says intelligence gathered from social media sources would have to be corroborated by the UN but they could be used to provide raw data.
Social media is an attractive form of communication because it has become so prevalent in the developing world, adds the academic.
Twitter is growing in popularity in Rwanda, but not as widely used as Facebook. In any public Internet café, chances are that you will find more than seven in 10 people on Facebook – chatting, viewing latest posts, searching for new friends, or just scrolling through photos.
Social events are organised on Facebook.
Other than a group of friends meeting up, they will more likely hold a discussion on Facebook. The latest political and social happenings are heavily debated there.
With more than three-quarters of Rwandans owning a cell phone and many on data coupled with constant drop in the prices of handsets that support internet software, being online is slowly turning to a need.
Telecom market competitors MTN Rwanda and Aitel-TiGO are offering free access to social media
On the African continent, mobile phones are now
the preferred form of communication, with nearly one in three people able to make or receive a phone call using a mobile phone.
“There’s this huge penetration of cellphones and smart phones into the developing world,” Dorn explains. “They’re skipping a whole generation of technology of the landline.”