How one group is making it easier to use social media in Afghanistan

Impassion Afghanistan hosted a summit explaining Web tools to journalists

KABUL—The invitation for the second annual Afghan Social Media Summit in Kabul arrived with all the pertinent details except one—the location.

This is Afghanistan after all. Security trumps everything. So the location was only released at the last minute along with credentials.

The first day started late, but not because things were disorganized. Armed guards thoroughly patted down each of the 200 participants as their bags ran through scanners. Participants traversed through a maze of steel doors into a lovely courtyard hidden from massive mud walls with concertina wiring. No sign out front named the hotel.

“Unfortunately we have started late, because getting in here is difficult,” said organizer Eileen Guo, an American who in March 2013 co-founded Impassion Afghanistan, the country’s first digital media agency. (I worked with the team for three months.)

Guo and a team of a dozen young, smart, technologically savvy Afghans organized the conference in late October with a grant from the US State Department and other sponsors.

About 400 around the country signed up for the free summit, only 10 percent of whom were women. The actual number of attendees was smaller due to communication problems and mix-ups that make doing business in Afghanistan especially challenging.

The conference—simultaneously translated into Dari, Pashto and English—included trainings on Instagram, Facebook, data journalism, and how to build a wireless network. Panels included hashtag activism, digital storytelling, crowdmapping, cybersecurity, and how social media motivated Afghans to vote in the recent presidential election. I spoke on the need for ethics in digital media.

Most panels went smoothly, but the internet was sluggish, and during the second day morning panels were hamstrung when the electricity shut down.

“The summit is a step in the right direction to enlighten people about the possibilities and opportunities they can take advantage of using internet,” said American University student Hashem Fatahi, 24. “It gave me a clear picture of where Afghanistan stands in using online social media and the problems the media is up against.” He was critical though, saying some presentations weren’t professional and wished there had been more foreign media attending.

But social media is relatively new in Afghanistan, as Guo told the audience. “[It’s] kind of like a Wild West without the rules,” she said. “Social media will continue to affect every aspect of daily life in Afghanistan. What we are really talking about is change and disruption in how we live and work and understand our place in the world.”

Still in its infancy, the internet is mostly unreliable and almost nonexistent in rural villages. Roughly two million Afghans have internet access, about 7 percent of the population. About 1.3 million use social media, mainly Facebook. About 800,000 have signed up for the site but only 600,000 are active users, according to the Telecommunications Ministry.

And most of those users aren’t using internet networks at all—they’re connecting on their cellphones. Many Afghans in urban areas carry two or more phones, each connected to one of five mobile networks operating here. If one network drops, there’s another way to connect.

“The internet is popular when it works, but there are more than 18 million mobile subscribers in Afghanistan,” said Mohammad Sufyan, head of communications for the online-only Pajhwok Afghan News, 10-year-old outlet. “So SMS is a good way to reach them.” Pajhwok is now developing a mobile news app as well as a paid SMS news service.

One project highlighted was Mobile Peace Reporting, based in Kandahar. Its goal is to show that there’s more to Kandahar than the Taliban, suicide bombings, poppies, and pomegranates.

“The media always covers the dark side of Kandahar,” said Javid Faisal, who is running Mobile Peace Reporting. “We are trying to engage youth and the media to tell positive stories. We trained 250 citizen journalists to send in stories via text or voice calls.” Fickle technology, electricity outages, a lack of resources, and challenges using mobile phones for reporting marred the program, he said. But it’s a start, and he hopes to get more funding.

A bigger problem is one many Afghan journalism outlets face: getting women involved as reporters and citizen journalists when cultural barriers still require they stay at home. “Women don’t want their name or pictures on the Web. It’s a cultural obstacle we haven’t figured out how to fix,” Faisal said.

All that said, a deputy minister for information technology, Aimal Marjan, noted that there’s a surge in Afghan women using Facebook.

“About 3.7 percent of Afghans are on Facebook,” he said. “About 17 percent are our sisters. They are often not allowed to come out of their homes. But now those sisters of ours can participate from their homes with social media.”

Marjan left the group on a high note. He promised to fund next year’s conference.

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Alicia Shepard is former NPR ombudsman and is training Afghan journalists on corruption reporting for Internews, an NGO that helps to develop local media around the world