Non-sectarian Social Media & the civilian tragedy in Sri Lanka

What advice about digital tactics would you give to someone who wants to use social media to help civilians caught in a near-invisible conflict?

I was contacted by a British Sri Lankan who wants to do something positive about the plight of civilians caught up in the conflict back home. She wants to aggregate news and bring people together (outside of allegiances to the Sri Lankan Government or the Tamil Tigers) to come up with ideas about how to address the problems.

She's seen the way that internet campaigns have captured public attention in the cases of Gaza, Tibet and Burma - how the highlighting of inequity makes people want to get out there and protest. I knocked out an email with my first ideas but I'm blogging for more. My thoughts are below; how would you use the power of social media to help?

My ideas:

  • Check out Sri Lanka news on Global Voices, the global blogging project - it's a start for news aggregation outside of the mainstream, and a way to find good contacts
  • Get you and our friends on to Twitter; use search to find other interested people & start conversations; start a hashtag like #srilankacrisis; do some
    coordinated tweeting at a critical moment. (Here's an interesting post by Ethan Zuckerman about following the under-reported coup in Madagascar via twitter).
  • Think through what you want to achieve online; what are your goals? who do you want to reach? how will you know if it's working?
  • If you just want to aggregate news, start with something like Netvibes
  • If you want a space for sharing and collaboration you can use an off-the-shelf social network like Ning
  • For sure, you can't expect people to find you; you'll have to go out and find people in the online spaces where they already are.
  • So, er, Facebook for starters (like the Burma example I linked to in
    A Monstrous Mashup - The United Nations and Social Media)
  • And you can use a tool like Addictomatic to find other places where the crisis in Sri Lanka is being discussed.
  • Decide what kind of digital activism might work for you. Do you want to fundraise? to mobilize? to collect video evidence? Check out the extensive case studies at Digiactive.
  • If there's people on the ground who can help, consider the use of tools like Ushahidi (an open source project which allows users to crowdsource crisis information to be sent via mobile).

My contact also said that lots of NGOs seem to be fed up of working in Sri Lanka because of the restrictions imposed on them by the Government. But if there are ways that social media can help, why aren't these NGOs being more agile about using digital means? Not as a replacement for vital on-the-ground humanitarian aid, but in the innovative style of Ushahidi. I suspect that the truly interesting stuff will come from passionate people like my contact who can catalyse self-organisation amongst the concerned diaspora and others, using the power of social media.