“We live in a global society. Whether we like it or not, we’re connected. “
Michelle Newlands – a Canadian intern working for Journalists for Human Rights – waved her hands emphatically as she spoke to a room filled with Ghanaian youth, media and human rights educators.
“We trade together. We work together. We live side by side, and we can use that as a benefit, or we can use that against us.”
Her message was simple. In this age of online socializing, we have the power to use sites like Facebook and Twitter to engage and inform the public on human rights issues taking place around the globe.
She was the second in a line-up of speakers at the Seminar discussing the Role of Social Media on Human Rights Education in Ghana, held at the African University College of Communications.
“It’s no longer this thing where we read and we consume, and we aren’t able to do anything about it. Technology has progressed to the point where if you read something you can comment and you can encourage more comments. You can share it on Facebook. You can share it on Twitter. You can email it out to your friends, and you can make sure that if you believe something is important, everyone you want to, has access to reading that too.”
Newlands was speaking to a packed room of approximately 50 people. Students and faculty from the African University College of Communications copied notes into their notepads, and representatives from local media houses as well as Amnesty International, Human Rights Advocacy Centre, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the High Commission of Canada raised their hands to participate in the discussion.
The keen audience raised the obvious question at a seminar based on Internet usage in a third world country: Does this sort of public engagement make sense in a place where most of the population doesn’t have access to the internet?
“Not everyone knows how to turn on a computer never mind use social media. So I think as journalists, or as those of us who have the opportunity to get social media, it’s left to us to reach those who can’t and educate them about what is happening,” said Henry, an AUCC student.
Another AUCC student, Michael Buckla added, “Outside Accra. Facebook, Twitter and the internet is something that comes with the rich. You can imagine, most of the people who are affected by human rights (issues) are people who are in the rural areas – and these things are not accessible there.”
According to The World Bank, although internet access in Ghana has spiked in the last decade – growing from 0.1% of the population with access in 1999 to 5.4% in 2009 – the country is still light-years behind it’s tech savvy North American neighbors.
Lawyer and lecturer of the AUCC, professor Ogochukwa Nwek countered the argument.
“We can do this if we want to and we must stop thinking so much about the limitations. Because mobile telephoning has added a lot of value to the kind of access we’re talking about.”
According to Internetworldstats.com, Facebook, and social networking is not lost on all Ghanaians. As of June 2011 almost a million Ghanaians had a Facebook account. That’s a 4 % penetration rate and falls somewhere in the middle when it comes to African rates.
Those numbers are steadily increasing. Newlands reiterated her stance on the power of social media, stating every person who is currently online has the power to pass their own information on to the people who don’t. She encouraged seminar participants to start a movement in blogging to create change.
“Tonight I would like all of you to go home and find an issue that you believe has a human rights angle, and but it in your Facebook status.”
She reminded us that social media is a tool to connect with people who share the same concerns we do, and it’s also a way to band together and celebrate the success that comes out of community, whether it be online or otherwise.