Social Media as a Security Tool in Conflict Zones
For some, spring symbolizes a season of new beginnings as the snow melts, the ground begins to thaw and flowers peep through the grass.
In Afghanistan however, the coming of spring signals the beginning of something far more ominous. During the winter, snowbound mountain passes and road closures prevent insurgents from moving around. But as the cold subsides and the snow melts, the stage is set for a new ‘Fighting Season’.
According to news reports published in early 2013, extremists warned that the new Fighting Season would bring multiple suicide bombings and ‘insider attacks’ by Afghan soldiers while ‘special military tactics’ would target international airbases and diplomatic buildings to inflict maximum casualties. True to their word, that’s exactly what happened.
I moved to Kabul in the spring of 2013, just in time for what many of my friends and colleagues declared to be the worst Fighting Season in more than 5 years.
My plane touched ground early in the morning that first day in Kabul. As it was a Friday, the office was closed and I was taken directly to the company guesthouse. I planned to stay awake as long as I could to stave off the jet lag. Nevertheless, my resistance was defeated by noon. Sleep deprivation combined with swelling and shortness of breath due to the extreme altitudes in Afghanistan had taken its toll. I passed out sitting on my bed, back against the headboard, computer on my lap and hands splayed across the keyboard mid-way through updating my Facebook status with news of my safe arrival.
Over the next few hours, I was in a zombie-like state. Utterly exhausted and confused with my new surroundings, I woke up several times to the sound of my windows clattering away. I remember thinking to myself that the wind must have been very strong that afternoon and I would have to ask the guesthouse staff to fix the windowpanes if I wanted to get any sleep. The rest was a blur as I clumsily made my way back and forth from the bed to the windows attempting to secure them shut in a jet lagged haze.
A few hours later, my energy somewhat replenished, I awoke once again. This time, it was to the ring of my new Blackberry. It was one of the company’s HR managers checking in to ask how I was making out. After ensuring that I’d arrived safely and my room was acceptable, my HR manager had little to say about what was happening on the other side of that thin sheet of glass separating me from the outside world. I ventured outside my room and down the staircase to the common area, but guesthouse staff were nervous and reluctant to say anything. Neither were there any email updates from our Security Manager, something that would become a trend during my time in the country…
Outside my window the sun shone bright, there were no winds, the streets looked deserted while puffs of smoke filled the air and the sounds of nearby gunfire broke the silence of an otherwise dead calm. Messages were filling up my email and social media accounts as local contacts checked in to make sure I’d arrived safely and was securely locked down at the guesthouse.
It was a dark day for humanitarian workers and expats living in Kabul. Taliban militants had launched a coordinated attack on the UN compound located just a few blocks away from my guesthouse. I quickly realized that the clattering windows were not caused by the wind, but rather from the explosions which rocked the foundation of our building. The realities of living in a war-zone were starting to sink in.
Having real-time access to information about attacks, gunfire, explosions and even traffic is vital to the security and safety of humanitarian workers. Larger organizations had systems in place to notify their personnel of security risks and attacks, updates about newly restricted areas or lock downs, via text, email, or a chain of telephone checks. Unfortunately, while good in theory, this system wasn’t always put into practice. Security updates were frequently sent out several hours late and sometimes not at all. Meanwhile, the telephone chains were rarely put into effect, at least by my manager that is…
The solution for me was social media. Through my personal and professional network of friends and friends-of-friends I could trust in Kabul, security updates were relayed via SMS or private online messages. I also joined a group page on Facebook called Kabul Security Now where members posted questions and shared security updates about protests, military exercises, police raids, gunshots, explosions, blocked roads or fires, etc…
When you’re living in a war-zone,
access to timely and accurate information is vital.
During my short stay in Afghanistan, the Kabul Security Now group was the most reliable and accurate source of security updates at my disposal. I couldn’t trust my organization alone to keep me safe. Neither could I trust Reuters, CNN or other news outlets to provide me with timely and accurate information about ongoing or recent attacks. Of course, it was necessary to take Facebook updates with a grain of salt, deciphering what was or was not an over-reaction or a legitimate security concern. However, unlike back home in Canada, you couldn’t ignore the Facebook chatter or the online gossip because one day it could save your life.
Have you got an interesting story about how social media has impacted your life?
We’d love to hear about your experiences and thoughts in the comments section below.