Images via Paiwand's Facebook page
They say tools aren't inherently good or bad, it's just how they're used, and nowhere is this more clear than in Afghanistan. After years of the Taliban stringently forbidding internet access in the country, insurgents are now turning to Twitter and Facebook to advance their own agenda—to recruit new members, even brag about assassinating an election official this month. On the other side of the coin there's a brewing movement of Afghani web denizens who are also leveraging social media, as tool for progress in the war-torn country.
This past weekend some 200 activists, entrepreneurs, NGOs, and government officials congregated in Kabul for the nation's first-ever social media summit, to promote their shared belief that Twitter and Facebook can help transform society.
The summit's called Paiwand, which means "connection," a reference to bringing together the scattered tech enthusiasts around the country to fuse a sense of community. But the word can also be taken in another way: connecting Afghanistan to the rest of the world. The big social media bash—which kicked off September 22, the day after International Peace Day—was also a move to help improve the country's global image and put Afghanistan on the map in a positive light.
In the decade since the Taliban was ousted, Afghanistan's been slow to adopt technology. Internet access is still expensive and available only to a privileged few, and the lion's share of residents in the rural areas of the provinces are illiterate. But increasingly artists and activists are creating Facebook pages to give themselves an online presence, and promoting their work through social networking channels. There's also a kind of "sneakernet" running through the country, where people who do have internet access pass along news and ideas from social media verbally to those that don't.
The Paiwand summit featured panels from those creatives, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders in the fortunate few. One panel, "Skype diplomacy" promoted a startup that joins Afghans and people from other countries with similar backgrounds for a virtual meal and discussion of global issues.
In another panel, a renowned artist spoke about how to use the Afghan street art scene to connect the country with the wider world. "KabulStreet" is an Art for Peace initiative that hopes to spread tolerance and compassion throughout Afghanistan, and also raise awareness beyond the country's borders that there's a movement for peace. A founder of the initiative writes on the project's Facebook page: "Kabul is dark, so no matter how small the light, it will shine.”
The NATO-backed government also had a strong presence at the summit, anticipating the role that Twitter and Facebook are sure to play in the upcoming elections in April. A spokesperson for President Hamid Karzai and other state representatives spoke about social media's role in the government, and the rise of startups like Baztab, a new social network for reporting on elections.
The leaders behind the event, which was organized by social enterprise startup Impassion Afghanistan, hope to recruit young people to join their movement—to get excited about making a civic contribution. To that end, there were discussions on how the web can be used to keep government officials and criminals in check and boost transparency in the country, the challenges of women in technology, how to use social media for disaster relief, how it can enable citizen journalism, and a workshop on how to make Google Maps.
The organization plans to follow the event by holding workshops in the country's provinces to teach people how to use social media tools, with the hopes of growing the community.