Social media can be used to engage beneficiaries of development projects, consult them in the planning phase, or get feedback during implementation or after completion. You only need a laptop or smartphone, and internet connectivity.
But what if we are trying to reach beneficiaries in remote areas? The challenge then becomes not just poor connectivity but also lack of familiarity with social media itself.
Innovation doesn’t necessarily have to be high-tech and digital. Sometimes we need low-tech, offline methods to properly survey the communities we are targeting. That is what I did for my doctoral dissertation with an indigenous Aeta tribe in the Philippines.
I conducted a hybrid online-offline study to measure opinion gaps between development project proponents and beneficiaries from the Sambal Aeta community, a Filipino ethnolinguistic group descended from the original Austronesian inhabitants of Zambales province in central Luzon island.
One of the first beneficiaries I surveyed was 39-year-old Lilia dela Cruz, part of a group of Aetas who were transferred to the Loob-Bunga resettlement area after being displaced by the 1991 volcanic eruption of Mt. Pinatubo.
Like most members of her tribe, Lilia cannot participate in neither project discussions nor Facebook conversations. She lacks the skills and the connectivity to do so. The Sambal Aetas are thus often silenced by default in discussions about their own development.
To address this problem, I used a small-scale pilot to test the utility of an equation that quantifies minority-majority opinion gaps.
Somewhat paradoxically, I chose Facebook, the very tool that Aetas cannot use, to determine whether social media can in fact be a viable way to consult indigenous communities. My approach was to calculate Facebook engagement using offline analogs of reactions and comments, as well as by disaggregating positive from negative engagement.
Facebook determines engagement as a percentage by dividing the total number of likes, comments, and shares by the number of users reached by a certain post. But this equation doesn’t disaggregate positive from negative engagement.
What if we modify the equation to calculate for the ratio between those two values to see how many people are in favor of one opinion over another? What if we pose a binary (either/or) question to identify gaps between two different opinion sets?
Imagine if offline respondents—like the Aetas—were given a chance to join a discussion on Facebook using offline analogs of likes, reactions, and comments.
In my pilot study, students and professors from the University of the Philippines (the project proponents) interacted with offline indigenous Aetas in Zambales (the beneficiaries). The interaction took place on a Facebook page, where the Manila-based respondents communicated online and the Aetas did so offline, by being physically shown screenshots and printouts of the Facebook page onsite.
The Aetas’ reactions and comments were tallied on paper and posted when internet connection was available. The proponents read them and reacted to them, and the back-and-forth process continued for 5 days.
The participants in my study were asked to decide whether to invest more in agriculture or education. Half were subsistence farmers, the other half teachers and students.
The first objective was to see if participants’ engagement within the forum—online and offline—would allow minority and majority views to surface in development communication dynamics among project stakeholders regardless of social group. The second goal was to check if demographics influences the tendency to groupthink.
Lilia and her tribe were thus able to participate in the discussion about agriculture and education – even while offline. The Aeta respondents, 90% of whom had never seen Facebook nor reached secondary school, were given a voice.
The results of the survey show that education was the slightly more popular choice on Day 1, but then agriculture took the lead on Days 2 and 3. On Day 4 the trend changed again, and by Day 5 education was the clear winner.
Even some respondents who originally chose agriculture began to show negative engagement (in favor of education), showing a shift in opinion.
Despite perceived groupthink, opinion incongruence occurred within groups, instead of between known demographics or perceived biases and inclinations. And opinions did not always occur homogeneously.
In other words, some project proponents were expected to pick education but opted to prioritize agriculture, and vice versa. There was dissent and opinion gaps across all groups and demographics.
As far as the development community is concerned, the main takeaway from my study is that we should continue to explore innovative ways to consult beneficiaries, and not assume their preferences.
Indigenous peoples don’t engage in groupthink. Not all subsistence farmers believe that development projects should support their sector alone. Many want more education, at least for their children.
All the Aeta beneficiaries told me they enjoyed participating in the study because it was something new and exciting for them. Some nevertheless complained that proponents of development projects often decide what their priorities should be, without bothering to ask them.
On the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, let’s keep exploring new ways of giving these communities a voice, and listen to them carefully before we decide how to help them.