I try not to overthink it, because there are probably 101 better things to do with my time, but I spend a lot of time scrolling through, liking, laughing at, getting angry about and sharing things I see on social media. Facebook tells me I have 3,549 friends when in real life I probably have around 30.
It might have something to do with my work. For the past eight years, I’ve been supporting humanitarian aid work, far from where I grew up, in Alsager, England. My family and friends are all far away, so I see most of them only on Facebook. I can remember birthdays, and see friends fall in love and get married and have kids. I have never been one to pick up the phone, but give me 10 minutes on Messenger with a pal and I am instantly gratified.
It took my sister a million years to get a smartphone. She claimed that her reliable Motorola flip, circa 2001, was adequate. Imagine my delight when she entered my world in 2018 and got WhatsApp. We are many time zones apart, but a love-heart-and-kisses emoji goes a long way in a second.
I am really no different from anyone else using Facebook. The dog in the file cabinet made my day. I post photos of my work and travels. The only difference is that I might post updates on Instagram and my Facebook page from unusual locations — like Quetta, Pakistan, during a polio campaign; at the United Nations to see the Pope; or on my daily commute to the largest refugee camp in the world.
And then there are moments when there are no words. A massacre of school children in Peshawar, Pakistan, a dark day. Another shooting in a school in the United States or a new report of atrocities against the Rohingya in Myanmar. A series of many, many dark days.
I sometimes imagine the day I die and what people will post on my Facebook page. If only life could be like that. We could begin again to forgive, speak the truth and put hate aside. And besides that, would 3,549 people come to my funeral?
It isn’t just personal. This alternate community on Facebook gives people like me a chance to reach different audiences. I’m a communicator by profession, and I work internationally. Facebook is my perfect partner. By being part of the global social media infrastructure, I can share information about places to which most people have no access and very little information.
Facebook is often used by charities and aid agencies to communicate about emergencies so that we can raise awareness and raise funds. I am currently in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, working on the Rohingya response. I tell stories on social media to inform our donors and supporters about the bridges we are building to reach more refugees with food, about children who are undernourished and how we are treating them, about making the ground safe in the camps in advance of cyclone and monsoon season.
For humanitarian workers, Instagram, WhatsApp and other social media platforms have become indispensable tools. They allow us to communicate faster than we could before about all sorts of things, like how many people we are feeding, new data on children with malnutrition and who’s at risk from the coming monsoon. When people are crossing the border, WhatsApp helps us communicate quickly about what’s needed and who is doing what to reach them so that we can coordinate our efforts.
Does social media help save lives? No, of course not. People do, and the more widely information is shared on different platforms, the more likely it is that starving children, raped women and murdered husbands become everybody’s business.
But social media can also do harm and lend a voice to those who spread lies and rumors. Many of the families who have escaped the violence in Myanmar know this too well. Facebook has been widely criticized for playing a role in spreading hate speech.
I don’t know a solution, but I do know that on this assignment I have met so many people who have been struck by the powerful images of people crossing the border from Myanmar to the safe shores of Bangladesh, and haunted by stories of their poor living conditions. “We want to help — what we can do?” many ask when I tell them what I do.
Personally, staying off Facebook is not an option for me. It is my address book, my village post office, the place where I can stop by when I want and have a chat and catch up. Until another platform comes along, I’ll stick with it. Some people talk about needing to escape from social media. But when I’m working round the clock on an emergency response, Facebook and Instagram are my escape. I can pop in to see this or that quirky post in my news feed, and sometimes clicking “like” is just what I need.
Shelley Thakral is an international aid worker responding to the crisis involving Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.