Until recently Lisa Boyd, a senior studying international relations, knew more about Darfur than she did about Twitter, the latest social media craze. Now she and other Lehigh students are using Twitter to breathe new life into the coverage of the humanitarian crisis in the war-torn western region of Sudan, Africa's largest nation.
In the process, they are helping Lehigh become the first university to use social media to raise awareness about the efforts of United Nations peacekeepers to guarantee security to the region’s residents.
Since 2003, according to the Web site of Amnesty International USA, 300,000 civilians have been killed and 2.7 million people have been driven from their homes by Sudanese government troops and allied militia called the Janjawid. Amnesty International says Darfur is now the site of “some of the worst human rights abuses imaginable, including systematic and widespread murder, rape, abduction and displacement.”
A dozen Lehigh students use Twitter, a social networking Web site, to send daily updates about Darfur to followers across the globe at http://twitter.com/darfurconflict. These “tweets” contain news about UN peacekeeping and other operations in Darfur as well as links to Web sites with more in-depth information on the region.
The project supports Lehigh’s commitment to global education and is an outgrowth of the university’s UN Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) status. That status, which is held by only 16 universities, gives students extensive access to the UN and its work.
“Twitter enables us to spread the word about Darfur worldwide,” Boyd says. “It has changed the way we think about sharing information.”
The Twitter project resulted when the UN asked Lehigh to help develop new methods of distributing its news while at the same time engaging young people. “Its long-standing association with the UN apart, Lehigh has extensive links to other universities around the world which can contribute to a truly global effort,” says Ramu Damodaran, deputy director of the outreach division of the UN’s Department of Public Information.
Students are measuring their success by the growth in the number of their followers and by having their information “re-tweeted,” or forwarded to others. Just one month into the project, they have more than 140 followers including governments and relief agencies. To expand the project’s outreach, students from the University of Winneba in Ghana, Africa, soon will “tweet” as well, providing an African perspective. This connection was made by George Kankam, a faculty member at the African university who is a Fulbright professor and visiting scholar in Lehigh’s College of Education.
“Students are forging a new path by partnering with the United Nations to create social change through social media,” says Jeremy Littau, an assistant professor of journalism and communication and an expert in social media. “They are tapping into and joining an ongoing conversation about Darfur, in effect becoming global citizens.”
Lehigh students’ Twitter feed could become a model for other universities to share updates on issues vital to the UN, which has also begun a new initiative, the Academic Impact, to encourage greater cooperation between universities and the organization.