The popularity of social networking sites such as Twitter continues to grow, especially among marginalized communities around the world. Can their reach help organizations for international development better implement programs for social change?

For more than a decade, aid agencies such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) have been trying to figure out how to utilize the potential of social networking sites. My new study published in the American Behavioral Scientist, coauthored with Radford University’s Prof. Zehui Dai, hopes to show them a way forward.

We argue that instead of coming up with aid policies and programs that agency executives believe would be effective — and then using Twitter to promote these events and programs among communities in a top-down manner — aid agencies ought to act in reverse. They need to start by speaking with community members through Twitter and listening in on the conversations that community members are having online, use these opportunities to understand the needs of communities from within — and then devise programs and strategies that address those needs.

Replies and Retweets

The study relies on the content and network analysis of nearly 100,000 tweets. These tweets were either posted by the primary Twitter accounts of three global aid agencies — USAID, SIDA, and the Geneva-based Red Cross — or engaged directly with these agencies by mentioning their Twitter handles.

A major finding of the study is that the more an agency replies to or retweets members of the public, the more the public engages with these agencies online. Public engagement itself has a dual nature, including to-and-fro exchanges between these agencies and the public as well as exchanges among members of the public in which these agencies are “included” through the mention of their Twitter handles.

In other words, if an aid agency is responsive to the public through replies and retweets of public posts, it not only fosters higher levels of direct engagement but also generates more online conversations among members of the public about development topics. The agency thus creates an opportunity for itself to listen to these conversations and better understand the needs of marginalized communities as well as how best to address those needs.

Hashtags and Hyperlinks

In a similar fashion, if an aid agency’s tweets use more publicly oriented hashtags and hyperlinks — as opposed to hashtags of the agency’s own programs or events and hyperlinks to official websites or social media channels — it can increase its level of public engagement.

For example, SIDA’s tweets have the fewest proportion of “official” hashtags referring to agency-organized events and it is also the least likely to include links to official websites in its tweets. Instead, a relatively higher proportion of its tweets use generic hashtags related to festivals, public events, and so on and hyperlinks to news or general information websites.

As a consequence, the social network of public tweets mentioning SIDA’s primary Twitter account (@sida) is more reciprocal, decentralized, and interconnected. That means, members of the public are more likely to respond to SIDA’s tweets and have more ongoing conversations with each other that also include SIDA in those conversations.

Tweet Topics

In addition to these technological features, the study indicates that the content of tweets is also important. An aid agency can enhance public engagement by tweeting about topics that the public is also tweeting about in tweets mentioning the agency.

Public tweets referencing different agencies vary greatly in their topical content. Tweets that mentioned USAID’s primary account (@usaid) were dominated by women’s issues, children, and climate change, while issues such as water, food security, poverty, and disease were only marginal concerns.

In contrast, water and sustainable development were the main topics of tweets mentioning SIDA. When the Red Cross (@icrc) was mentioned, tweets were likely to be about conflict, refugees, and disappeared people. SIDA, the most likely of the three agencies to tweet about the same topics as the public, also witnessed the highest levels of public engagement.

Education, Not Promotion

The key takeaway from our analysis is that global aid agencies should think of Twitter — and perhaps other social networking sites too — less as a tool for promoting their events and programs and more as channels of reciprocal communication with marginalized communities.

In other words, agency executives should think of Twitter less as a promotional tool as more as an educational tool — to educate themselves — and as a vehicle that enables a bottom-up approach to social change.