As Venezuela’s economic crisis continues to drive migration to neighbouring countries, a substantial number of people leaving the country have been forced to do so largely or wholly on foot, lacking the resources to travel by other means. Often referred to as caminantes, they constitute a highly vulnerable, socially isolated population with limited access to assistance. One particular challenge for humanitarian actors looking to assist caminantes is how best to provide information and support to a population that is constantly on the move, and whose routes may take them a long way from opportunities for face-to-face contact. As part of a wider HPG research project on the relationship between digital technologies and inclusion in humanitarian action, we wanted to understand whether the emerging use of social media as a communications tool within the sector was providing new opportunities for caminantes to access information or connect with service providers. Given the role social media has played in the displacement experiences of refugees and migrants in the Syrian refugee crisis and elsewhere, we were expecting to see similar trends play out in Venezuela. We were wrong.
Fieldwork and research questions
For our work in Venezuela, we wanted to understand:
- How social media is being used within the humanitarian sector, and what factors have contributed to its success or failure.
- Who has been included or excluded as a result of these changes.
- How the humanitarian sector might adapt its approaches to social media in the future.
Overall, we spoke to 21 caminantes in February–March 2021, interviewed on highways and in small towns in the Venezuelan state of Táchira, close to the border with Colombia. To situate their experiences within wider efforts by aid providers to communicate with people affected by the crisis, we also spoke to 17 staff from international and local organisations (eight in Venezuela and nine in Colombia).
The caminantes: a population on the run
Among the caminantes we spoke to, we found little evidence that social media was serving as a ‘lifeline’ on their journeys as it has in other places. The majority of the people we interviewed did not use the internet regularly because they had no means to do so. Only five of the people we spoke to had smartphones, while another two had access to one in the group they were travelling with. Several reported previously owning a phone, but had sold it to pay for travel or buy food, or could not afford to replace their phone after it had been damaged. Others reported relying on a landline for internet access back at home. The small number who used the internet did so primarily to communicate with family members or to watch films, with very few using social media for any other purpose. Even where people had phones, weak and unreliable network connectivity remained a major obstacle.
This lack of access to the internet and social media reflected wider limitations on caminantes’ ability to find information. Interviewees openly acknowledged being uninformed: even before their displacement, they had generally not watched television news, sometimes for years. As one of our interviewees explained, he could not afford to repair his television set. News often came via word of mouth: a neighbour with a radio or a television, relaying information in their own way, with their own interpretation and summary, but also with the filter imposed by government restrictions on the media.
Similarly, many interviewees had little access to information or social networks on the other side of the border, reflected in the often vaguely defined plans many had for what they would do once they had crossed into Colombia.
As a consequence, most caminantes were unaware of the information and support national, regional or international NGOs were able to provide. Only one of our interviewees reported using social media to obtain information on migration processes, while another tried unsuccessfully to establish contact with an organisation providing relief. Reflecting a widespread lack of familiarity with the role of humanitarian organisations in a country that was until recently classed as upper middle-income, some initially assumed that interviewers asking questions about humanitarian NGOs were referring to businesses or e-commerce platforms.
For these Venezuelans, who have sold their goods to eat and feed their families, the challenges they perceive are basic and immediate. In the end, what they want to preserve is their life, the only asset they have left. When survival is what matters, there is no time for social media. As one interviewee explained, ‘I don’t care now’, going on to say that his priority was to ‘survive, that’s it’.
Humanitarian organisations in Venezuela: keeping a low profile
Humanitarian workers we spoke to in Venezuela recognised that many people in transit do not have communication devices or are prevented from using them effectively by limited access to electricity and network coverage, especially outside urban areas. As a consequence, they felt that access to information through social media was not particularly relevant to their work. Despite this, humanitarians in Venezuela did use it for various purposes, primarily providing visibility to donors and informing and raising awareness among the general population. Interviewees at larger humanitarian organisations reported using social media feeds focused on communications and public outreach, using approaches developed based on the experiences of teams in other countries. They also reported exploring social media to communicate with and receive feedback from affected people via Twitter and WhatsApp. In general, though, they reported that this aspect of their work on social media was new and small-scale.
Beyond the question of relevance, social media also forms an extremely sensitive part of the wider operating environment for many NGOs in the face of government harassment and a polarised political climate. As several interviewees explained, highlighting humanitarian issues or human rights abuses could present an uncomfortable ‘window to reality’ to government authorities that have repeatedly downplayed the severity of the crisis, and are known to closely monitor the online activities of NGOs. In this environment, even drawing attention to unmet humanitarian needs can put organisations at risk of reprisal. Here, interviewees highlighted the potential dangers of engaging in conversations on organisations’ public Facebook or Twitter pages, which could very easily take a partisan turn and spin out of control. Nevertheless, even in this strained environment, other interviewees maintained that social media could also be a vital tool to maintain humanitarian space through raising public awareness on what is and what is not humanitarian aid. In the context of political attacks on NGO activities, they felt this was especially important given the profound lack of public knowledge around humanitarian principles and activities.
Humanitarians in Colombia: working together to communicate better
Among Colombian NGOs and humanitarian organisations, we saw a much greater diversity and intensity in the use of social media. Purposes ranged from seeking visibility with donors to using social media as a tool in their work communicating with and collecting feedback from the people they serve. Interviewees reported using a wide variety of platforms, including websites, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, but primarily WhatsApp groups. Several interviewees explained how their organisations were trying to meet the changing needs of refugees and migrants through the different stages of the migration process. Here, they distinguished between different types of migrants: those arriving in Colombia and other countries, many of whom lacked devices, and those returning to Venezuela, who are more likely to have them. For people in transit, the focus is often on supporting communication with their families – here, members of small NGOs in both countries lend their own equipment directly to migrants to allow them to make calls home. Some described how they had enabled families to locate caminantes by viewing photos on their organisation’s Facebook page or group. Larger organisations placed an additional focus on exploring alternatives to support people’s communication once they arrive in Colombia; they also develop programmes and products to provide information, via digital means, to returning migrants who do have mobile phones.
Interviews in Colombia identified a number of challenges affecting their ability to work effectively on social media. Some of these were related to language – to stay relevant, organisations were having to learn how to engage in the kinds of informal style that characterise many online interactions. Identifying the differences between Venezuelan and Colombian dialect, colloquialisms and idioms was also important. Interviewees also described struggling to deal with the open and unpredictable nature of exchanges on social media: here, it was often hard to determine whether people trying to communicate via organisations’ Facebook or Twitter pages were actually part of their target population. Similarly, some interviewees reported difficulty in managing expectations about what their organisations could actually do when faced with the wide variety of requests and feedback they were receiving online, and were concerned about being overwhelmed with demands for attention. As in Venezuela, risk was a consideration too, albeit manifested in different ways: interviewees identified problems linked to privacy and how large platforms might exploit vulnerable users’ data. In particular, they were concerned about how to address the rise of misinformation and fake news. This could also affect their own organisations, with the misappropriation of humanitarian organisations’ logos and pages, and falsified content about humanitarian activities flagged as a particular problem.
NGOs reported a growing awareness of the need to work collectively or in partnership to share knowledge and develop more coherent and effective messaging and content. Efforts at collaboration were common among both smaller and larger NGOs, although less systematic among the smaller ones. These efforts came with a realisation that enthusiastic engagement with social media needed to be supported by a strengthened focus on ‘old media’ such as radio. NGOs saw social media as a complementary part of wider communications efforts, in which they felt it was important to incorporate their target populations as content creators as well as consumers. Interviewees reported plans for hybrid ‘new-old media’ communications campaigns, such as audio soap operas via WhatsApp to raise awareness about gender-based violence.
Caminantes interviewed for this study are an acutely vulnerable population, and their experience is not necessarily reflective of that of other people affected by the crisis in Venezuela. Indeed, other evidence has demonstrated cases elsewhere in the country where networking across social media has proved a vital way for people to link up with sources of support in the face of collapsing state service provision. However, caminantes’ testimonies highlight the significant limitations of social media as a tool for inclusion in this particular setting.
It is especially striking that, for many caminantes – even those who were previously well-off – years of hardship and the experience of displacement itself have driven them back across the digital divide. Although some of our interviewees indicated that they were familiar with social media, particularly Facebook, this was one of the first things they gave up as their living conditions became more precarious. This challenges the idea that people move steadily forward into more connected lives as their encounters with new digital technologies proliferate. It also sounds a note of caution against assumptions that people displaced from middle-income settings are likely to be more connected. While many people affected by conflict in Syria and elsewhere were able to flee with some of their assets intact, using their phones as digital lifelines on their journeys, this option was not available to interviewees in this study, for whom the erosion of their resources and livelihoods to almost nothing was itself part of the motivation to flee.
Ultimately, caminantes at the border in Venezuela are caught in a double exclusion. First, they are on the wrong side of a deep ‘digital divide’ limiting their access to information and cutting them off from social networks. Dependent largely on word of mouth for the limited information they do receive, social media is largely irrelevant to them. Second, and more profoundly, they are situated at the edge of the ‘outer circle’ of inclusion, profoundly affected by the impacts of the crisis, but largely invisible to an under-resourced and heavily constrained aid response. At the same time, they are ignored by or actively excluded from what little government support does exist, which often demands political loyalty in exchange for services.
The study also highlights the major role played by political conditions in determining the space for humanitarian organisations to use social media as a programming tool. In Colombia, a permissive environment has allowed experimentation to flourish, along with the growing realisation that successful mobilisation of social media as a communications tool requires collaboration and collective effort. However, the atmosphere of political suppression in Venezuela – which extends its reach as much into the digital sphere as elsewhere – means that many organisations have to be extremely careful how they deploy social media, if they do so at all. Here, small acts of solidarity, such as lending devices to contact loved ones, may have more impact than a Twitter feed or Facebook platform.
Mariela Torrealba is the academic director of Medianálisis. Yorelis Acosta is coordinator of sociopolitical research at the Centre for Development Studies (Cendes) at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV). Oliver Lough is a Research Fellow at the Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI.