Digital activism: transforming social movements and humanitarianism

Digital tools are helping activists and humanitarians in the Middle East, Turkey, and Africa to provide health care, coordinate aid, and champion equality.


Technology is helping accelerate the response to a wide range of development challenges, with increased connectivity and innovative digital tools enabling more equitable health care delivery, strengthening food security, and hastening humanitarian responses

As social media in general gains traction in Africa, the Middle East, and Turkey, digital platforms are being used to support Sustainable Development Goals related to promoting health, eradicating poverty, and championing equality.

Meta tools like Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp are empowering activists and humanitarians across the region, helping them connect with remote populations to educate individuals, organize partners, support marginalized communities in safe digital spaces, and drive concrete social and political change.

Protesters from the Sudanese diaspora in London, United Kingdom, April 2023. Photo: Zakariya Irfan / Shutterstock

Protesters from the Sudanese diaspora in London, United Kingdom, April 2023. Photo: Zakariya Irfan / Shutterstock

Rubble in the town of Adana, Turkey, which was affected by the 7.8 Kahramanmaraş earthquakevin February 2023. Photo: Murat photographer / Shutterstock

Rubble in the town of Adana, Turkey, which was affected by the 7.8 Kahramanmaraş earthquakevin February 2023. Photo: Murat photographer / Shutterstock

Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon. Photo: Sid Mbogni / Shutterstock

Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon. Photo: Sid Mbogni / Shutterstock

Saving children’s lives and protecting human rights in Sudan

Dr. Sara Abdelgalil
U.K.-based doctor and democracy activist in the Sudanese diaspora

"Without WhatsApp and without Facebook, we could not have done a lot of work that we have done during the revolution."

Access to health care in Sudan has been extremely limited since the outbreak of war in April, notes Dr. Sara Abdelgalil, a British-Sudanese pediatrician and humanitarian activist. Combined with famine, damaged infrastructure, and poor governance, this has made children more vulnerable to diseases like cholera and dengue, as well as allergies and scorpion stings. 

Abdelgalil said Meta tools have proven invaluable in her work to promote democracy in Sudan and provide telemedicine to children in the war-affected country.

Abdelgalil and other volunteer doctors from the Sudanese diaspora use WhatsApp to provide telemedicine services, coordinate care, and source medication on the ground. “Without that platform, I could not have done it,” she said. Abdelgalil supports trainee doctors in Sudan with simulation-based training through Facebook and WhatsApp in combination with other digital tools like Telegram and Zoom.

During COVID-19, medical professionals of Sudanese descent who live outside the country also used Meta tools to support colleagues in Sudan, including fundraising for oxygen cylinders, said Abdelgalil, who at the time was the president of the Sudan Doctors’ Union UK.

As spokesperson for the Sudanese Professionals Association — a trade union federation that played a leading role in the nonviolent 2018-19 protests against the government of Omar al-Bashir — Abdelgalil also used Facebook and WhatsApp to advocate, organize, and raise awareness about violations of pro-democracy activists’ human rights. “I call myself a witness of the revolution,” she said, adding that WhatsApp specifically “provided protection for us because it’s end-to-end encrypted.”

WhatsApp has also supported Abdelgalil in her work leading the Sudan-focused crisis coordination unit of Shabaka, a consultancy aiming to amplify diaspora engagement and impact. Shabaka recently completed the first mapping of the Sudanese diaspora in the United Kingdom to understand their response to the country’s humanitarian crisis and help them coordinate with on-the-ground responders.

Coordinating aid and volunteers in Turkey

Ali Ercan Özgür
Co-founder of NeedsMap

"With WhatsApp, we were able to collect needs of people in different parts of the earthquake zone."

The distribution of aid relief in Turkey has historically lacked transparency, according to Ali Ercan Özgür, co-founder of NeedsMap, a Turkish nonprofit social enterprise that was founded in 2015 to help solve the problem.

Meta’s social platforms are integral to the functioning and growth of NeedsMap, which uses a map-based platform to connect people and organizations in any kind of need — including for humanitarian aid — with organizations or individuals that are able to offer support.

Since its launch in 2015, NeedsMap has used Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram to share location-specific needs of communities and to coordinate its international team of volunteers and staff in the response. It has so far facilitated 30 million transactions, Özgür said.

“We grew with the social media platforms,” Özgür said. “If you see a need in a small village school that is asking for musical instruments, if you can take care of it, you take care of it. If you cannot, you start sharing it with your network.”

To accelerate its response following the 2023 Kahramanmaraş earthquake in Turkey, NeedsMap used a WhatsApp chatbot developed for it by Turkish marketing company Insider. The chatbot enabled NeedsMap to accelerate its collection of information on people’s needs in different earthquake-impacted areas, allowing volunteers at its depots to start sourcing the items — which could range from shoes and food to tents — and delivering to them immediately, he said.

More recently, NeedsMap has expanded beyond Turkey to support the response to the earthquake in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains in September. It has also started delivering food for disadvantaged people through London’s Community Kitchen, and is now expanding its operations to Spain, Italy, and Chile.

Championing equality for LGBTQ+ communities in Cameroon

Bandy Kiki
Cameroonian writer, LGBTQ+ activist and entrepreneur

"You need to know how to make the platform work for you."

Staying visible and challenging misconceptions about homosexuality is “a core part of my work,” said Bandy Kiki, a social media influencer who uses Meta tools to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and raise awareness about persecution in her native Cameroon, as well as creating safe discussion forums and support networks. And given her distance from Cameroon — Kiki has lived in the U.K. since 2011 — this would be “impossible” without digital tools.

Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp have “given us activists a voice,” said Kiki. “You’re able to reach a larger audience, you’re able to speak anonymously sometimes, you’re able to say things from a safe location,” she said. “You’re able to participate in conversations across regions, across countries.”

The encrypted nature of WhatsApp allows LGBTQ+ communities in countries where same-sex relations are taboo or criminalized to communicate more safely, she said. “We use WhatsApp to share information, to organize, and share resources in terms of crisis support.” And because WhatApp can be used in any location with free WiFi, it is more accessible for LGBTQ+ people, many of whom “live in destitution” and cannot afford to pay for data, Kiki said.

In 2021, Kiki used Facebook and Instagram to share a GoFundMe campaign in support of two transgender women in Cameroon who were accused of “attempted homosexuality” and sentenced to five years in prison but subsequently released on appeal. She has also used the platforms to raise awareness about other attacks on the LGBTQ+ community in Africa, such as the arrest of 67 guests at an alleged gay wedding this August in Nigeria and the brutal murder in Kenya of lesbian Sheila Adhiambo Lumumba in April 2022.

The policy pathway to improving safety and data protection

Activists and humanitarians have also had challenging experiences using digital tools.

Abdelgalil and Kiki both want Meta to more effectively address cyberbullying, which Abdelgalil said she was subjected to — especially on Facebook — as a female leader of the Sudan Doctors’ Union UK. Kiki reports experiencing homophobic trolling on her Meta accounts when sharing stories about her sexuality or advocating for others.

Kiki advises activists to be diligent about their own safety when posting online. For example, in countries where anti-LGBTQ+ laws or social attitudes put them in danger, she recommends that they post anonymously where possible, cover any distinctive marks such as tattoos, and do not geotag.

Building strong support networks online can also help with the psychological impacts of trolling and negative comments, she added. On Instagram, she recommends activists use block and restrict functions to protect themselves from unwanted interactions and harassment and to prevent themselves from being tagged in abusive posts.

The Meta Safety Center offers numerous resources — such as guides to Meta tools that help users protect their personal information or report abuse — to address some of these issues facing activists, explained Kiki. “You need to know how to make the platform work for you,” she said.

Abdelgalil also recommends caution when adding new contacts, opening links, or sharing information through platforms like Facebook. “Fight hate speech. Do not encourage it. Do not share it at all,” she said. Abdelgalil also argues that Meta content moderators sometimes may not reach the correct decisions about which posts are harmful due to insufficient cultural knowledge or local language skills.

Both women also want Meta to finetune its reporting system. In contexts where homophobia is dominant or institutionalized — and where LGBTQ+ people may also be nervous about reporting posts for fear of exposing themselves — it can be difficult to generate enough reports against abusive comments to trigger a response by Meta, Kiki believes.

Meta also needs to improve data safety for telemedicine, Abdelgalil said. For example,  Shabaka, the African Foundation for Development, and messaging platform Gupshup are currently developing a WhatsApp chatbot to help address the medical needs in Sudan, which are worsening amid a shortage of health workers and hospitals. Doctors offering virtual consultations might receive photographs, medical results, and personal information about patients through online platforms on their own devices — something that would not happen in a physical hospital.

To ensure the safe and effective use of telemedicine, Abdelgalil said Meta should collaborate with medical professionals to develop clear policies and guidelines for the use of its platforms in virtual consultations. This could include standards for information governance and data protection, as well as best practices for obtaining patient consent and ensuring compliance with relevant laws and regulation.

But Abdelgalil opposes avoiding the platforms altogether, preferring instead to engage and challenge Meta. “I’m still committed to Meta,” she said. “I’m trying to make it a better place.”

Photos provided by Dr. Sara Abdelgalil / Ali Ercan Özgür / Bandy Kiki
Graphics by Mai Ylagan