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Author David Pugliese claims that Twitter may have prevented the Rwandan genocide, had the technology been available at the time. An article in the Ottawa Citizen newspaper draws attention to Pugliese’s book about how the United Nations can harness technology to assist it in its missions – but it doesn’t give the title.

Because social media connects people in such an intimate way, we know what is happening on the ground in countries quite remote from us. It seems possible that a future genocide could be at least partly averted by early warnings, with people and groups gathering intelligence and using it to protect others.

The tragedy of earlier genocides is that people were not widely connected; they heard rumours, or they heard nothing at all.

By the time genocides have proceeded from planning to mobilisation, there is a limited response time – but it does exist. Remember that about 800 000 people were killed in 100 days in Rwanda, when Hutu extremists set out to exterminate the minority Tutsi. That’s 8 000 people a day. That’s an unthinkably large number. But imagine if at least some of those people had had access to social media – at least some of them would have made preparation to flee, instead of staying put. More people could have been saved, even without potential intervention.

The article points out that nearly one in three people in Africa can make or receive a call using a cellphone. Cellphone subscriptions in Africa jumped from 54 million in 2003 to 350 million in 2008.

What do you think? Could genocide be, if not prevented, at least circumvented by Twitter or Facebook? Or does it still hinge upon who is perpetrating the massacres?

Governments are known to stand idly by in some instances of war and civil unrest; on the other hand, they sometimes provide arms or support. Either way, civilians are at risk. It is easy to say, with hindsight, that social media can make a difference. But so far, we’ve seen only that it can ignite unrest – not, in fact, put a stop to it.

The unburied bones of victims of the Rwandan genocide at a memorial centre. Image © Global Voices