When major combat operations against ISIS deescalated in early 2018 and parliamentary elections were scheduled, many displaced Iraqis began returning to their homes. Iraqis displaced by ISIS received several essential support services, including explosive ordnance risk education, when they returned to their homes. These risk education programs were designed to teach returning civilians how to identify, act safely around, and report to local authorities the presence of explosive hazards. In areas of Iraq liberated from ISIS, these explosive hazards include unexploded and abandoned ordnance as well as landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) planted by ISIS to indiscriminately kill innocent civilians, deter Iraqis from returning to their homes, and fuel instability.
In early 2018, the U.S. and other international donors supported a wide range of risk education activities, including face-to-face IDP camp programming, sports, billboards, TV and radio messages, messages on food and water containers, and community liaison teams, that would visit returning families at their homes and provide risk education lessons. However, despite the efforts to provide risk education to millions of at-risk Iraqis, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad regularly received reports from across Ninewa Governorate of people encountering explosive hazards in their villages and had no idea how to respond. The U.S. Embassy also received regular reports of ISIS IEDs killing returning civilians while they attempted to rebuild their homes and businesses and till their farmland. These reports highlighted a clear gap in the risk education space necessitating the equipping of Iraqis with information they needed to safely rebuild their lives.
An analysis of how risk education was being delivered in Iraq revealed social media was one of the few spaces not leveraged to its full potential. While many organizations shared risk education messages on their social media pages or published posts with the same information, this information was not typically getting to people who were not connected to these organizations or in their social networks. In an attempt to share this lifesaving information with the greatest number of Iraqis possible and overcome barriers to ongoing digital risk education efforts, the Department of State’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement (WRA) explored the concept of using geographically and demographically targeted social media ads as a way to reach Iraqis who may otherwise not receive risk education.
As Facebook was the most widely used social media platform in the country, the Department of State approached Facebook about the possibility of providing ad credits to one of WRA’s partners in Iraq to pilot this new concept that had the potential to save Iraqi lives. Facebook generously agreed to provide $25,000 in free ad credits to the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a Department of State implementing partner in Iraq and one of the world’s most distinguished humanitarian mine action NGOs. Additionally, Facebook agreed to provide training on how to use its ad targeting tools as well as assistance creating risk education messages that Facebook users could easily consume. For its part, MAG developed risk education graphics in coordination with the Iraqi Directorate of Mine Action (DMA), used its access in liberated areas of Iraq to identify needs and create ad targeting parameters, and created a landing site where people could access more risk education material after viewing the Facebook ads.
After significant time and effort on the part of MAG and diligent coordination with DMA, the pilot risk education campaign launched on August 23, 2019. This pilot represented the first time that risk education messaging was delivered on a large-scale using Facebook ads. Between August 23 to November 11, 2019, risk education ads were shown 29,000,000 times to 983,447 unique people representing 39% of residents in Ninewa. At a cost of $13,288 in ads, the average cost per person reached by this pilot was $.013. In addition to providing almost one million Iraqis with lifesaving risk education without requiring them to travel through IDP camps, this pilot revealed social media adverts can be a cost-effective way to deliver risk education to civilians in areas where security, geography, and dynamic operating environments limit the delivery of face-to-face risk education.
Following the conclusion of this pilot, MAG conducted a standardized survey of 215 residents across Ninewa. Participants were not asked if they used Facebook prior to taking the survey. The survey results underscored the extensive reach the Facebook risk education ads had in this region where access to both power and internet can be unpredictable. For example, 94% of those surveyed had seen the ads on Facebook and said the ads helped them understand the risks posed by explosive hazards. 83% said that the ads gave information on how to stay safe, and 66% of respondents could recall parts of specific risk education messages.
The results of this pilot surpassed what expectations and highlight the powerful role social media adverts can play in sharing lifesaving information with people living in post-conflict environments. Several important lessons were learned through the pilot. For example, the average Facebook user spends an average of 1.7-2.5 seconds reviewing a piece of content before swiping past it or engaging. It is critical for digital risk education material to deliver life-saving messages in the most efficient way possible. It also requires mine action and protection experts to work closely with social media companies to leverage the full power of ad targeting tools and better understand how users interact with various social media platforms. As many at-risk demographics do not have access to social media, it is vital for social media ads to be just one component of multifaceted risk education campaigns.
While this pilot project took a relatively basic approach in order to fill a specific gap in Iraq and while testing the efficacy of delivering risk education through social media ads, its success has significant implications on how the mine action sector provides targeted, low-cost risk education to at-risk communities across the globe. For example, ads can be targeted to very specific areas where explosive hazard-related accidents took place and even focus on specific demographics at a higher risk of encountering explosive hazards during their daily routines. Farmers who may be at risk of triggering a mine while tilling their fields or hikers and tourists unfamiliar with a mined area who may not know about landmine contamination near trails are just two examples of demographics populations who could be shown targeted risk education messages via ads on Facebook and other social media platforms. Finally, targeted ads could also be incorporated in risk education messages rapidly based on accident trends or the identification of new explosive hazards.
Considering the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many government and non-government entities conducting face-to-face risk education were forced to temporarily suspend or modify the delivery of these lifesaving messages. Doing so ensures both NGO and government risk education teams as well as at-risk communities are maintaining social distancing norms during these complicated times. Delivering explosive ordnance risk education via Facebook and other social media platforms will play a critical role in ensuring that at-risk communities have access to lifesaving information during the ongoing pandemic as well as during future events that make it difficult to provide face-to-face risk education.
This successful pilot shows the power of public-private sector partnerships and highlights what can be accomplished when governments, big tech, and mine action NGOs work together to find innovative ways to keep innocent civilians alive and make the world a safer place. MAG, Facebook, and the Iraqi Directorate of Mine Action all played pivotal roles in this pilot and without their hard work and generosity none of this would have been possible.
The United States is the world’s largest donor to explosive hazards clearance and risk education and remains dedicated to working with a wide range of stakeholders to explore new and innovative ways to keep at-risk populations across the globe safe from the threat of explosive remnants of war.
About the Author: Mr. Solomon Black serves as the Program Manager for Lebanon, Yemen, Emergency Response, and Analysis & Assessments for the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.