U.N. Uses Social Media Session Before General Assembly

If you’re the United Nations, what’s the best way to start a General Assembly? What about with a “global conversation” hosted on social media?

If you’re the United Nations, what’s the best way to start a General Assembly? What about with a “global conversation” hosted on social media?

While much of the current news coverage around the United Nations’ General Assembly focusses on the United States’ efforts to have the U.N recognize Palestine as an independent state, social media also made headlines on September 13, 2011. For the first time in the United Nations’ history, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon turned to social media to answer questions submitted from Facebook, LiveStream, Twitter and other social media networks.

The conversation was moderated by Juju Chang of the ABC television network in a UN headquarters in New York. Mr. Ban answered questions from all around the world, including China, Canada, South Africa and the Philippines. More than 5,500 questions were received by the United Nations; they were submitted in the six official UN languages – Chinese, Arabic, English, French, Russian and Spanish – as well as Portuguese and Swahili.

The first question received came from Twitter; it asked when the UN would reform to match contemporary needs. Mr. Ban responded with, “To make this Organization more effective and efficient is our great challenge and great target. We’ve been trying to make this Organization much more mobile, and efficient, and accountable and transparent.”

Another question, which came from China  (as did half of the questions from the public) asked Mr. Ban why so many people die from hunger in Africa when there’s enough food in the world to feed everyone. This time, Mr. Ban responded with: “They go to bed hungry every night. That’s very sad. But ironically we have enough food all around the world. The question and problem is that they do not distribute it fairly, that’s a social injustice, and that we have to address and stop.

While the majority of questions came from low-profile-every-day social media users, one more well known social media asked a question. Jamie Oliver, of UK cooking fame, asked Mr. Ban how the world can reduce the 35 million people who day yearly from non-communicable diseases like cancer, heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Mr. Ban noted that the current situation was “totally unacceptable” and that “this can be cured by medical support. This can also be prevented by simply changing your lifestyle like your behaviour. This obesity or this diabetes and all these, you can change your lifestyle, and alcohol or smoking. By stopping this you can save your life.”

Other questions ranged from the specifics (Palestine) to the general (peacekeeping more broadly) and Mr. Ban answered them all in turn; the broadcast lasted roughly half an hour and Ms. Chang of ABC noted that social media and the blogosphere was very active, both listening  and contributing to the conversation.

While Mr. Ban’s interview was clearly carefully planned and moderated – much less like a true “live-chat” and much more like a mail in question format – it was an interesting use of social media by the United Nations. Not only does it show interest in reaching out to the public at large, it also demonstrates how major figures might connect with large audiences through the medium without too much chaos. As such, the broadcast has likely paved the way for more of these types of social media broadcast with international figures and organizations in the future.