More than nine million people in war-affected countries are to be targeted in a Facebook campaign to help keep them safe from landmines and unexploded bombs.

The project, part of MAG’s Lifesaving Lessons risk education work, expects to reach 9.5 million people in Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia and Vietnam with the knowledge to identify an explosive threat and stay safe thanks to funding from the US Government State Department.

“We regard this as an important step to reaching, engaging and, ultimately, keeping safe innocent people who live in communities afflicted by conflict,” says MAG CEO Darren Cormack. “We believe it could be game-changing by enabling mass engagement and encouraging safe behaviours at relatively low cost.”

People living in high risk areas in those countries will be targeted with messages about how to avoid and report the deadly explosive devices which frequently litter roads, schools and farmland in the aftermath of war.

For those living in countries with such contamination, which is often present decades after a conflict has ended, learning how to stay safe through risk education is a matter of life and death, particularly for children and returning refugees.

A spokesperson for Facebook said: “Facebook is honoured to play a part in helping reduce landmine casualties. With so many now using Facebook around the world, ads are another way to share urgent information with communities who might be at risk. We hope that these messages could one day save a life.”

A traditional risk education session in Nigeria, delivered before the pandemic. Photo by Sean Sutton.

According to data published last week by the highly respected Landmine Monitor, 15 people are killed or injured every day by landmines and unexploded bombs. Many of them are children.

Traditionally, risk education is delivered during face-to-face sessions at schools and in communities, but that is not always possible, particularly since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Reaching people in mine-affected communities via targeted Facebook activity allows MAG to impact many more people with lifesaving messages than by traditional means alone. Digital platforms can be particularly effective in urban settings and with young people who are often the hardest to reach.

“MAG pioneered risk education many years ago and new approaches are crucial to reaching as many people as we can, especially in challenging environments,” said Senior Community Liaison Advisor Sebastian Kasack. “Using social media enables us to have an impact on high numbers of people, including younger audiences which may have otherwise been harder to engage.”

Digital Explosive Ordnance Risk Education Coordinator Robin Toal added that social media enabled the organisation to reach large numbers of people in specific areas, overcoming obstacles posed by issues such as security, geography and complex operating environments, saying: “Targeting people based on specific criteria will ensure we reach the most at-risk communities as well groups that are harder to attract such as teenagers and young adults”.

The digital Lifesaving Lessons project will also explore other novel ways to reach those at-risk including via Messenger, WhatsApp and SMS as well as hybrid digital/offline approaches such as messages on USB sticks, QR codes in public spaces and tablets in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Since the start of the pandemic, traditional risk education has had to adapt.

Landmines affect more than 60 million people worldwide. In Iraq, returnees are at high risk from improvised landmines left behind by ISIS whilst the legacy of deadly past conflicts in Lebanon, Somalia and Vietnam continues to threaten lives and livelihoods.

The new project is the first ever large-scale application of Facebook to keep people safe from unexploded ordnance following conflict.

It follows a successful pilot project developed in partnership between MAG, the US Department of State’s office of Weapons Removal and Abatement (PM/WRA) and Facebook. The pilot delivered Facebook ads to one million people in Ninewa Governorate, Iraq, an area previously occupied by ISIS.

In a post-pilot evaluation, 94 per cent of people surveyed confirmed they had seen the ads and that they had helped them understand the risks posed by explosive hazards.

Support for the campaign has come from Facebook in the form of ad credits and marketing support, with funding to enable delivery of the activity from PM/WRA. The US Government is the world’s biggest funder of humanitarian mine clearance and PM/WRA has played a leading role in developing the Facebook project.

Sol Black, Branch Chief, Africa, Europe and Near East Asia, the US State Department’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, said: “The initial phase of this project, which delivered risk education to almost one million Iraqis, highlighted what humanitarian actors, technology firms and governments can achieve as a team when working together to develop pioneering solutions to emerging challenges.

“The United States is proud to partner with MAG and Facebook to expand the scope of this project beyond Iraq and leverage innovative methods to deliver risk education to more than 9.5 million at-risk civilians in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. These efforts will bolster human security and equip communities across the globe with the knowledge they need to live their lives in safety.”