The Lao-language internet has expanded exponentially in recent years, with a majority of adult citizens now able to access the internet using smartphones and, to a lesser extent, desktop computers. The CSO milieu has not kept pace with these developments. Some CSOs have websites, but very few update these regularly. Almost no CSOs contribute materials to social media, or attempt to collect and curate relevant social media production and debates. Whole areas of civil society activity, including for example LGBT networking and ethnic minority literature development, take place primarily in social media and without the mediation or even contribution of the CSOs.
CSOs could considerably improve their impact by learning how to communicate via social media. They can also multiply their engagement, by supporting the easily-identifiable ‘super users’ –individual citizens who are currently generating and sharing most of the sustainable development, good governance, social justice and human rights-related materials circulating in social media. These persons are able to play these roles by virtue of their engagement in existing civil society networks. But they are almost certainly not the leaders of these networks.
CSOs interested in human rights and social justice could also develop activities to help their target constituencies improve their safety and security in internet use; cases of repression of citizens for expressing their opinion in social media are likely to become increasingly frequent. CSOss may also play a useful role by developing and encouraging a more inclusive ‘netiquette’.
Lao CSOs are unlikely to quickly regain their role as key generators of internet media and debate; since the repression in late 2012, CSO staff members have become much more cautious, even passive in their social media use. However, this does not prevent CSOs from harnessing the considerable social media interest in rights themes, accountability of civil servants, environmental management and related themes.
None of the above activities requires significant new technical knowledge and skills, and could be achieved in part by empowering the younger staff within the CSO community, who are more experienced social media users than their seniors. There is however a need for the development or expansion of more specialised service providers, in Laos or the region, who could assist CSOs in strategic planning for social media use, and in specialist topics such as improving confidentiality and security of data transmission and storage.