Humility over brand — rethinking how to use social media for those on the move in the Americas

By Jennifer Brookland, Independent Writer

Diagram by Hans Park.

The way north is dangerous and confusing. Asylum seekers traveling through Central America to Mexico and the United States navigate a path that wends through vulnerability, exhaustion, exploitation and uncertainty. But they don’t walk alone. A Facebook page that connects asylum seekers and migrants with “El Jaguar” provides a direct line to trustworthy information and a sense of solidarity.

El Jaguar is a Facebook fan page that provides asylum seekers and refugees with information and responds privately to individual questions. But instead of hearing back from an institutional account with all its branding and officialdom, those who turn to El Jaguar put their confidence in a character that is anonymous, yet somehow comforting.

“It’s the figure of protection, of strength,” says Francesca Fontanini, Regional Public Information Officer. Indeed, the Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs all viewed the jaguar as an ally and protector, associated with the divine.

The El Jaguar page is a source of much-needed information for refugees and asylum seekers as they journey north. It tells them where they can spend the night and find food and water, directs them to medical clinics and provides information about schools. As they cross borders and come up against new policies, laws and regulations, the page explains their legal rights and tells them how to correctly apply for asylum.

A new kind of campaign

Migrants and refugees get most of their information from other people: friends, family, former neighbours or people who have already gone to Mexico or the United States and are in touch with others back home. Word of mouth can feel comforting but can also be woefully out of date or inaccurate.

A second point of information is shelters. But then the information they receive can be inadequate or unhelpful. In some cases, it’s a trap set by traffickers. Oftentimes shelters do not give out information about who can request asylum and how.

The lack of information, and the fact that many migrants don’t realize they are asylum seekers or refugees, was apparent to Fontanini when she considered that out of the more than 450,000 people are estimated to have entered Mexico from Central America in 2016 but less than 9,000 sought asylum.

UNHCR took on these communication challenges in the physical world through El Jaguar, placing signs along commonly used migration routes all the way from Guatemala through Mexico, and delivering stacks of leaflets to shelters, clinics and schools.

But in the digital world, El Jaguar takes on a life of its own.

“We post informational messages regarding rights, procedures, shelter, any other useful information when you are migrating or when you just arrived to that country and you’re in need of international protection,” explains Monica Vazquez, a senior mass information assistant who works for UNHCR in Mexico City and is partially responsible for monitoring the El Jaguar page.

People on the move can also send El Jaguar a direct message to ask a specific question. “You can always reach the jaguar, and we reply,” says Vazquez.

When they turn to El Jaguar for answers, they get information directly from UNHCR in plain speak. The account is monitored by UNHCR staff during most business hours, so responses are quick and accurate.

And yet the institutional identity of El Jaguar is purposefully downplayed. Launching El Jaguar was a test for UNHCR to see if it could reach people who otherwise might not trust it enough to accept information and support.

“What happens if we detach from that brand? What happens if something or someone else is talking?” Vazquez asks. “The jaguar is like them, it’s part of them, it walks with them.”

An unusual fan page

El Jaguar may be addressing a longstanding need, but it’s doing so in a surprisingly innovative way given that this is the first Facebook fan page Vazquez knows of that was set up as an information exchange. “Facebook is not generally a tool that is for informational purposes, and in this case, for protection,” says Vazquez.

El Jaguar doesn’t market anything. There’s no product to sell. Although its foundation looks like any other Facebook campaign, reliant on strong images and helpful content to draw users, it is intended to reach a totally different audience.

“The type of content we manage and the people we’re talking to are very different, and that makes the interaction and the community management of the page very, very particular,” Vazquez says. “I’ve never seen a page behaving like this, ever.”

The unconventional use of the platform is also UNHCR’s biggest challenge since the team is always battling the algorithm. “Facebook is for people who want to be seen,” says Vazquez. “We’re dealing with people who want to hide.”

And unlike other Facebook pages, Vazquez and the rest of the team measure the success of El Jaguar on its own terms. It doesn’t matter how many “likes” the page gets — a main indicator for other businesses using Facebook — because as Vazquez puts it, “liking this page could put lives in danger.”

Instead, El Jaguar is being measured by how many people engage with it, and how long those conversations last. The site was launched in November 2017, and in its first year, El Jaguar responded to more than 750 questions.

Some individuals have been in contact with El Jaguar for several months, getting back in touch with updates or as new concerns arise. For Vazquez, that is a way to see how the page is helping people make decisions about their best options.

Walking with the jaguar

One asylum seeker asked El Jaguar a question during his journey. He kept in touch with El Jaguar as he moved, until he finally knocked on the door of a UNHCR field office.

“I’m here and I need help,” the man said.

Stepping into the field office was the first time the man realized he’d been in touch with the refugee agency all along. Like others, he had put his faith in El Jaguar, a page whose lack of branding makes it nearly as anonymous as its users.

Their efforts are paying off, according to Fontanini, who credited the initiative at least in part with raising the number of people applying for asylum each year to more than 14,000. The number of questions posed to El Jaguar has doubled in the last month.

And UNHCR has also been joined on its journey to find innovative ways to help asylum seekers and persons of concern in Central America and Mexico: El Jaguar is now comprised of a coalition of organizations that includes UNICEF, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the International Organization for Migration and Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) and Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR).

El Jaguar will soon release additional content on its page, and conduct focus groups to better understand the kind of information refugees and asylum seekers need.

As they continue to listen to those they’re tasked with reaching, El Jaguar will become a more trusted and widespread tool. “We have to really think outside the box, and the people of concern are the ones that are being novel in the end,” says Fontanini. “I think a lot of inspiration and motivation comes from them.”

This essay was originally posted in the recently released publication — UNHCR Innovation Service: “Orbit 2018–2019”. The publication is a collection of insights and inspiration, where we explore the most recent innovations in the humanitarian sector, and opportunities to discover the current reading of innovation that is shaping the future of how we respond to complex challenges. From building trust for artificial intelligence, to creating a culture for innovating bureaucratic institutions and using stories to explore the future of displacement — we offer a glance at the current state of innovation in the humanitarian sector. You can download the full publication here. And if you have a story about innovation you want to tell (the good, the bad, and everything in between) — email: innovation@unhcr.org.