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Dr Kiru Pillay (right) with his Supervisor Professor
Manoj Maharaj.

Doctoral research on social media and its impact on advocacy activities has been adapted into a training course by a UKZN graduate set to be implemented at a local tertiary institution.

Dr Kiru Pillay was awarded his PhD in Information Technology on 19 April for research titled: “Do Web 2.0 Social Media Impact Transnational Social Advocacy? A Study of South African Civil Society and Greenpeace”. His research investigated the effectiveness of technology such as social networking sites, blogs and podcasts, collectively known as Web 2.0 technologies, for civil society organisations in meeting organisational goals.

As a case study Pillay focused on Greenpeace which is considered to be the largest environmental justice organisation in the world. The three-year study included face-to-face interviews with Greenpeace’s senior management teams in Amsterdam, Argentina and South Africa. In addition, Pillay interviewed, via Skype, representatives of Greenpeace based in India and a Washington office dedicated to the use of emerging technologies in advocacy.

Pillay said: ‘The key findings that emerged in the South African context were that of a sector that has a low level of knowledge of social media services and an accompanying low level of adoption. This is partly explained by factors at a national level, including macro-economic policies, and a low level of Internet penetration and ICT readiness.’

As a spin-off to his research Pillay has developed a learning programme titled Social Media for Advocacy which is a three-month programme consisting of theory that focuses on the nature of civil society organisations and the role of advocacy and social media technology, and its benefits in increasing social dialogue. The training includes a five-day practical component that focuses on the use of the various forms of social media and includes real-world case studies and lessons learned.

Pillay, who works in the Enterprise Development Unit at the Durban University of Technology (DUT) in the area of curriculum development and training, said social media can be beneficial to promoting social advocacy on several levels. ‘The ordinary person is given a voice in effecting social change. More people are able to particpate in the social dialogue. People are able to advocate for policy change. It’s a tool that aids activism,’ he said.

However, social media does have its pitfalls, admits Pillay who said while civil society organisations use this technology for the betterment of society, counter-culture groups use social media in a negative way.

He intends continuing this research and, as the current Projects Chair at the KwaZulu-Natal e-Skills CoLab, is in the process of creating several artefacts that emerged from the research.  ‘I want to, where necessary, develop tools and where possible leverage tools for citizen engagement,’ Pillay reflected.

Professor Manoj Maharaj, a UKZN Associate Professor in the Discipline of Information Systems and Technology who was Pillay’s PhD supervisor, indicated that Pillay’s work received excellent responses from his internal, external and international examiners.

‘The real value of a PhD is for the graduate to be able to use the skills gained to make a positive contribution to society. Kiru’s development of the training intervention fulfils this role.  He has always been socially aware and responsive. The choice of PhD research topic and actions such as this are evidence of this,’ said Maharaj.

Pillay, who has been in the information technology sector for over 23 years, said he was relieved that his PhD research was finally over and to have his degree conferred.