Led by Marc Lynch, Deen Freelon and Sean Aday, it analyzes use of social media in the Syrian crisis and “points to important findings on the role of new media in conflict zones.”
Among its findings: that social media creates a dangerous illusion of unmediated information flows, that key curation hubs within networks may now play a gatekeeping role as powerful as that of television producers and newspaper editors, and that the pattern in social media towards clustering into insular like-minded communities is unmistakable and has profound implications.
Sheldon Himelfarb, the director of USIP’s PeaceTech Initiative, which sponsored the research, talked with Syria Deeply about his team’s process and findings.
Syria Deeply: How did this come about? Syria is a particularly unusual case study when looking at social media.
Sheldon Himelfarb: This particular conflict, as sad and unfortunate that it has gone on as long as it has, has really provided us and others with an exceptional case study: to look at the online discourse and its role on the ground in a real world conflict.
Because there’s so much information online, because it’s real-time, 24/7 information, it’s very difficult to winnow it down and do the kind of analysis that you really should do. And yet because this has gone on for so long, we’ve had the opportunity to do some really careful work, and we’ve been able to bring together a research team that is strong in both the online world and the politics of Syria and the Middle East. Usually, research like this tends to take place in one camp or the other. We’ve really worked hard at trying to make sure everything we do is looked at from both the tech and conflict perspectives at the same time.
To really appreciate this particular report, you have to look back at previous reports we did on social media and conflict, which predated the Arab Spring. This overall effort grew out of a very clear debate that was going on between what I would call “cyber optimists” and “cyber pessimists” over the role of social media in social change. That kind of polarized debate seemed too simplistic, so we went to a number of experts and asked them to help us take a more nuanced approach involving the private and public sectors and academia.
We created a five-level framework for the data. The levels included “how does social media affect what the regime does?” and “how does it affect external audiences (international media and others?)”
There’s a ton of data you can pull from who’s downloading what, who’s linking to what. We studied bit.ly links to see who’s clicking on this stuff, and what they are passing on. It taught us a lot about the use of social media as a mobilizing tool. The most linked-to stories were news pieces from Al Jazeera.
SD: The report says that “the rapid growth in Arabic social media use poses serious problems for any research that draws only on English-language sources.”
SH: Two years ago, the volume of Arabic tweets were minimal, compared to the amount of tweeting that was happening in English. This report really clearly documents how that’s changed.
We’re dispelling the notion that social media provides an unmediated truth to events happening on the ground. There is this perception that anyone now with a cell phone can become a citizen journalist, and that has led some commentators to conclude that this is the only way we can get the unvarnished truth about what’s happening on the ground in the country.
SD: What surprised you about the findings?
SH: But when you look at the full data and you see how activist networks are so prevalent and devoting so much energy to shaping the narrative, we were surprised about the degree to which the narrative was being curated, as opposed to this assumed “unvarnished truth” from the ground. The narrative [you hear] really depends on what network you’re part of. People like to talk about the potential of the web for polarizing folks; it’s not even polarizing, there were just many kinds of insular networks [with their own ideologies].
Those networks are developing elaborate ways of trying to locate and curate and authenticate evidence [of what’s happening on the ground]. So you have to work twice as hard to figure out what the real truth is on the ground as so many narratives are being shaped by different interest groups. That’s one of the big ah-has of the report.
SD: Why has the use of Arabic social media spread so quickly?
SH: There’s the penetration of smart phones and the internet itself. And there’s been a very interesting evolution in the social media platform itself: it just became the way to be in touch and on top of what was going on. For instance, you’ll see a spike around the introduction of something called Facebook Zero, which was Facebook for feature phones. (There’s not a comparable version on Twitter.) It has become the way of conveying information, a journalistic alternative.
SD: What were your key overall findings?
SH: The big takeaway is that people have to be very careful about what they see and read in social media. It’s not just about truths versus untruths, it’s also getting much better at understanding who is shaping the narrative and making sure you’re understanding the stakeholders who are shaping that narrative.
If you were only following what was happening in the English-language Twitterverse, you were missing what was happening in the Syrian conflict. The fragmentation of the opposition was there an obvious early on to anyone who was following the Arabic language Twitterverse.