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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Syria's Socially Mediated Civil War

The United States Institute for Peace released a new and very important study on social media and the conflict in Syria last week, which I highly recommend to anyone using social media sources in their research, whether focused on Syria or other arenas.

Syria's Socially Mediated Civil War

The study raises some extremely important points about how structural biases in social media can distort our picture of events on the ground, and it introduces some important caveats that every journalism, academic and government researcher should keep in mind.

I also want to point out one limitation in the study's approach that should be considered when looking at its conclusions. The study's authors argue two key points about online communities:
  • They are highly insular, meaning that groups self-organize into communities which reinforce their own world view while excluding data that does not fit with the community's agenda. 
  • They are highly curated, in that a relatively small number of influencers set the agenda for a much larger group of users and ultimately exert tremendous influence on what content gets redistributed. The authors compare the magnitude of this influence to that of a newspaper editor or television producer. 
These conclusions make sense as far as the data set which was examined -- tweets including the word "Syria" and the number of retweets of specific content.

But they can also lead to a misunderstanding about the strength of insularity and curation. While I agree these qualities are often not adequately accounted for in research, the analysis of retweets only (a focus dictated by reasonable practical obstacles in data collection on this scale) can make them appear more powerful than they are.

Based on my own ongoing research looking at smaller datasets, there are two Twitter relationship types that balance, to some extent, the bias toward insularity and curation, neither of which was examined in the study -- following and mentioning.

Although there are clear example of insular communities within different segments of the Syrian conflict's social media landscape, almost everyone involved in the conflict follows at least some people outside of those insular communities. That means they are being exposed to content that cracks the wall of insularity, even if they are not retweeting that content.

The question of whether those users are reading this content and integrating it into their worldviews (which is not the same as adopting the views represented in the content) can be gauged to some extent by mentions -- when people respond to the content, whether in agreement or disagreement. In smaller datasets, where collecting mentions and follow relationships can be done in a practical way, it's clear that very few users are wholly insular and that social media is introducing people to information that may differ from their assumptions about the world.

This dynamic is pretty clearly visible in the current fitna among Syrian jihadi groups, where angry and sometimes lengthy exchanges break through the wall of insularity as people mount arguments and defend allegiances. And we are only beginning to see how these challenges to insularity are creating a more "democratic" jihadi movement where dissent is aired publicly and leaders must for the first time compete for popular support from footsoldiers in the movement.

Curation, similarly, has dimensions that are not necessarily obvious without a deeper and more structurally complex examination of how content spreads. Curators are not necessarily the originators of content, and items can organically recommend themselves for curation based on how they are received at lower levels. While I agree curators and influencers are incredibly important, I would not credit them with power comparable to a newspaper editor or television producer. The latter are gatekeepers for institutions, the former are participants in a community exercise, even though some are more equal than others.

UPDATE: It occurs to me that a better way to describe my key question about curation is whether curated items are imposed from the top down (i.e., influencers pushing an agenda) or whether it functions from the bottom up (i.e., influencers reflecting the content they see as gaining momentum organically). The answer, of course, is that it's a little of both, with the balance shifting depending on the specific piece of content, and the behavior of each individual curator. So while curators are indeed power-brokers as far as what content reaches a large audience, many of them act more as amplifiers for messages which are already gaining traction organically.

It would be interesting -- and feasible -- to create a study that indicated which type of curator has the most power. My educated guess is that top-down curators drive more traffic on a daily basis, but true break-out content that goes wide and scores huge numbers tends to involve bottom-up curators. END UPDATE

That said, both curation and insularity are factors in how information is distributed, and they become more important when you are talking about journalists and researchers who simply wander into social media and begin using the sources as they find them, without necessarily understanding them in context. So the warnings in the study are well-taken, but they should be understood as one part of a massively complex picture.

Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam


Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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