17 Jan 2014
For the past three years the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) has pioneered research into the relationship between social media and conflict through their Blogs and Bullets series of events and papers, and Meedan has been proud to work with USIP on several occasions. This week, USIP launched its latest report: Syria’s Socially Mediated Civil War, authored by Marc Lynch, Dan Freelon and Sean Aday. This post is the first in a two-part series on the Meedan blog looking at how the issues raised in the report relate to two of our ongoing projects: Checkdesk and Translatedesk.
Syria’s has been the most socially mediated civil conflict in history. An exceptional amount of what the outside world knows—or thinks it knows—about Syria’s nearly three-year-old conflict has come from videos, analysis, and commentary circulated through social networks.
In "Syria's Socially Mediated Civil War, the authors' analysis leads them to some important conclusions for any project looking to chart safe passage through the tricky waters of social media, journalism, technology and truth. The report reaffirms many of the challenges we have faced on on our Checkdesk project with our Syrian partner Shabab Souria and adds statistical analysis that clarifies our understanding of how information propagates on social networks.
The first point from the report that I would like to highlight is the identification of the persistent role that information gatekeepers play in crafting a narrative that is disseminated to a wider public, a role the report considers "as powerful as that once played by television producers and op-ed page editors."
Social media create a dangerous illusion of unmediated information flows. Those who follow YouTube videos, Syrian Twitter accounts, or Facebook postings may believe that they are receiving an accurate and comprehensive account of the conflict. But these flows are carefully curated by networks of activists and designed to craft particular narratives.
The primary way to mitigate this "dangerous illusion" is twofold; as followers of social media we must have awareness that gatekeepers have a vested interest in certain narratives; as gatekeepers we must be transparent both about any interests and also about what sources we monitor.
Brown Moses is an excellent example of a responsible gatekeeper that has shown dispassionate curation of content documenting rights abuses by listing the array of sources he monitors. The illusion of unmediated information is broken by this kind of activity, which rejects the traditional newsroom secrecy regarding the origins of news.
As part of the Checkdesk project we train young journalists and citizen journalists across the Arab region in media literacy skills to help increase awareness of the way information is published and shared online.
The second major point to note is newsrooms' continued reliance on online activists, and the need for improved verification tools and procedures:
Mainstream media’s reliance on social media has dangers as well as benefits. Journalists with limited access on the ground rely heavily on online activists for video and visual content,as well as for contacts to interview by Skype or satellite phone.This reliance creates the real risk of the same partial, misleading, and motivated narrative in mass media as in social media. Although journalists and editors have developed sophisticated protocols for verification of particular videos, they have done much less to control for these deeper structural biases.
The design of Checkdesk gives journalists a safe space for journalists to openly ask questions about the social media they are using in reporting. Checkdesk encourages newsrooms to engage with their community around social media reporting in diverse ways, with transparency at each step. In addition to the need for greater media literacy and critical awareness, we are still seeing a technological need for close listening to sources like the YouTube channels and Bambuser feeds tracked by Brown Moses. Technologists and mainstream media need to be proactive in the pursuit of "a more sophisticated understanding of the structural biases in social media and the difficult challenges posed by activist curation."