The Meedan Blog Archive

Shifting from English to Arabic: Syria on Twitter, media insularity, and divergent discussions

This post is the second of a two part series looking at the recent USIP report Syria’s Socially Mediated Civil War, authored by Marc Lynch, Dan Freelon and Sean Aday. The first post looked at the report's analysis of the dynamics between citizen journalism and mainstream media coverage through the lens of Meedan's digital media verification project Checkdesk. This post focuses on another central aspect of the report - social media and language - through the lens of our upcoming social translation platform Translatedesk.

In addition to the excellent and informative analysis provided by Lynch, Freelon and Aday regarding the way social media impacts information flows (and the perception of those information flows), Syria's Socially Mediated Civil War provides an important and rare insight into the divergent discussions taking place in two seemingly isolated language communities online.

The first point to note is the growth of Arabic on Twitter over the past 3 years:

Although English-language tweets on Syria outweighed Arabic tweets for the first half of 2011, by June 2011, Arabic tweets had caught up to the English and thereafter never made up less than 60 percent of the dataset. This means that researchers using only English-language tweets would be significantly misreading the content and nature of the online Twitter discourse.

English speaking users of Twitter can be forgiven if those statistics come as a surprise: although Twitter has tried to push the idea that it is a "global town square" in reality you are very unlikely to follow someone who tweets in languages other than those you speak (for more on this see Ethan Zuckerman's 2010 TED Talk. Arabic has also become one of the major "growth languages" on Twitter, and with the conflict in Syria destabilizing the whole Middle East it is perhaps not surprising that it's a hot topic of discussion.

More interesting, however, is that the conversation about Syria happening in Arabic does not mirror the same conversation in English:

We show the profound and increasing isolation of the English-language Twitter community from the broader trends in the Arabic discourse. We also show the increasing insularity of some major clusters and the changing distances be- tween them. These results challenge some common assumptions about the nature of the online discourse on Syria and the broader Arab uprisings, as well as some of our earlier findings based on that period.

While divergent discourses are perhaps to be expected to a certain extent, the extent of the isolation and insularity of the English-language discussion from its Arabic counterpart creates what the authors term "a badly skewed impression of the broader Arabic discourse."

This has important implications for understanding mainstream media’s limitations in covering Syria and other non-Western foreign crises and raises troubling questions about the skewed image that coverage might be presenting to audiences.

Bridging the gap between these isolated conversations has long been an organizational goal for Meedan, from our cross-language news site to our current work on Translatedesk and the Out of Eden Walk project: Creating space and workflows for translators to work on taking social content across languages helps break down isolation and prevent insularity. As Twitter (and Facebook, YouTube etc.) become increasingly multi-lingual spaces, the opportunities for cross-language interaction are growing, and as Twitter increasingly becomes a platform for discussing the pressing issues of our globalized world, the need for cross-language exchange also grows.

To find out more about Translatedesk, check