Sifting Fact from Fiction: The Role of Social Media in Conflict

On September 16th, 2011, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) held a series of panel discussions as part of their Blogs and Bullets initiative.  The four groups of commentators, including digital activists, analysts, and policymakers, reflected on the enormous interest in social media and its power as an engine of social and political change.  Despite its potential, and the often hyperbolic claims made about its impact, the participants cautioned against overestimating the power of social media and acknowledged its limitations.

The first panel was moderated by Sheldon Himelfarb of the USIP. It included Sean Aday, Henry Farrell, Marc Lynch, and John Sides of George Washington University, Brian Eoff of Bit.Ly, and Deen Freelon of American University.  Their discussion began with an examination of how new-media has helped to develop innovative competencies, effectively empowering on-the-ground correspondents during the Arab Spring.  They also noted how new-media has helped to foster international attention, as the majority of the web traffic on the dispatches from the Middle East originated outside the region.  In terms of its capacity to spark collective action, however, they cautioned that it was unproven; it is difficult to conclusively say what motivates people to protest.  Additionally, the panel noted that social media does not exclusively promote peace: the internet can be shut down, networks can be manipulated with false data, and social media use can help identify activists for arrest or harassment.

The second panel, chaired by Cosma Shalizi, dealt with new trends in data mining and analysis.  The panelists were Rohini Srihari of the University of Buffalo and Janya, Inc., Fadl al-Tarzi from Dubai’s News Group, Bruce Etling from the Berkman Center, and John Kelly of Morningside Analytics. This group dedicated their time to discussing some of the developments and challenges in applying quantitative analysis to social media use.  The issue of translation was examined: automated translations of non-English text can miss a lot of the nuance and subtlety that is apparent to a native speaker. The speakers also cautioned against omitting traditional sources such as newspapers or television from the discussion. Concern was expressed about the trend of social media companies monetizing their data, meaning that academics are often priced out of a chance to perform analysis.

The next discussion focused on digital activism from the perspective of practitioners. It included Sultan al-Qassemi of the Dubai School of Government, Andy Carvin of NPR, and Mary Joyce of the Meta Activism Project. The panelists offered different angles on the issue.  Mr. al-Qassemi actively tweeted on the various upheavals in the region, Mr. Carvin leads NPR’s social media strategy, and Ms. Joyce studies social media use and digital activism. Mr. Carvin argued that the capacity of the internet to springboard real-world activism has been proven, and that reading Twitter like a conversation can provide a lot of context and color to raw data. Mr. al-Qassemi offered his experiences with the tools, and recounted how social media use has created contacts and sources that have been vital to his work documenting the crises.  Ms. Joyce noted that social media is only used by 7-10% of the population in the region, but that it is still significant.  As an example, she discussed how Saudi women who broke custom by driving would tweet information about where traffic police were located.

The final panel brought the conversation to a close and touched on some of the big picture issues involved. It was comprised of Marc Lynch from George Washington University, Clay Shirky from New York University, Alec Ross from the U.S. State Department, and Jillian York from International Freedom of Expression. They emphasized that even though the ability of social media to create social change might be exaggerated, its ability to document the behavior of governments is very important.  This event did not attempt to offer a conclusive answer on the issues, but instead offered context and nuance to a fascinating development.

For more information on “Sifting Fact from Fiction” click here.

Contributor Zack Bastian

Zack Bastian is a graduate student at George Washington University and a Research Assistant with the Commons Lab, Science and Technology Innovation Program, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.


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