Revolutionary: the Rise of Social Media

Twitter bird [source: Andreas Eldh]Twitter bird [source: Andreas Eldh]

The Falklands War of 1982 was described as ‘the worst reported war since the Crimean War’. It took 54 days for the first pictures of the conflict to make it back to the UK. In the 2003 Iraq War, reporters embedded in coalition combat units reported the fast-paced advance as best they could, while journalists in Baghdad brought night-time shots of the bombings and tracer fire over the Euphrates. By 2011 it seemed that everyone with a camera phone had become a reporter, uploading pictures and videos of conflict across the Arab world. In places like Egypt, this was used to augment traditional journalism on the ground, but in Syria social media rapidly became the primary source of information for journalists. This trend will not be reversed, and adapting to the change is key to the future of journalism across the globe.

The use of social media in the Arab Spring was unprecedented in providing direct coverage of the situation on the ground. However, although it provides unparalleled access to events as they unfold, there are problems with this new usage of social media, especially when coupled with a lack of traditional journalists in situ. The sources and motivations behind YouTube videos and Twitter posts often cannot be investigated. Material on Syria is not produced by international news organisations with at least some commitment to unbiased reporting, but factions in an increasingly bitter conflict. Content is often selected and edited by “curation hubs” to push particular narratives, and sometimes would be better classified as amateur propaganda. The sheer volume of videos and posts means news editors have to be selective, often focusing just on what is “trending”. Simply finding ways of authenticating such material is not enough: the international media must develop an understanding of the structural biases inherent to activist curation.

Social media coverage in Syria differs from that of previous popular uprisings, or even contemporary ones like Egypt. In Egypt, although analysis may have been inaccurate at times, incidents could be observed and verified by third parties. The relative lack of a media presence in Syria has meant a much heavier reliance on social media, with TV reports full of grainy YouTube videos. International aid and intelligence agencies have been similarly reliant on the torrent of online material in order to form responses and policy, making the development of effective analytic tools one of their top priorities. These are slowly appearing: the “Blogs and Bullets” report released in January 2014 by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) used new software to analyse over 38 million tweets from the three years of conflict. Given the steady rise in the number of people able to access the internet, the handling of the Syrian information overload will be a template for future protests and revolutions, particularly given media cutbacks and the decreasing number of foreign correspondents. In time, organisations like USIP hope to be able to pick up tell-tale signs in social media that unrest or conflict is imminent.

It is undoubtedly true that amateur footage offers unparalleled insight into conflict zones, with a far wider scope than any journalist could hope to attain. Bias, however, remains a huge obstacle to the use of social media for effective reporting. This is exemplified by the contrast between Arabic and English Twitter output regarding Syria. The recent USIP report highlights a major shift from English to Arabic usage from January 2012: whilst in January 2011 only 20% of tweets about Syria were in Arabic, by January 2012 the figure was around 70%, a proportion which has remained broadly stable as the overall number of posts increases. In March 2011, only about 25% of the 250 most re-tweeted posts were in Arabic; by September 2011, only 25% were in English. When relying on the internet as a major source, the Anglophone international media thus risks confining itself to a subset of the full picture. This point is especially significant because the subject matter of English posts, as compared to those in Arabic, is so markedly different. These are not parallel conversations in different languages, but completely different spheres of discussion. In March 2012 campaign hashtags like #prayforsyria and #stopassad were among the most popular English tweets, whereas Arabic tweets had a far higher number of pro-Islamist hashtags like #jihad and #fatwa. The fading of a pan-Arab discourse, and movement towards a more insular and religious language set, is notable in Arab social media. It raises questions over the broader narrative of the Arab Spring as a concept‒but it is a story that Anglocentric analysis risks missing out on.

This Arabic‒English content split is also strikingly obvious in other social media, notably online videos. “News” is often created by material crossing from one sphere to another, such as the video of a lung-eating rebel commander whose actions, while relatively common knowledge on Arabic sites, undermined the stress of the English narrative that Opposition actions were essentially defensive. This insularity can lead to content being “narrowcasted” online so that, for example, pro-jihadist messages reach one audience and pro-moderate messages another. In addition to this, structural biases in the way social media works can mean that popular content eclipses more common but less popular material. One video of a larger scale attack by government forces may go viral, while multiple videos of attacks on government positions by opposition forces may go unnoticed. Journalists and analysts should take this over- and under-representation of viewpoints and data-types into account.

In line with this is the fundamental problem of reporting from a distance, and the inherent difficulty of comparing online material with the offline situation. Even with reporters on the ground, as was the case in Egypt, it is difficult for international media to connect online trends to real-world developments. One need only consider the very different narratives of the BBC, al-Arabiya and al-Jazeera on whether the ousting of President Morsi by Army-backed protesters was a predominantly democratic or authoritarian move. Without corroboration it becomes difficult to pitch reports with any certainty.

All this is complicated by the illusion that the internet provides an unmediated flow of information. Mainstream media reliance on online activism risks the wide propagation of partial or misleading information. The motivation behind social media posts is often ignored; individual videos can be verified, but deeper biases are harder to account for. Curation by key individual hubs is a major part of this. Twitter material channelled by the UAE columnist Sultan al-Qassemi, for example, was very different to that selected by al-Jazeera personalities like Faisal al-Qassem. Those involved in the conflict are inevitably motivated to support certain narratives. The reliance of news editors on a small selection of hubs is understandable given the sheer quantity of content available, but it leads to yet more cherry-picking. YouTube might be thought of as a more direct information source, but here again problems arise, not least over the authentication of footage. The sheer volume of material also masks editorial processes within Syrian groups, which aim at putting across particular narratives (e.g. a pro-western anti-Assad moderate stance that stresses government atrocities while minimising coverage of dubious opposition activities).

Of course, traditional journalism comes with its own set of problems. Access for journalists to northern Syria from Turkey improved in 2012, but the reliance on opposition groups for information and freedom of movement introduces the possibility of manipulation, analogous with the problems caused by embedding journalists within coalition forces in the Iraq War. There is a risk that the story shifts from a varied online perspective to what journalists can see with their own eyes. In Egypt the centre of action was Cairo, particularly Tahrir Square; but in Syria the action predominantly happens outside of the areas journalists are able to access. Shocking footage continues to emerge online of the violence in Homs, but the lack of a media presence there means that it is now often ignored in favour of stories that journalists can witness themselves. Against this, however, is the argument that social media coverage is skewed towards violence and accounts of fighting because mass media prioritises conflict. If social media activists feel they have to produce a certain type of material in order to get noticed, then coverage risks entering a cycle of distortion. This highlights once again the difficulty of striking a balance between social and traditional media in reporting on situations like Syria.

The developing situation in Venezuela provides a snapshot of the evolution of social media. As in the Ukraine, the app Zello has been a key contributing factor in popular protests. The US-based app, created in 2011, allows individuals to use their mobile device like a walkie-talkie, via the internet. Pressing a button to speak, one broadcasts on a pre-selected channel to other users. Up to 600 active users can be on one channel at any one time, and the most popular Venezuelan channels have 450,000 subscribers and counting. Intended as a casual communication network, Zello took off during last year’s unrest in Turkey and has now been downloaded more than 50 million times. In Venezuela it has been used to coordinate protests and to thwart the actions of security forces. Channels can be password-protected, reducing the possibility of interference. Recently the Venezuelan government internet provider blocked access to the app, and whilst Zello responded quickly, using Twitter to crowd-source a solution, the action highlighted governments’ awareness of the power of social media to precipitate and coordinate popular protest. It also reveals the trend of social media away from easily traceable mediums like Twitter towards systems which leave no personal footprint.

As the conflict continues to unfold, the use of social media in Syria will undoubtedly develop in the spirit of these changes in the Ukraine and Venezuela. However, so far as journalism is concerned, we should remain extremely cautious of trusting social media as a news source. The overwhelming volume of material and the ease with which it can be manipulated suggests a continued place for traditional journalism and third party coverage of conflict, as well as a need for increasingly sophisticated analytical techniques such as those employed by USIP. The social media revolution has been hugely valuable to the Syrian people in raising and maintaining awareness of their suffering. But mainstream media must be discerning and critical when assessing content in socially mediated revolutions. Social media revolution: handle with care.