Pulling reliable info out of social media

Panelists discuss the role of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube in Syria.

Social media such as Twitter and Facebook have helped fuel Democratic protests by connecting activists. But some of the information hasn’t been especially reliable – adding to another obstacle the protestors, and the media covering them, must face.

Panelists at a Syria-focused event Tuesday at the United States Institute of Peace suggested ways in which activists, governments and journalists could effectively filter through the massive amount of social media data to find credible information in the middle of chaos. 

Activist Rami Nakhla said the uprising in Syria is not just a Facebook or Twitter revolution but “an overwhelming truth revolution.” He said making sure that the facts about the Syrian regime’s atrocities are published and released is essential for the movement to continue.

Alberto Fernandez, coordinator for strategic counterterrorism communications at the State Department, said the U.S. government was busy sifting through a flood of information to try to “triangulate” the real situation on the ground in Syria.  

Syrian activists on one panel noted that Facebook and Twitter users themselves can quickly identify fraudulent video or images. This crowdsourcing approach also can identify misleading propaganda released by the Syrian government to confuse political opponents and Western journalists.

Susan Wolfinbarger, a senior program associate at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, described an approach that uses satellite data to track roadblocks and military movements in Syria. Her work, at the bequest of Amnesty International, used Geographic Information Systems technology to show the rapid militarization of Aleppo, a major Syrian city, within a span of two weeks.

Social media technologies have been great for connecting like-minded people, whether activists in different cities or journalists. Regardless, a major takeaway from Tuesday’s panels was that social media is a powerful tool for people trying to mobilize for a cause, and quickly gauge crowd dynamics. The tricky part is figuring out the reliability of published information, and using it to better understand how seemingly different events are interrelated.