Assessing the information onslaught of protests and terrorist attacks via social media

When the terrorist attacks occurred in Mumbai local media was able to report extensively as it occurred. Social media pundits were able to analyze and evaluate the different channels of communication. Social media tools like Twitter with near real time reporting of events prepared an audience to receive uncensored reporting of events. Criticism was heaped upon Twitter and other social media tools as it became apparent that the same tools could be used by the Terrorists to evaluate response by military and police during the incident. It rapidly became apparent that social media was a benefit to society and adversaries of society. When the Iranian elections began to derail in the light of democratization social protests erupted and another side of social media became apparent. The ability to engage the world in telling the story of the protesters.

In Seattle protesters used the social media tools available to them to create “flash mobs” that moved through the city during a conference of world leaders. The tools only were used lightly to prepare and disseminate a message or narrative of what the protesters were protesting. During the Russian incursion on South Ossetia social media was used to uncover various levels of cyber intrusions and cyber hooliganism that affected the computing systems under attack. In that case social media was an intelligence tool but the narrative was missing. Hacktivism and cyber hooliganism are often differentiated only by the perspectives of the observer. In Iran these last few weeks there has been a substantial paradigm shift.

Social media tools now are allowing a one to many, and many to many type of relationship to evolve between protesters and the world at large. Hardly a pro-western movement in Iran it is still important to note the volume and response of social media users and companies. From Facebook releasing a Persian version of their website to Twitter users strangely self censoring users when re-tweeting or for the non Twitter user re-broadcasting a message. Consider that self-censorship for a moment.

The use case is simple. A Twitter user in Iran broadcasts to the world a message of up to 140 characters. That message is likely placed on the public timeline and on their personal timeline. The timeline being a running list of messages. The user information is likely public though there are methods of protecting “tweets” or those messages they are broadcasting. However, the people re-tweeting then obscure the username using conventions like “RT IRAN” instead of the normal “RT Username”. In other words the self-censorship in most cases has little validity other than the user doing the re-tweeting feels they are not increasing the danger of the Iranian user. In reality the risk has already occurred and there is little mitigation to be found in the resulting self-censoring behavior.

The activities in Iran have also exposed a variety of other issues. Anything that the people are capable of doing, the government is equally capable of doing since it to is made up of people.  There is inherent bias in the messages of protesters as they are protesting. Similarly there is inherent bias in the various government officials repressing the protesters. I use the word repressing not because of inherent bias on my part but the closing of conduits of information exchange such as filtering and shuttering access to media. The government by closing access to social media creates a de facto case of repression.

In this toppling case of bias and repression analysis of the narrative exiting Iran becomes a larger task than one might assume.  There is the totality of information exiting Iran, we can subtract from that the redundancy of multiple people reporting the same event from different perspectives, and then there is the actual factual information by numerous entities that is not based on innuendo and third party witnessing, and finally there is the information that is useful. Each step of analysis decreases significantly the actual data collection schema.

Analysis Procedure

FIGURE 1 Analysis Procedure

Some of the information that may be lost if simple facts are chosen include the information about information, or meta information. This is the emotional and contextual analysis of the data arriving from Iran. What is the response of bystanders to the shooting of a young woman by police? How are people responding to the various police functions? Who is the primary spokesman arising from the information stream that are given credibility within Iran and outside of Iran. These may be wholly different individuals or entities.  Emotional context on day 1 is important to evaluate on day 3. Veracity though often considered a part of factual information is part of the meta information component.

Social media is evolving as an agent of protest. The American labor movement used music to carry the act of protest and the effect of cohesion from the Wobblies to the AFL/CIO. The peace movement against Vietnam cascaded forward with music and social commentary at Woodstock culminating in the young pregnant Joan Baez singing “Joe Hill” in memoriam of her incarcerated husband (a peace protester). The Vietnam protesters using music and social commentary added the technological elements of mass voice broadcast, video broadcast, and recordings leaping forward in a substantive way never before considered possible in reaching a mass audience. Social media through facilitation of tools like Twitter, and YouTube have suddenly removed the need for stage and corporate sponsorship and opened the world wide audience to the individual.

As protest evolves government hindrance and reaction will evolve. Those wishing to nurture the nascent social media protest movement capabilities would be well advised to stay away from narratives including war as epithets.  Use of terms like “cyber warfare” to describe social protest will have a backlash effect. We can already see protesters in Iran being referred to as terrorists. As a homage, words have power, and allowing the Iranian government to say “Yes, but your own media referred to the protesters as engaged in war of course we used tanks”.  The use of a sexy term incorrectly to feed a backlash is not a good idea.  Social protest should not be considered war and protesters should not be considered terrorists. It is uncomfortable for governments to deal with protesters and protests have turned into insurgencies. It is simply a suggestion to self-censor where over stating the situation simply cannot help.

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