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Mainstream Media Coverage of Syrian War "Arguably Misleading"; Here's What They Did Wrong

BY Jessica McKenzie | Tuesday, January 14 2014

Today's edition of “don't believe everything you find on the Internet” comes from a new report by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) on social media and the Syrian Civil War, which the authors call “the most socially mediated civil conflict in history.” It is the third report in the USIP's “Blogs and Bullets” series.

The point “Syria's Socially Mediated Civil War” drives home is that “citizen journalism” in Syria is rarely, if ever, the result of being in the right place at the right time, but rather carefully curated material recorded and uploaded by the opposition, or by the government, for a reason. One could call it propaganda (although the authors do not). Rather, authors Mark Lynch, Deen Freelon and Sean Aday write that they have “sought to move beyond both the celebratory stage of marveling at the courageous work of citizen journalists and the skeptical stance of dismissing the novelty or significance of the new media content.”

Instead they seek to understand the patterns and implications of social media use in and around conflict, because Twitter and YouTube aren't going anywhere.

Unfortunately, they identify a number of worrying trends and practices regarding social media, particularly by the mainstream media.

Problems Lynch, Freelon and Aday point out include: the media bias for violence, which leads journalists and editors to selectively report events and Syrian activists (on both sides) to selectively upload videos tailored to appeal to mainstream media; media fatigue about the conflict, which also leads to selective and misleading reporting; the tendency for English-language media to privilege English-language reports and tweets, leading to divergent Arabic/English narratives; privileging secular activists accounts over religious, even though the religious might be more influential in the region; using machine translations of Arabic-language data for analysis; assuming video footage is without bias or agenda because it came from a “citizen”; and standards for video authentication that still fall short.

In general, however, the nuts and bolts of authenticating a video pose less of a problem to media outlets than identifying and acknowledging subtler manipulations:

Most [journalists and policy analysts] recognize the potential risks of relying on material curated by activists that is difficult to authenticate on the ground, and have created viable protocols for evaluating particular claims or videos. They have been less well primed to deal with potential structural biases in the information, however. They are much more sophisticated than in the past at determining whether an image ostensibly from Syria originally appeared in coverage of Iraq or whether a video of explosions in Damascus actually took place in Homs. They are less effective at determining whether the distribution of available videos systematically exaggerates (or understates) the presence of jihadist groups or privileges violent over nonviolent actions.

The authors also point out the insularity of communities on Twitter. The largest division is between English-language tweets and Arabic-language tweets, but it doesn't stop there. Within the Arabic-language tweets also exist communities that write and retweet messages that align only with their particular ideology and political alliance, with little to no overlap with other groups:

These findings demonstrate once again the insularity of English-language journalists and the rapid growth of the Arabic-speaking networks. Both findings are potentially troubling for at least two reasons. First, they imply a journalistic community whose coverage may be influenced more by its cultural and professional biases than by the myriad constituencies within Syria and across the region. Second, they point to the power of social media to draw people into like-minded networks that interpret the news through the prism of their own information bubbles.

In conclusion, Lynch, Freelon and Aday write, “English-only studies of digital media are missing so much of the real story as to be arguably misleading.”

Woof. I highly recommend reading the full report, especially if you are a researcher or journalist interested in using social media and citizen journalism more effectively and accurately in your own work.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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