Posts Tagged 'social media'

Compelling evidence on Benghazi timeline

Kathleen Carley presented work on the social media data flow before, during, and after the Benghazi embassy attack in September 2012. She happened to be teaching a course on analysis of social media (tweets and mainstream media) over the early part of September and was able to quickly repurpose it.

Her results show that, in Libya, there was no social media discussion of the embassy attacks until several hours after they happened. Discussion of the infamous movie also only begins well after the attacks and then only as a result of speculation about whether it played any role.

In contrast, Egyptian social media feeds were abuzz with demonstration rhetoric well before the activity in Cairo.

This seems to provide a compelling argument against any “spontaneous demonstration” scenario to explain what happened in Benghazi (if anyone still thinks that). It’s also a nice demonstration of the coming of age of real-time social media analysis, although it also shows that getting real-time analysis requires having a team in place before hand.

The reference is: Near Real Time Assessment of Social Media Using Geo-Temporal Network Analytics, Kathleen M. Carley,  Juergen Pfeffera, Huan Liu, Fred Morstatter, Rebecca Goolsby, Proceedings of Advances in Social Network Analysis and Modelling (ASONAM) 2013, ACM & IEEE, 517-524.

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What is social media?

I was at a meeting last week whose focus was on social media. It quickly became clear that there were two kinds of interests. One group wanted to build high-level systems that would revolutionize business and government (somehow) leveraging social media; another group were building or wanted to build tools that would provide some kind of meta-view of social media content and activity.

The topic that was missing from all of the discussion was what social media was, and why it is the way it is; and so I came away feeling like the entire discussion, and quite a lot of work, was dancing on clouds. There seem to be a number of things that “everybody knows” about social media, but for which there seems to be little or no evidence. The Arab Spring was driven by social media! Well, maybe, but (a) was it and how much, (b) which parts were important and which were irrelevant?

It seems helpful to divide social media into three categories:

1.  Media that is essentially public access publishing or public access (micro)blogging. Although sites that provide this kind of functionality are often considered “social” there is almost nothing social about them — yes, the audience for posts can be restricted to a particular group, but that’s always been true of any publication. There is an interesting question lurking here though: what are the reasons why individuals read such posts? What kind of bond does it imply between the reader and the author? (Cynically, why would I care what even my closest friend had for breakfast?)

2. Media that start as public access publishing, but where the conversation built on an initial post is more important or interesting than the initial post itself — in other words, there’s something emergent in the conversation that transcends what any of the participants would have said ab initio. This is a kind of social knowledge or opinion construction, and there are lots of interesting questions about who participates, what their roles are, and how the content and tone are affected by the interactions. This is, of course, not a new phenomenon but what’s new is the scope and the detail of what’s recorded, allowing answers to be worked out in ways that were impractical or too expensive before.

3. Media in which explicit relational links are created between one person and another. This is the real heart of social media. Relational links between a pair of people have, of course, always existed, but they could only be constructed in a small number of ways and were (almost always) limited by geography.

The emergent structure of these links is a really interesting artifact that deserves study and from which we will probably learn a lot about what it means to be human in a global society. What does it mean when one person “friends” another? This is one question for which simple answers tend to be assumed, but even a brief consideration of A’s Facebook friends and the rest of A’s relationships in the real world quickly shows that there’s a complex connection between the two sets (and it depends heavily on characteristics of A).

One thing that quickly becomes clear when these questions are addressed computationally is that we aren’t going to get far until relationship links are typed. It’s fairly easy to look at each relationship and give it a numerical weight that reflects (say) closeness — but it’s still true that different kinds of relationships behave differently, and need to be modelled differently to understand them. (Social media sites should also implement this typing — not every piece of data should flow down every link of A’s social network.)

The fundamental question in a world where one person can create a visible relationship, is what does this mean — for the person creating it, for the person at the other end of the relationship, and for the emergent graph structure that a collection of these individual relationships creates. Good, solid answers to this question would be a foundation on which much more useful applications could be built.

How do I demonstrate that I am me?

The question of identity, how the question in the title gets answered, is one with an interesting history; and one that is changing again at the moment.

For much of human history, identity was almost completely determined by the fact that a person was born and grew up in a community where everyone knew them, and never moved far from this community. This is still true in many parts of the world, but was surprisingly true in the developed world until quite recently.

Things changed when migration to cities started in a big way, in Western countries perhaps around the 16th century and accelerating since then. Someone who moved to a city could become anyone they wanted as long as they kept away from people from the same general area as they were, who might know them or know of them. This was harder than it seemed, mostly because of the tendency of people with the same origin to live contiguously when they arrived in a city (so if you were from X but didn’t live in the X area, you automatically attracted attention). This ability to assume new identities was grist to the mill of detective stories up to about 100 years ago (notably Austin Freeman).

In the last 100 years, governments have become the guarantors of identity because of the requirement to collect taxes, mostly income taxes; and, for an increasing number of people, because of the need to cross borders. So governments issue identity documents that are tied to a single person via some kind of link, perhaps a biometric or even an address. And, for most people, this is where things stand now.

But there are new forms of identity beginning to be created, and new ways to blur identities as well.

I have had a web page with my photo on it, and links to my papers, and so on, since the web began. Copies of this web page have been periodically archived, at moments that I can’t control, by the Wayback Engine and probably several other places as well. If I want to prove my identity, I can now do it without any government intervention by pointing to these copies of my web page which have information that links them unqiuely to me. For many people, their Facebook or LinkedIn profile pages would do the same thing if they were publicly archivable. So identity is once again moving away from something that is government mediated to something that is more decentralized and community based.

On the other side of the coin, governments and others are actively creating artificial personas, sometimes called sock puppets. These personas are controlled by a real person, but one person can control many of them, and the postings of each persona don’t need to be the ones that the controller would naturally make. In other words if, on the internet, nobody can tell you’re a dog, it follows that nobody can tell you’re not a construct either.

In order to make these sock puppets realistic, a back story has to be created for each one; increasingly, this means that they have to have a created trail in places where this might be looked for. Once upon a time, intelligence organizations would go into official records and create entries for non-existent people; this is inherently difficult, especially in records that are owned by other governments (remember, governments validated identities); so often identities of people who had died were used as starting points. I expect we’ll see that same thing happening in the online world.

But there’s an important difference: while governments can go back and change history embodied in records, neither they nor anyone else can change the history embedded in web sites that, at random times, take a snapshot of some part of the web. So creating realistic sock puppets is actually really difficult.

There’s also the issue of language: one controller runnning multiple sock puppets cannot avoid using detectably similar language patterns for all of them; and eventually this will make it possible to detect artificial personas.