August 15, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Geopolitical Events and the Limits of Twitter

• Despite the extensive media coverage of issues like Gaza, Ukraine, and ISIS, the engaged audience on Twitter pales in comparison to those for non-geopolitical issues, illustrating the difficulties in connecting with broader audiences on issues of global importance

• Assumptions are being made as to the power of social media to impact geopolitical events that might not be entirely accurate; alternately, though, some recent events show its potential range and influence: the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, and at times the sole source of information at times in Syria and Iraq, and insights from the ground in Ferguson, Missouri

• Twitter certainly raises awareness but it primarily does so among those that are already aware, and there is a tendency to conflate increasing connectivity to events with increasing connection with the events

• Tweets in English mentioning the late actor Robin Williams exceeded 10 million in two days, more than mentions of Ukraine, ISIS, and Ebola combined over thirty days.

In the last 30 days, several issues have dominated the geopolitical scene: the terrorist group known mostly as ISIS and its advances in Syria and Iraq; the crisis in Ukraine with the downing of MH17 and worsening relations between the West and Russia; and the spread and fear of Ebola across parts of west Africa. Even by recent geopolitical standards, it has been a remarkably tense month.

To a relative degree, this tension is reflected on social media, specifically Twitter, as journalists, academics, subject matter experts, and interested individuals seek to follow these ongoing crises. “ISIS was mentioned 2,429,547 times between 15 July and 14 August; “Ukraine was mentioned 2,512,561; and “ebola” was mentioned 4,825,835.

That might sound impressive but it barely warrants a blip among the most popular topics on Twitter. “Robin Williams” was mentioned 10.4 million times in two days after his death, which is more than ISIS, Ukraine and Ebola combined over thirty days.

Gaza” was by far the most mentioned geopolitical issue of the last thirty days, with 13.5 million English mentions on Twitter. Yet the upcoming launch of the new iPhone garnered 13.6 million, and among a broader mix of accounts (media, tech, style, health, etc).

Why this matters is that assumptions are being made as to the power of social media to impact geopolitical events that might not be entirely accurate. The value of Twitter as an on-the-spot reporting tool is undeniable and hard to overstate. For example, the route of the controversial Russian ‘aid convoy’ has been live-tweeted by the mile, which is extremely important and valuable. But while social media raises awareness of issues, it primarily does so among those people who are already aware: after all, you have to choose to follow someone or an issue. The self-selecting nature of social media means we can get more of what we already know or agree with.

The increase in connectivity with events has not been matched by an increase in connection to these events. It’s hard to understand a complex issue in 140 characters or less; and impossible to meaningful connect with it. Geopolitical passions run very high on Twitter but they burn like matches and generate little lasting heat for change or thoughtful reconsideration of previously-held assumptions, since hashtags don’t equate commitment even if they give the appearance of action.

In geopolitical circles this week, the plight of the Yazidis in Iraq loomed large, and may have been a factor in initiating US airstrikes in Iraq, but in Twitter, the 131,339 mentions of “Yazidi” trailed the 155,935 mentions of last weekend’s “super moon”. There was no mass awareness of the Yazidi crisis among those not following the issue to begin with.

This self-selection inherent in Twitter helps to explain, for example, why counter-violent extremist efforts on Twitter don’t work particularly well, since only those agreeing with the premise are likely to see the message in the first place. The target audience isn’t paying attention.

Much has been made of the alleged cross-generational power of Twitter to change minds and therefore the world. The numbers don’t bear this out. In reality, the same percentage of people who were interested in geopolitical issues is probably consistent over several decades, with the change being that there is more information available to those already interested. Social media does increase the chance that those previously uninterested in geopolitics become more so, but it does not mandate it, a distinction apparently lost on many seeking to reach and influence new audiences.


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