Media and Policy Makers Need to Connect to Online “Influentials”

Glad that my twitter activity was helpful in this very important study:

Building on such insights, Jorge Faytong Real and Nishant Patel, two graduate students at the University of Maryland working on a project in Prof. Ben Shneiderman course on Information Visualization, took a look at three slices of the Twitter universe to determine who have been “influentials” during the Middle East unrest.  Faytong and Patel looked at the Twitter network of an extraordinarily-well linked U.S-based Syrian and Middle East activist who tweets in both English and Arabic:  Ammar Abdulhamid—known to Twitter users as @tharwacolamus.[3]

As they mapped the network of the several thousand followers of @tharwacolamus, Faytong and Patel noted that the most active 300 followers (with an average of 5,300 tweets each), in turn had a non-unique aggregated total of over 17 million followers—a size that made this whole “an excellent representation of the Middle East activist network.”  (Note that Faytong and Patel conducted their network analysis and generated their data visualizations with NodeXL, a free, open-source tool).

Then Faytong and Patel overlay the Twitter networks of several mainstream U.S. media outlets, to see how well they were connected to Middle Eastern sources.  To their great surprise, many U.S. mainstream media, including CNN, ABC News andUS News and World Reports (see the lines in red),

“have very few primary sources with respect to Middle Eastern activists.  On Twitter, they mostly rely on secondary sources, which are often based outside of the Middle East, implying a mutual lack of interest.  Data shows the Middle Eastern activists are indifferent towards these media outlets.  One possible cause is that these activists cannot depend on U.S. media outlets for timely and richly detailed reports.  Their traditional news retrieval architecture results in delays in reporting developments from that region and watered-down analyses.  This in turn keeps them well-buffered from the activists that are the most-connected.”

As Faytong and Patel cogently observed, American mainstream media outlets’ “interest in Twitter as a method of communication and information sharing is minimal.  For example, @cnn has 1,886,456 followers, but only follows 538 users, meaning that it does not factor this social networking tool into its news retrieval infrastructure.”[4]

Finally, Faytong and Patel explored the networks of alternative news outlets to see if those had strong connections in the Middle East.  To their surprise they discovered that the Huffington Post was one of the best-linked channels on the Middle East protests [mapped with the top matrix of lines in red].  As they explained,

“The Huffington Post is an online blog that aggregates content from a wide variety of sources on a single site.  It differs from traditional media outlets by relying largely on third-party contributions.  This has created a niche for voices who do not receive proper attention nor have access to traditional media outlets, in this case Middle East activists.  Its Web 2.0 architecture has created and continually strengthens a symbiotic relationship with its worldwide followers who can also participate as contributors.”[5]

Why does all this matter?

The research matters because, as the graphics dramatically show, if news outlets—and policy makers— really want to get the pulse of a community, they need to look for and listen to those individuals and groups whose are connected in dynamic ways.  They need to look for and listen to those individuals and groups whose messages are being passed on—or in the case of Twitter, those whose messages are being retweeted.

The common way to identify who matters in a community is to look for who’s popular, who is followed, or even, who has the most votes.  The new research on Twitter suggests that media and policy makers need also to look for those who have a track record of saying things that others find valuable to pass on.

In fact if policy makers and media are NOT listening to those kinds of “influentials,” then their projections of the “Gemeinschaft” of a community may be appreciably skewed, and their policy recommendations may ultimately fall short of what is needed or wanted.