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Study finds bias in Internet postings about Syria’s civil war

YouTube videos and posts on Facebook and Twitter have made scenes from Syria’s civil war accessible to audiences thousands of miles from the conflict. But the version of events disseminated by social media is not a completely accurate picture of the war, according to a report from the congressionally funded U.S. Institute of Peace.

After reviewing more than 38 million Twitter posts about the Syrian conflict, a team of Middle East scholars from The George Washington University and American University concluded that rather than an objective account of what’s taken place, social media posts have been carefully curated to represent a specific view of the war. It said the skewing of the social media view of the conflict has been amplified by the way more traditional news outlets make use of the postings – for example, passing along social media posts written in English over those written in Arabic.

The analysts studied tweets that mentioned Syria in English or Arabic from the start of 2011 through April 2013. They then analyzed how “traditional” forms of media, such as newspapers, used social media to supplement their coverage of the conflict.

“Media is still the primary lens by which outside publics witness a country’s internal struggles, and also increasingly how people inside a country share information with each other and see things that, in the past, they wouldn’t be able to see,” said Sean Aday, director of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication at George Washington University and a co-author of the report.

Because journalists were largely unable to get direct access to the events in Syria at the start of the conflict, many relied on “citizen journalism,” or accounts from Syrians who said they’d witnessed events firsthand, often posted on social media, said Marc Lynch, director of George Washington University’s Institute for Middle East Studies and a co-author of the report.

But the posts were problematic, in part because they were difficult to verify, but also because Syrian activists became adept at crafting a specific message through Twitter, YouTube and other Internet-based services, the report said. Audiences removed from the conflict often took the posts at face value, the report said.

Lynch said the study found that discussion of the Syrian conflict in Western media generally originated with a small group of English-speaking journalists and analysts who are more or less isolated from the action. Speakers of English and Arabic can bridge the journalists’ gap in knowledge, but they often have an agenda.

“People bridge because they want to accomplish something,” he said. “If you were a Syrian activist trying to build support for international intervention in Syria or the funding of the Free Syrian Army, of course, you are going to highlight the peaceful pro-American nature of the Free Syrian Army and downplay sectarian acts.”

The report also looked at the increase in tweets about the Syrian conflict over time, showing that as the uprising continued, tweets in Arabic began to dramatically outpace tweets in English. From January 2011 to June 2011, English-language tweets were most common, but Arabic tweets made up almost 75 percent of all tweets about Syria just a year later.

A similar reversal occurred in the top 250 retweets about Syria – in March 2011, only 25 percent were written in Arabic, but by September of that year, almost 75 percent were.

By focusing only on English-language social media posts, mainstream media have frequently distorted the focus of the Syrian story, the report’s authors claimed.

“We here in Washington, especially, we think that the United States is really important; we think that American policy is the single most important thing about Syria, and what Obama does is what everybody wants to know about,” Lynch said. “The Arabic-speaking community does not care about Obama, for the most part. They don’t think American policy is all that important; they’re focused on other things.”

Mentions of President Barack Obama, for example, are sporadic in Arabic tweets. By March 2013, Arabic tweets about Syria only mentioned Obama 0.28 percent of the time, compared to 4.28 percent of English tweets.

“That tells you the gap between the way people in Washington are talking about this and the way people in the Arab world are talking about it,” Lynch said.