“We Use Technology, Not the Other Way Around” — Social Media and Political Analysis
Social media is instrumental for public messaging for a wide variety of actors, from heads of state to armed groups. It’s free, simple to use and has the potential of instantly reaching millions of people in all corners of the world. The UN has been using social media for years to communicate with the public. Increasingly, it is harnessing these powerful tools in its conflict prevention and peacemaking work.
With an estimated 4.2 billion active social media users at the beginning of 2021, a rapidly growing audience (some 490 million new users in 2020), and social media fast becoming the norm for news consumption, especially among younger generations, it is fair to say that social media increasingly shapes political and social interactions. Social media can be extremely valuable to access knowledge about events that are underreported or censored in traditional media, to increase situational awareness and shed light on aspects of conflicts that conventional political analysis may not fully cover.
“Social media remains a key channel for enabling collective political expression for youth and is also more prominently used for diplomatic signalling in international affairs,” Martin Waehlisch, from the UN’s Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) told Politically Speaking.
However, Waehlisch adds, compared to traditional media, much of which is fact-checked and vetted, social media platforms often serve as engines for misinformation and hate speech, which can render its use in international relations less valuable. To get around this problem and allow its experts to better harness social media, DPPA developed a dedicated scanning tool, dubbed “Sparrow”, used for early warning and analysis .
Sparrow allows UN desk officers in New York and in field missions to rapidly analyse Twitter data and separate “noise” created by bots on social media from authentic political speech. Sparrow aims to strengthen internal capacities on early warning and live monitoring of unfolding crises. Drawing on curated Twitter lists, Sparrow calculates the most popular keywords, hashtags, tweets and also the level of engagement of accounts.
Alex Rutherford, a Senior Research Scientist at the Max Planck Institute who worked with DPPA’s Innovation Cell on developing Sparrow, said its application of Natural Language Processing (NLP) depends both on the availability of data and on sophisticated algorithms to make sense of it.
“We designed Sparrow as an instrument to help find the conversations on social media that are relevant to UN political analysts, and we now have the opportunity to start to make use of algorithms to make sense of all of those conversations,” Rutherford said. He added that the field has moved from believing that AI could take over complex tasks wholesale — an aspiration that inevitably led to frustration — to thinking about how machines can learn from humans so that the average non-technical user can understand how and when to rely on those same machines. “Sparrow is an example of how human domain experts, in this case UN Political Affairs Officers, can begin to trust and learn the tasks that these algorithms can assist them with,” he said.
Jean Charar, Political Affairs Officer in New York, uses Sparrow to help him fulfil the core function of his job — monitoring political developments in Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone and thematic issues like terrorism in West Africa and maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea. “Sparrow allows me to identify relevant key words and prominent social media stakeholders in countries under my purview. It supports targeted research and contributes to separating valuable information from information noise.” And Blanca Montejo and her team in DPPA’s Security Council Affairs Division use Sparrow to monitor Twitter conversations concerning all things related to the Security Council. “It has helped us gauge information needs of the membership and the public at large.”
As a UN Peace and Development Advisor in the South Caucasus, Oleh Protsyk supports the UN system in the region to effectively adapt and respond to complex political situations and identify areas for preventive action. He started using Sparrow to follow trends, identify important patterns, and discover non-obvious relationships. “We combine Sparrow with other analytical tools and conduct cross-platform analysis that broadens our perspective and allows us to capture voices from more diversified internet users,” Protsyk says, adding: “Social media analysis is an integral part of political analysis. It does not replace our engagement with local stakeholders, but rather makes our engagement more inclusive and diversified.”
The tool also helps monitoring of hate speech on social media. Early 2021, the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon (UNSCOL) in Beirut started monitoring traditional and social media to see if hate speech rhetoric, inflammatory or hostile language was becoming more prevalent. Pascale El Kassis, head of Public Information in UNSCOL, says that almost every day there are hashtags that are very negative: “It’s not always hate speech, but it’s language that could be conducive to violence or polarization.” Because of limited capacity, they decided to limit the social media monitoring to Twitter, the platform where Lebanese politicians are most active. “We’re not saying it’s exhaustive, but at least you get a feeling of the general climate in the country,” El Kassis explains, and adds that Sparrow has been helpful for UNSCOL’s daily media monitoring, because it helps direct their attention. “Even if it doesn’t provide you with all the information you need, it directs you towards the people with the most followers, to the tweets that are getting most noticed, and you see what kind of tweets are getting most noticed. It complements our own manual monitoring and reporting,” she said.
“Our initial aim was to build an automated ‘machine-led, human-assisted’ system,” Naoko Takahashi Taymanov, member of DPPA’s Innovation Cell, recounts. “But after testing multiple prototypes with DPPA staff members, both at headquarters and in the field, we saw that the expertise of Political Affairs Officers is irreplaceable. Machines cannot answer the questions of who is a ‘political’, ‘influential’, ‘young’, ‘woman leader’ in ‘Central Africa’”.
“That’s why we shifted our design strategy to be more ‘human-centered and machine-assisted’ instead,” Takahashi Taymanov said.
The use of social media is in flux, Waehlisch said. “Think about Clubhouse or TikTok as new platforms for political activism. The future of social media analytics will require us to equip ourselves with more sophisticated means to carry out complex analysis, and at DPPA we are trying all we can to stay up to speed with the world’s new digital realities.”
“Sparrow is not a perfect tool,” Takahashi Taymanov concluded. “We are expanding its functions gradually. We receive requests from various regions to support their social media analysis, and their purposes are very diverse. We are exploring and co-designing new solutions with colleagues. Sparrow can be an option, but it’s also okay if it’s not,” she adds. “We use technology, not the other way around.”