Syrian social media study reveals demarcation between secular groups

 
 

Derek O’Callaghan of the UCD School of Computer Science and Informatics has released initial interpretations of the three years of data collected while studying the use of social media during the Syrian conflict, with his findings revealing that many factions exist in the conflict, each with an agenda specific to their personal cause.

O’Callaghan and his team explored the use of social media by two distinct sides in the conflict, however, the findings showed a far more convoluted trend.

The international team of researchers, led by O’Callaghan, studied more than 600 Twitter accounts and 14,000 YouTube channels linked with the conflicts in Syria. The study began in 2011 with the expectation of finding two parties with which they expected to draw parallels between other two-party conflicts, such as the Republicans and Democrats in the US and the Islamists and secularists in Egypt.

Research eventually revealed that four distinct groups exist within the conflict. Each group was made up of smaller communities all focused on one common side or area of the conflict. Their use of social media reflected only their view: publishing photos, videos and links representing one aspect of the conflict.

In addition, the four groups targeted very specific audiences through both language and content.

Their findings showed that the moderate opposition and the radical Islamists shared the largest social media presence. These two groups differed hugely in the coverage of the conflict, painting entirely different pictures of the events on the ground on Syria.

The Islamist accounts featured photographs of “weaponry and attacks, also close-ups of ‘martyred’ fighters and a small number of individuals holding up severed human heads,” according to the authors of the study. This group, who mostly communicated through Arabic, targeted local and regional audiences.

In contrast, the moderate opposition’s feeds were in English and aimed at a worldwide audience in order to draw international attention to the conflict. This was seen most notably in the 24 hours following the August gas attacks in Damascus.

More than 440 videos of the consequences of the attacks were uploaded immediately, trying to command the wider world to focus on the problems in Syria.

Complementing the powerful presence of the Islamists and moderate opposition on social media, O’Callaghan’s group also discovered a notable input from a group portraying the war from a Kurdish perspective and a small active community portraying the current government’s view of the war.

As their study continues, the authors state that they hope to engage in “further analysis of these groups, with a view to monitoring the flux in group structure and ideology.”

Their study to date has captured the trends of more than 1.7 million tweets relating to the Syrian conflict, highlighting the many factions within its society.

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