Online crisis mapping system Syria Tracker has
revealed that citizen journalism is the most prominent source of
news coming out of the ongoing conflict.
The humanitarian tool, which has been crowdsourcing words,
photos and videos to deliver a real time map of the crisis since 2011, scoured some 160,000 new reports and social
media updates and used complex data mining to come to this
conclusion for Index on
Censorship, a global organisation that fights for freedom of
expressions. It found that ordinary people were providing more
viable information than traditional media across every region of
Syria, bar Homs (where much of the violence has centred).
The report is not particularly surprising, but is indicative of
why good internet connectivity in remote regions is key to the
public gaining a voice. International journalists will more often
than not focus on urban hubs of conflict where, although their
safety is still in jeopardy, they do not need to traverse into
remote regions, crossing checkpoints possibly under the control of
hugely paranoid militants or military — either of which may not
trust a foreign traveller or journalist.
Syria Tracker only analyses data it can verify, which amounts to
about 6 percent of the total information is sources from 2,000 news
sources and millions of social media updates — it has geotagged
4,000 verified eyewitness reports to date. Data mining is the
speedy part — Syria Tracker goes to great lengths to manually
check any stats it publishes for authenticity. But from this it can
provide insights traditional media may not. For instance, Index on
Censorship highlights the numbers of female deaths recorded in the
country since the conflict began in 2011. At that time, the figures
totalled one percent of related deaths, but that figure rose
unexpectedly to 18 percent according to Syria Tracker’s
information. Given military and rebel fighters tend to be men,
Vicky Baker, Index on Censorship’s deputy editor, says we can
extract from this that at some point “citizens became targeted and
were not collateral damage”. The conflict had changed.
“This data analysis has also shown that children make up 11 per
cent of all documented killings in Syria — with reports suggesting
they have been targeted while at school, at home and while waiting
in bread lines.”
These are the kinds of figures regimes would no doubt want
hidden from the public, and the kinds of figures that traditional
media would not have access to.
Syria Tracker obviously goes to great lengths to ensure its data
is centred on authentic reportage. And the people that make up
those new reports showing the truth of brutalities, of conflicts
that go on out of the public eye, risk their lives everyday. In
February 2012, the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of
Expression in Damascus was raided and bloggers were arrested in the
flurry. The dangers are ever present. However, the Index of
Censorship report may be missing one key factor.
Social media updates by far outweigh news reports in number, and
the reliability of these is far harder to check. As the report
states, just 6 percent of the data Syria Tracker receives go into
the end result, but it would be an uphill battle to cancel out all
the white noise a conflict like this is rife with.
During the 2012 conflict, both Israeli and Palestinian sides
used social media as something of a public relations tool, with
both sides critiqued for spreading miss-information at one time or
another. On top of this, several photos posted to Twitter were
picked apart and eventually found to be either unrelated to the
ongoing conflict or images from previous conflicts. Some of the
most obvious examples were picked out as soon as the retweets
exploded in number. But this will not always be the case, and picking apart the PR and misinformation from millions of
tweets, will never be an easy feat.