|George Gallup –
what have you started?
The traditional methods for a state to know what overseas publics are thinking are changing. Instead of relying on your embassy staff’s alertness, your spies’ intelligence and the word of dissidents, we’re reaching the point where foreign policymakers can constantly monitor public opinion in countries in real-time. The digitization of social life around the world – uneven yes, but spreading – leaves ever-more traces of communications to be mined, analysed and acted upon. In a paper that Nick Anstead and I presented in Iceland this week, we called this ‘semantic polling’, and we considered the ethical, political and practical questions it raises.
Semantic polling refers to the use of algorithms and natural language processing to “read” vast datasets of public commentary harvested from the Internet, which can be disaggregated, analysed in close-to-real-time, and which can then inform policy. It can give a general representation of public opinion, or very granular representations of the opinion and behaviour of specific groups and networks. Multi-lingual processing across different media platforms is now possible. Companies already provide this service to pollsters and parties in domestic campaigns, and NGOs make use of it for disaster response monitoring. Given how public diplomacy has adopted many techniques of the permanent campaign, it will be no surprise to see semantic polling become part of the foreign policy toolkit.
The semantic web is the standardization of protocols so that everything on the web becomes machine-readable. This means semantic polling is about more than reading social media data. In principle, our shopping, driving, social media, geolocation and other data are all searchable and analyzable. It is only a matter of computing power and integration of data streams for this method to profile to the individual behavioural level. This also enables predictive engagement: if Amazon thinks it knows what you want, then a state, with access to more data streams, might be use semantic polling and think it knows who will support an uprising and who will not.
Ethically, do people around the world know their tweets, public facebook data and comments on news blogs are being used to build a picture of their opinion? How should journalists report on this when it happens? Politically, how will states and NGOs use semantic polling before, during and after crises and interventions? Is it predictive, valid and reliable? Will semantic polling’s real-time nature further intensify the pressures on policymakers, since the performance, credibility and legitimacy of their policies can be visualized as they are enacted? Will publics resist and find ways to circumvent it? And given that it is barely regulated at the domestic level, how could or should it be policed in international affairs?
When we thought of this paper it seemed a little bit like an exercise in science fiction, but interviews with the companies, pollsters and social scientists driving this has convinced us this is developing quickly. Our political science audience in Iceland seemed positive about this – semantic polling offers relatively cheap, unobstrusive and ‘natural’ data that might provide insights into human behaviour existing methods cannot give. Perhaps a good first step would be for people around the world to understand how semantic polling works, so they can decide what they think about it, since it is their lives that are being monitored.
This is not my usual forte – Charli is much better on NGOs, networks and social things. (I just like tweeting.) However, last night when I checked my twitter, a fairly odd message came up from the American Red Cross:
Slightly different from their usual “please donate blood” or “how are you preparing for the blizzard?” kind of emails.
Within an hour, the tweet was withdrawn and replaced with this:
Colour me impressed. A 130 year old humanitarian agency with a sense of humour.
However, I’m drawing attention to the story because yesterday was also the day the ARC released research it has done (in infographic form!) as to how social networking might be used in an emergency. 28% of respondents noted that they would use social networking to let people know they were safe.
It might sound laughable, but after having gone through 7/7 and 21/7 – when mobile networks were completely down, I had to rely on email to find out what had happened to friends and family. I have to say that I would certainly have used facebook and twitter in that situation. And I would have preferred to follow the situation on twitter rather than waiting for press conferences. (Although that just might be me.) So the question is should humanitarian organizations do the same? Should they both gather information from social networks and disseminate it this way as well?
I’m not entirely sure what the risks are – is it that getting a clear picture would be difficult? How to tell the real tweets from the fake ones? What about people (like my parents) who don’t know what a “twitter” is? Would they be disadvantaged by such a turn? Without much background on the subject, I’m going to work with the idea that for now the use of social networking in disasters/crises would be best understood as complementary rather than replacing other services.
However, the infographic provides a really interesting collection of facts and figures related to how social networking has been used in the past and gives us an indication as to how it might be used in the future, other than the promotion of #gettngslizzerd. It also notes the number of emergency response organizations that have twitter accounts.
As for the unfortunate tweet, the Red Cross has given its side of the story here – noting that its members are only human. This is true; however I would add that after working with them recently on a project, they are some really good humans who do an impressive array of work.
I’ll have more to say about the ISA conference in a few upcoming posts, but let me begin with some comments on the host city. ISA was held in New Orleans, in part, to provide a lift for the city after Hurricane Katrina five years ago. Somewhere around 5,000 folks descended on the city with cash in hand to help the local economy. The conference started the day after Mardi Gras and came less than two weeks after the Saints’ Super Bowl victory. A lot of locals commented that the previous two weeks really were the best two weeks for the city in years. Indeed, walking around the French Quarter, it was easy to forget about Katrina.
But, I joined Leslie Vinjamuri, Stephen Hopgood,and Lise Howard for the Grey Line bus company’s Katrina tour (check out the video in the link). It’s a bit uncomfortable being a “disaster tourist,” but all four of us have done work on humanitarian relief and recovery, post-conflict transitions, and state building in other countries. It was eye-opening to see similarities here in a US city to many of the things we study abroad.
The city still bears serious scars of the disaster. Five years after the hurricane, there remains extensive devastation (abandoned and heavily damaged houses and businesses) and limited rebuilding in parts of New Orleans (notably the lower 9th Ward). I have traveled and worked extensively in the Balkans over the past fifteen years. There was less lasting devastation and more rebuilding in Sarajevo and even in Mostar by 2000 (five years after the war) than there is in the poorer districts of New Orleans five years after Katrina — though neither Sarajevo nor Mostar were picnics.
Whether its disaster recovery or post-conflict reconstruction, the story is really how to go about building institutional capacity to create appropriate incentives for populations to return, to alleviate poverty and develop mechanisms to ensure a base-level distribution of wealth, to facilitate functioning (and functional) markets, and to establish conditions for local communities to govern and adjudicate competing claims on authority. In New Orleans, there is a still a significant lag in all of these. About one-third of the city’s pre-Katrina population left and likely will not return, poverty is rampant, property rights remain in flux, institutional mechanisms to encourage and protect investments are absent (i.e., available credit and sufficient insurance pools against catastrophic loss), and economic development and employment opportunities are largely stalled.
I don’t want to overstate the parallels between post-Katrina New Orleans and cases of post-conflict transition (there are significant differences) but I think New Orleans is worth a closer look for anyone working on international cases of reconstruction, development, and state-building.