Social media metrics for good and evil

Walid Al-Saqaf (left) and TMS Ruge on stage at the Stockholm Internet ForumBy Larry Kilman

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

To his utter surprise, TMS “Teddy” Ruge found himself stripped naked on the stage.

Not literally naked. But what Walid Al-Saqaf did to him left him feeling that way.

Ruge, a technology innovator and global entrepreneur who was chairing a session at the Stockholm Internet Forum, was still wearing his clothes, but what was exposed was even more personal than a naked body. There, on stage before an audience of hundreds of civil society activists, was a deep, graphic look into his Twitter activity – a network diagram of his direct communications and interactions, a word cloud of his hashtags, even his tweet texts and how often they’re retweeted: in short, his interests and his influence.

“This data is open. Everyone is looking at it,” says Al Saqaf.

Al-Saqaf, a software developer, an Internet rights advocate, and a member of the Internet Society’s Board of Trustees, was demonstrating some of the metrics available through an open source tool called Mecodify, which makes it easier to visual and understand big data. The tool, developed to be used by a multi-university team of researchers as part of the Media, Conflict and Democratisation project, measures the usage of Twitter hashtags, retweets, subjects, images and links and compares real events with Twitter activity. It can be used to help identify influential tweeters and the extent of their networks (Watch the full presentation here, starting at the 59:20 mark).

Governments, particularly repressive governments, use this open data in surveillance of their citizens. But data can also be used for positive purposes; knowing who has influence and how to extend networks can help civil society activists make their advocacy more effective and identify issues of concern.

“If you don’t really understand how it works, then you’re losing opportunities,” Al-Saqaf says.

“But if you’re timing is right, you reach out to communities, and over time you begin to understand that any person, no matter how many followers they have, can make a difference.”

Al-Saqaf’s presentation at the event in Stockholm, organized by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), is both a cautionary tale and an opportunity to embrace technology in the pursuit of social development. “Technology is a conduit, it’s a neutral tool. You can use it for good or bad,” he says.

“Governments are taking advantage of the fact that advocates are unaware of these tools,” Al-Saqaf says.  “It’s impossible for anyone to hide anything nowadays. If you are going to go public you need to be aware.”

The presentation was timely. The Stockholm Internet Forum, which drew 500 participants from 90 countries, is dedicated to decreasing the digital divide. And while social media has become an integral part of civil society activism, it isn’t as developed as one might think.

In a survey of 4,900 non-governmental organizations in 153 countries, conducted for the 2017 NGO Online Technology Report, the vast majority of respondents said they have Facebook pages and Twitter profiles, by far the most popular platforms for NGOs.

But while NGOs recognize the importance of these platforms, there is little consensus on how to incorporate social media into the organization. Only one-third have a written social media strategy, and only 11 per cent  have a dedicated social media manager. Among the rest, there was wide disparity on where social media management was assigned: communications staff, administrative and program staff, executive staff, fundraising staff, even volunteers. Take your pick.

Clearly, NGOs aren’t quite sure where it all fits in. To get the most out of social media presence, there needs to be someone who understands the metrics and their implications, and, more importantly, how to analyze and use them to enhance messaging and make distribution more effective.

Mecodify is just one of many tools available to enhance understanding of social media – but these tools are useless unless organizations commit to making them central to strategy, and to developing the necessary skills to use them properly.

Larry Kilman (@larry_kilman) is an Assistant Professor of NGO Management at the American Graduate School in Paris and Associate Director for Communications for the London-based Institute for Media Strategy.  He is founder and editor of the NGO Blog, a knowledge resource for non-governmental organizations.

Photo: Walid Al-Saqaf (left) and TMS Ruge on stage at the Stockholm Internet Forum.

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