Promise and Concern: The Future of Social Media and Real-Time Awareness

On Feb. 3, 2012, the U.S. State Department hosted its eighth conference in the Tech@State series. The two-day symposium focused on how social media and other internet-enabled data streams are used to create real-time awareness in different contexts, with sessions looking at analyzing large amounts of data, enhancing the understanding of consumer behavior, and live-mapping crisis situations.

One particularly interesting panel focused on the future of social media and real-time awareness, not only for individuals, but for a society that is still learning to deal with developments in social media, communication technologies and crowdsourced information. The speakers discussed how this pervasive technology could aid in real-time awareness, but also raised legitimate concerns about impacts on security and privacy.

Panelist Lou Martinage, with business intelligence firm MicroStrategy, offered the perspective of the private sector, focusing on how social media can be mined for real-time information on consumer preferences and behavior. Martinage described how MicroStrategy works with its clients to dig into the vast amounts of data available in the digital communication sphere, aggregate and analyze the information, and derive insights that can help the companies better address their customers’ needs.

For the past few years, MicroStrategy has been honing in on the potential of Facebook and the valuable consumer data that can be accessed through the platform. For Martinage, the primary use of Facebook is in the field of sentiment monitoring. In other words, Facebook is a spectacular tool for obtaining information on how consumers feel about a company’s product, allowing businesses to personalize marketing and commerce through promotions and offers, he said.

Martinage says the culmination of this effort can be seen in a MicroStrategy application called Wisdom, which allows companies to analyze massive amounts of data to identify trends, gauge consumer confidence, and answer questions about market perception of a product or brand.

Others looked at the potential “dark side” of social media. Rand Waltzman, with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, pointed out that “as more life takes place in the network public sphere, the more good and bad things will happen,” highlighting privacy and national security concerns in particular. One of his main fears is the ease with which individuals can disseminate false or harmful information through the very same technologies that aid in real-time awareness and disaster relief.

For example, Waltzman cited Operation Valhalla in Iraq, where American troops succeeded in rescuing a hostage and confiscating weapons from a terrorist group, killing 16 members of the group in the process. However, before the troops had returned to their base, other members  of the terrorist organization swooped in and rearranged the bodies onto prayer mats, took a picture using a mobile phone, and uploaded it to the social media space — making it look like Americans had killed unarmed civilians in the middle of prayer.

Waltzman’s concern lies in the fact that the information can reach a large number of people before the damage can actually be addressed and the false information refuted. The speed at which the internet moves is light years ahead of our capacities to monitor the information available, he said.

Unfortunately, Waltzman added, social media and the internet is an environment filled with contradiction: One can attempt to protect their own privacy, but has a very limited ability to control what others may say about them. In the end, Waltzman said, the positive aspects of social media can easily be perverted, and we need to tackle the policies that are preventing us from better addressing these issues.

While Waltzman’s comments deserve serious consideration, the panel did end on a hopeful note, with the words of Patrick Meier, of the Ushahidi Project. Ushahidi is a platform that allows for the crowdsourcing of information through Twitter, SMS text messages, and other internet sources onto a live map that allows for real-time crisis-mapping. The success of Ushahidi in crises situations, such as the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and the Arab Spring uprisings, has brought the social media and emergency management community’s attention to its potential. The project is a prime example of crowdsourcing working to increase situational awareness in crisis situations.

Meier brought the audience’s attention to the needs of volunteers in crisis situations. Ushahidi currently does much manual crowdsourcing in real time, but developments in machine learning and natural language processing are allowing algorithms to do more work separating valuable information from useless information in the stream of text messages and tweets. Meier’s outlook is very positive, and he has given great thought to issues arising from credibility of information.

Overall, the mood at the conference was one of endless possibilities. Nonetheless, Waltzman raised valid concerns regarding privacy and security in the growing, interconnected network that is the internet. And while Meier and Martinage point out the immense potential for real-time awareness, we must not forget that there are very legitimate concerns that need to be addressed before these technologies can truly permeate every level of our society.

About the author

Luisa Castellanos is a research assistant in the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Luisa is also a junior at Georgetown University pursuing a B.S. in Foreign Service in Science, Technology and International Affairs with a concentration in Energy and Environment. She is a native of Brazil and is interested in energy security and renewables, as well as using new means of communication to shape science and technology policy.


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