Assessing the Credibility of Social Media Sources

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Published on: September 3rd, 2012

Knowledge Exchange Between Human Rights Practitioners and Junior Scholars

From Flickr creative commons by WITNESS.org courtesy of Måns Adler, Co-founder of Bambuser.

Human rights organizations rely vitally on information for their work of stopping violations through exposure and associated moral outrage.  Yet information concerning these violations is often highly contested, containing contradictory accounts from victims, violators, witnesses, and other interested parties; this confusion is exacerbated in the fog of widespread political and social conflict.  Traditionally, human rights organizations have relied on long established, tried-and-tested personal relationships with local informants to navigate to a version of events they believe is the truth.

The rise of social media has, however, complicated this route.  On the one hand, social media – and the anonymity they afford – allow the victims and witnesses who previously would have stayed silent out of fear or distance to report violations to human rights organizations.  They also provide these organizations with new avenues for tracking situations as they unfold, like the Twitter feeds belonging to residents of the besieged Syrian city of Homs or the ‘narco-blogs’ that serve as online gathering-points for information on the drugs war in Mexico.

On the other hand, the increase in volume of information on human rights violations is correlated with a decrease in its verifiability.  It takes time to establish the personal identity of social media sources not already embedded in human rights organizations’ existing networks.  For some online sources, anonymity is a condition of the information, so their embodied identities (as opposed to their online ones) may never be verified.  A significant challenge, therefore, for these organizations’ use of information transmitted over social media is the difficulty of assessing the credibility of its sources.

For this project, I will engage with human rights organizations to understand how they evaluate information they receive via social media, particularly with respect to its credibility.  In what ways are they able to triangulate this information with online and offline networks?  How do they indentify imposters?  How do they overcome the problems anonymity poses for assessing credibility?  What influences their credibility thresholds for these sources?  Because human rights organizations deal with such contentious events and because the stakes are high in establishing the accounts of these events, I anticipate that they are among the most expert sectors in society at establishing source credibility.

Assessing sources is also a vital skill for academics, and one they build on with experience over the length of their careers.  It is most important, however, to lay the foundation of these skills at an early stage, as research cannot exist without sources.  Social media sources are as new for academics as they are for activists, and scholars studying contemporary political and social change narrated via social media face similar challenges to those outlined above for human rights organizations.  No matter whether their ontological bent leads them to favour a single account or derive interest from a variety of versions, all scholars will benefit from knowledge exchange with these organizations on how to, at its essence, uncover more about the motivations and identities of social media sources.

This project will facilitate knowledge exchange between human rights practitioners and junior scholars via a collaborative workshop.  It will also produce a multimedia toolkit for the SMKE website on best practices for the credibility evaluation of social media sources.  A further aim is to build a network between and amongst the two groups for ongoing knowledge exchange, whether about social media practices or about human rights research and advocacy.

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