Social Media in the Middle East: Who Can You Trust?

BY Colleen Shalby  November 16, 2012 at 11:00 AM EST

Editor’s note: Tweets embedded to illustrate Andy Carvin’s answers.

As violence in Israel and Gaza escalates, Twitter offers a constant flood of eye-witness coverage on the rising tension.

Andy Carvin, NPR’s senior strategist for social media, has an in-depth Twitter timeline of the uptick in violence that includes citizen journalists’ and foreign correspondents’ tweets. He joined us by phone from Istanbul to discuss how he differentiates reality from fabrication on Twitter and what impact social media has had on sensitive circumstances as this.

When you’re following events like this on Twitter and social media, how do you deem someone a reputable source?

A lot of the people that I’ve been re-tweeting are people I’ve been following for a year or eighteen months. I’ve built up a number of Twitter lists related to the Arab world. Some of those people I’m following in Gaza and the Middle East in general are just people I’ve vetted over time.

In Israel’s case, I have a somewhat smaller collection of people I’ve been following that are in relevant parts of Israel where the rockets have been hitting. I’ve been using proximity searches on Twitter to identify sources there.

When you do a proximity search on Twitter, it identifies geo-located tweets from a certain region. I’m using those tweets depending on what they include. For example if they include a photo, I do a Google image search first to make sure the photo hasn’t been rehashed from somewhere else.

And in other cases I try to find people who are in conversations with other people nearby. A conversation in midstream generally tends to raise chances of authenticity for a tweet.

How can you be sure that a photo hasn’t been altered?

It’s often pretty obvious when someone has done Photoshop since most people aren’t very good at it. Google Image search or TinEye, will show if the photo has been recycled from somewhere previously. Just a few hours ago, I saw a tweet from Israel claiming they had found a piece of a rocket in their yard. Well, I found that photo on a website from 2009. So, that certainly raises some serious doubts about that person’s credibility.

The Israel Defense Forces have been extremely active on Twitter. How has their social media presence affected this situation?

It’s been fascinating because I’m not aware of any other circumstance where a military heat has used Twitter for its own promotional and propaganda purposes during the time of an actual military engagement. It’s been fascinating seeing what they’re choosing to tweet because it seems to be a combination of just passing along what they claim are facts.

In other cases, they seem to be chest thumping. When they posted a photo of the Hamas leader they assassinated yesterday, it was basically done as a “most wanted” sign crossed out.

They’ve had other images they’ve posted that clearly are intended to tap into the population’s feelings against Hamas and Gaza in general. I don’t think they’re even acknowledging that the other side exists. There’s a brigade that the Hamas leader was in charge of. They have a Twitter account that they’ve tweeted several times in response to the IDF account, but I think the IDF folks are making a choice to basically ignore it. They’re tying to control the conversation rather than letting the conversation control them.

There’s no sign of them slowing down [on Twitter] since they’ve been tweeting non-stop for the last day or so. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what they hope to be accomplish because like I said, it seems like a mix of information that you might receive at a press conference and then other pieces of photo and video that seem to be bragging and mocking Hamas. So it’s a bit of psychological warfare.