Interview: Professor Mike McGuirk on How Brandwatch For Students is Used in His Classroom
By Olivia SwainSep 6
Social media has arguably transformed the news media industry more than any other, and at a whiplash pace.
The introduction of ever more detailed location data is set to shift that transformation into an even higher gear.
Adapting to the new digital landscape is now vital to survival and some, such as The Independent, are already performing better than others as our recent newspaper report showed.
Increasingly, social media is where we go for news, especially breaking news. And often it even is the news.
But most stories still originate out there in the ‘real world’. That’s why metadata is starting to play a big part how journalists discover, research and analyze their next big scoop.
Journalists have known for some time now that social media is a fantastic place to find breaking stories.
High-profile examples such as the Tahrir Square protests have made Twitter’s reputation as a source of real-time updates during these sorts of events, and other networks such as Instagram are starting to be used in a similar way, largely because of the richness of their location data.
In the last few years several anonymous messaging apps such as Whisper and Secret have emerged that seem almost designed for the world of gossip magazines and Silicon Valley speculation.
These come with HUGE warning labels for any self-respecting hack, of course.
The mischievousness of people who know they won’t be identified cannot be understated. But with location data attached they can still be valuable sources of information if journalists learn how to use them wisely.
“It helps give you the texture of how people feel” within specific communities, explains Nitasha Tiku of Gawker’s Valleywag. And after all, old fashioned sources haven’t always been completely reliable in any case.
These apps have uncovered some information that might never have seen the light of day such as the geotagged messages from soldiers in areas where the US military is active.
Only a few years ago, finding a witness for an unfolding newsworthy event involved sending a team to the scene as fast as possible – but now there are any number of people offering to share their side of the story, almost as soon as it has started happening.
As Philip Bump puts it in his article for NiemanLab: “Deadlines once drove news reporting; now, the deadline is often the moment something happens, and witnesses to a news event are almost always available instantaneously on social media.”
The only problem of course is these ‘witnesses’ could be anywhere in reality, watching the same news feed as everyone else and making the rest up.
This is where location data can help sort the fraudsters from the real deal.
Instagram, with its original opt-out policy, is one of the best sources of at-the-scene witnesses (and pictures are harder to fake than just saying ‘I’m at the scene’) but Twitter, if enough people opt-in to geotagging, has the potential to completely change the game.
Everyone loves a good map. They’re a quick and visually engaging way to tell a story, especially one that has spread across countries or the world.
With a little extra interrogation of the data, maps can begin to uncover important trends and subplots.
For example, when tracking political discussions in the build up to an election. Or, as the great team over at Mapbox did, categorizing Tweets in Ferguson, Missouri during the protests there last year as either locals or visitors by looking at previous location data from the same users.
One of the most powerful early uses of location data was The Guardian’s analysis in the aftermath of the ‘Tottenham riots’ of 2011, which social media helped spread to quickly become what was known as the ‘UK riots’.
Location data allowed them to compare where people were supporting or damning the actions of those involved. They were also able to show that people were travelling long distances to join the riots (or protests, depending on your point of view) in urban areas across the country.
All on a very clickable interactive map. Remember: everyone loves a good map, especially an interactive map.
By mixing social data with other sources they were able to go one step further.
One of the main arguments made by the government at the time was that the rioting was unconnected to poverty (specifically poverty affected by austerity measures). The Guardian’s conclusion was that in fact the places where looting and vandalism was happening correlated strongly with the more deprived areas of the country.
With the right context, location data is making social listening smarter, giving us the ability to tie the insights and information gained from the millions of online conversations to current events in the physical world.