Want to predict a revolution? Pay attention to the news

By Jill Oviatt

With every new headline filled with angst about the end of traditional journalism, comes another powerful reason that there is still a place for it. Reading Kalev Leetaru’s article Culturomics 2.0: Forecasting large–scale human behavior using global news media tone in time and space, I kept swaying between how fascinating it was, and yet how obvious. Journalists by the nature of their job, spot trends, identify stories, and then communicate them to the public via print articles, radio broadcasts, and television reports. It seems evident that by analyzing the various news reports that one could discover increasing negativity in a community, city, or country that eventually leads to unrest.

What’s fascinating is that this is so rarely done at a local level, let alone at the international level, whether for a city, neighborhood, university, or even within a family. Signs of negativity and growing discontent are often present, yet not documented, tracked, or viewed overtime to be able to measure any increase or decrease. In that sense, using data from reports that at their essence are meant to track trends and report on sentiment is a brilliant – even if evident – way to predict public sentiment and potential crisis.

Leetaru writes, “Monitoring these qualitative aspects of news coverage provides substantial benefits over the traditional quantitative political science event database approach. An event database can only capture that a bombing took place, but a church bombing in one country might result only in condemnations, while in another it might push it over the edge to revolt. Measuring the global news tone essentially conducts a passive “poll” of the press across the world, summarizing their combined views on the likely outcome of the event, recording whether a bombing results in only a few isolated factual reports, or widespread extreme negativity.”

In an article by Noah Shachtman in Wired Magazine, he quotes a former U.S. admiral as saying “Local newspapers can give more insight into foreign politics than wiretapped calls. I spend a lot of time watching TV because — if you think about it — it’s the best intelligence network in the world.”

Leetaru’s study dealt purely with news monitoring. It would be interesting to see what happens when you add social media to the mix. With tools allowing you to track some Facebook posts and much of Twitter activity, it would be valuable to do a similar study to identify whether monitoring tone on these platforms introduced too much “noise” or in fact made trends even more clear.

One of the news monitoring sources Leetaru refers to, theForeign Broadcast Information Service, later became the Open Source Center, and is a key intelligence gathering tool for the CIA. They are reported to track social media “chatter.” In are article by Dan Rowinski in ReadWriteWeb, he claims that by monitoring Facebook and Twitter analysts at the Center “correctly predicted the Arab Spring that came to Egypt and Tunisia this year. Essentially, the CIA is using social media to predict where groundswell will turn into real action and follow breaking trends and news.”

When I went to explore the site myself, I discovered that the Open Source Center isn’t really that open. Accounts are only available to “US federal, state and local government employees and contractors” with homeland security duties. So much for “open source.”

Leetaru used content monitored through Summary of World Broadcasts (SWB) for this particular study on tone. Now, with Internet–based news displacing print and broadcast to represent 46 percent of all content monitored globally by the service last year, one can imagine that it won’t be long before the average person with access to tonality identification tools, which many companies now have, will be able to do what sophisticated intelligence services have been trying to do for years.

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