Last week, the French news agency AFP launched a web tool for “exploring the world of digital diplomacy” and The Electronic Intifada came out on top.
The “hub” visualizes, analyzes and measures the presence and influence of diplomatic actors on Twitter, across the globe and in real time
Driving the app is a database stocked with more than 4,000 individually-validated accounts spread across 120 countries, ranging from heads of state and ministers to experts, activists and politically-motivated hackers. Algorithms designed by AFP measure levels of influence for both states and individuals, and calculate which issues – represented by “hashtags” – are dominating the global conversation among digital diplomats.
Beating out official Israeli Twitter accounts
When the two lists for “Israel” and “West Bank and Gaza” are merged into a unified list, The Electronic Intifada surpasses all Israeli government and political accounts except for Benjamin Netanyahu and the State of Israel.
Notably, Palestinian former Knesset member Azmi Bishara is the second most influential person on the list. The top position is held by Didi Remez, an Israeli human rights activist and blogger, who is a reliable source of important news in Hebrew and English.
How were these rankings derived?
While these rankings appear to be derived empirically, the selection of “digital diplomats” is subjective and the algorithm for measuring influence is proprietary. There are also some obvious duplication and misidentification errors in the data. “Digital diplomats” from Palestine are divided between Israel and the West Bank and Gaza, and both of these lists include Israeli Jews, Palestinians and some who are neither.
Many noteworthy people and organizations who are active on Twitter for Palestine and Israel are absent. We know this because we avidly follow them and are influenced by them.
Nonetheless, Twitter is well-suited for this kind of survey and analysis. Facebook provides a variety of privacy controls over the various kinds of information it collects about users, which makes it difficult to measure influence of individual users or even to reliably see relationships between users.
Twitter and other services built on Twitter’s API offer many opportunities to extract data because the privacy controls are simpler. Relationships between users are transparent, conversations are usually public, and the reach and lifespan of individual tweets — qualities which may or may not be factors in AFP’s algorithm — are easy to track.
This survey does not directly measure the influence of The Electronic Intifada’s website or websites associated with other listed accounts. It only measures activity on Twitter.
There are some curiosities and errors in the data. A few Syrians are listed in the West Bank and Gaza. Salam Fayyad has two entries with different influence rankings. Many of the people or groups on the list who are neither Israeli nor Palestinian are also not necessarily based in the country or territory under which they are listed – but may be influential in discussions about it.
Palestinian citizens of Israel are inconsistently identified with Israel or the West Bank and Gaza. For these reason, we find the merged list to be a more useful way to understand the survey in terms of Palestine.
No influential Palestinians are “verified” by Twitter
In 2009, Twitter added a feature to their service called “verified accounts” which they say “helps users discover high-quality sources of information and trust that a legitimate source is authoring the account’s Tweets.”
Twitter proactively verifies accounts on an ongoing basis to make it easier for users to find who they’re looking for. We concentrate on highly sought users in music, acting, fashion, government, politics, religion, journalism, media, advertising, business, and other key interest areas. We verify business partners from time to time and individuals at high risk of impersonation.
None of the Palestinian accounts — even Azmi Bishara, the most influential Palestinian on Twitter — are verified while most Israeli government accounts are verified. During the last two flotillas to Gaza, we dealt with the problem of impersonation first hand when multiple fake accounts were created to disseminate false information.
One named LiveFlotilla even fooled some flotilla organizers, and when boats were being stopped by Greek authorities, this account was announcing that there was a change of plans and that the flotilla would travel to Syria.
Despite the high number of Palestinians on Twitter, we find it unfortunate that Twitter completely neglects to verify any Palestinian organization, politician, activist or writer. Official institutions such as the Palestinian National Authority Ministry of the Interior are not verified while the equivalent Israeli institution is verified.
AFP inappropriately editorializes on “illegal armed groups”
One innovation of the AFP’s database is that some Twitter accounts are identified as “illegal armed groups.” For the “conflicts” feature of the eDiplomacy tool, “Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian Hamas in Gaza [are] locked in an armed struggle with Israel.” AFP marks Hamas politburo spokesperson Izzat Risheq, Al Qassam Brigades, and Hamas as “illegal armed groups,” which seems very presumptuous given that Twitter does not deign to verify the authenticity of these accounts. There are multiple accounts impersonating some of these groups.
There is a question of who defines what is “legal” and “illegal” in the context of political conflict – Israel and states that support it have routinely outlawed any and all Palestinian political organizations, not necessarily only armed groups which may be engaging in internationally-sanctioned resistance against military occupation. At the same time many states maintain normal relations with Israeli state institutions which engage in large-scale violations of international human rights law, including war crimes or commit acts which would be described as “terrorism” if they were carried out by non-state groups.
Including Palestinian voices
Despite its flaws, the AFP survey is a welcome contrast to purely subjective, curated lists such as Foreign Policy magazine’s Twitterati 100 which completely exclude Palestinians and privilege outsider, non-native and Western voices. This year, Foreign Policy’s list was nearly 90% men with zero Palestinians. The categorization of the list puts North America at the center by omitting it as an explicit category, while every other continent and region was used to classify the selections.
The AFP list, while imperfect, provides a different angle.