The Duck of Minerva

Do the ‘Securitweebs’ matter?: Between Facts and Snark

23 May 2011

Brian C. Rathbun now has 64 twitter followers!

Co-authored by Stephanie Carvin and Ben O’Loughlin

This article is about the twitter community who post content about human security or security in a non–traditional context – not just tanks and strategy but natural disaster relief, post-conflict reconstruction, low level political violence, and all the law and politics surrounding these issues.

So far as we can tell, this community seems to share the following characteristics:

  • They are a mix of journalists, think tankers, academics, NGO staff, and students.
  • While they frequently link to articles on traditional media websites, they frequently produce their own content, whether that is academic research, op-eds, or ‘reputable’ blog posts.
  • Although anyone may have a twitter account, and it may be seen as an equalizer, these individuals seem to have ‘elite’ qualifications. They seem to have skills (languages), experiences (military, conflict zones, journalism) or qualifications (graduate education). They are engaged with research and researchers.
  • They follow each other on twitter and engage with each other, forming a dense network. They often re-tweet each other’s links.
  • The perspective is often US-centric but inflected with international experiences and views.
  • The politics tends towards the centre-left on US terms or centre in Europe, but recent disagreement over whether to intervene in Libya shows there is no soggy consensus.
  • The content combines expertise, news, and a high degree of snark.

Taken together, this is the community of Securitweebs.

Two things made us write this article. A few weeks ago Stephanie posted a request for information about NGOs and landmines in the 1980s and got back really useful information from several tweeters, including @theHALOTrust – who also put her into contact with other organizations. Meanwhile down the hall, Ben was putting together a talk about how to identify and map ‘influencers’ in social media in order to shape what narrative spreads about Afghanistan or Syria. Is it possible to influence the narrative spreading among the Securitweebs? And can the Securitweebs as a whole control the narrative spreading beyond? There are nodal players within the Securitweebs, but the Securitweebs are a node within international public affairs.

The Securitweebs are an epistemic community: a network of experts who produce what counts as the truth about an issue. Mainstream media will come to them when the issue becomes a breaking story. Policymakers may solicit their leading figures of the moment, who will channel the collective wisdom of the network (and Tweet back to the network while being consulted, in close to real time, possibly adding a snarky comment).

Epistemic communities have long existed. What difference does existence through Twitter make? It is too soon to tell, but we would present a few observations:

  • Posting a question and receiving useful Tweets back makes it easy to survey a field, find hard-to-locate information, or even find new possibilities for collaboration. This is expertise harnessing crowd wisdom.
  • In addition, the network effects mean the connectivity of the most followed make it possible for anyone to produce content that becomes widely disseminated very quickly.
  • However, there is the obvious danger of groupthink; there is a consistent style and perspective as well as a shared interest, and that style and perspective is likely to attract the like-minded.
  • It’s interesting to conceive of how “nodes” work in this network. While there are many with thousands of followers (@abumuqawama and @afpackchannel for example), there are others with only a few hundred – but are well connected enough that their tweets, when picked up by this dense network, may have a substantial impact. Does this mean the network is essentially a multiplier?

Does the Securitweeb network differ from other communities? Do Securitweebs engage in more self-promotion than, say, the experts Tweeting about climate science? Does the level of political literacy or historical awareness or systemic sexual promiscuity differ from levels in the development community? Does the Securitweeb have more influence over security policy than Economistweebs do over taxing and spending? How does this network differ from a network about cupcake enthusiasts?

So what do Duck Readers think about this interpretation of the discussion of security/human security in the twittersphere? +1 or #fail?

@Ben_OLoughlin @StephanieCarvin