Chris McNaboe knows his Syrian opposition armed groups.
For the current conflict, he can tell you exactly when a particular brigade formed from previously separate battalions around Aleppo, Syria; how many people are in the brigade; their reason for forming; and what weapons they have.
The primary source for this top-level insider info? Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
"For a very long time people said, 'We don't know who the opposition is. We have no idea,'" said McNaboe, who works in the Carter Center's Conflict Resolution Program. "But the truth is, the opposition groups have active public relations. Each group maintains a very strong online presence. We see Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and YouTube accounts where they advertise their strengths and show off their accomplishments day to day."
McNaboe extracts this online data to draw a sophisticated, conceptual map showing the connections among and evolution of armed groups. By documenting and analyzing this information, he is able to understand the players and structure of opposition groups in Syria.
"We're drawing upon citizen journalism. By having that many primary sources - people pointing their camera phones at events on the ground - you can triangulate some sort of a truth from the chaos of data," said McNaboe.
Initially, the goal of the Syria conflict mapping project was to provide information to neutral parties working toward a peaceful end to the crisis. Today, the project has expanded in scope to include providing information to organizations that assist with the distribution of humanitarian aid through a new partnership with Palantir Technologies. The aim is for the Center to provide information about armed groups and opposition power structures in each region of Syria to the humanitarian organizations that operate in those regions, allowing them to work safely in a fragile area.
The Center is among the first to use social media mining for the Syrian conflict in such a comprehensive way and, as a nongovernmental organization, is uniquely positioned to use the information to help push for a more nuanced and well-rounded outcome.
"This project not only enables us to respond better to the Syrian crisis, but will enable us to respond to future conflicts," said McNaboe. "Really, the question is why limit it to Syria?"