News:  Lebanon News  |  Syria News  |  Palestine News  |  Jordan News Français | العربية

Articles

 
Discussing democracy, human rights in digital age
September 12, 2017
Author: Federica Marsi
Source: The Daily Star
 
Is there a technology that captures, in real time, how people think and feel about any topic? This was the thought-provoking question Jazem Halioui, the Tunisian founder of the tech startup WebRadar, opened his presentation at AUB’s Issam Fares Institute with Tuesday [September 5, 2017]. Halioui was one of three speakers at this year’s Tech4Freedom conference, organized in collaboration with the Samir Kassir Foundation, under the title “Democracy and Human Rights in the Digital Age.”
Halioui set out to gauge the thoughts and feelings of large segments of a population in real time when he founded WebRadar in 2013. The following year, the platform predicted the outcome of the Tunisian legislative elections with a razor-thin margin of error, with a better forecast than two of the three major Tunisian polling agencies.
He said the secret behind the success was “sentiment analysis” – a system using algorithms to decipher the mood of a discussion by analyzing the connotation of the words used.
WebRadar collects social media content associated with the topic they are examining, analyzes the language and emotional connotations used and ultimately translates it into quantitative data based on emotions.
The platform bases itself on what Halioui defined as a simple rule of human psychology. “Emotion is the greatest driver of behavior.”
He added that “the unconscious nature of emotion is [in turn] what makes behavior unpredictable.”
Halioui described social media content as highly based on emotions and, therefore the best indicator of future behavior.
Classic polling techniques employ questionnaires and phone interviews, which are less likely to grasp hidden preferences or political ideas that the interviewees are not comfortable in sharing.
WebRadar counts among its clients a number of brands interested in gauging customer satisfaction, as well as the British government and the World Bank.
“We are aiming to launch WebRadar in Lebanon at the beginning of 2018,” Halioui told The Daily Star following the event, adding that no plan had yet been made on how the technology will be used, or by whom.
Halioui did not deny that such technology could potentially lead politicians to capitalize on emotions rather than invest in virtuous political strategies. “Like all powerful technologies, it has its risks,” Halioui said, adding that flipsides are an integral part of scientific and technological evolution.
Such alternative uses of modern technology include the ability of terrorist organizations to communicate at an unprecedented speed across a large number of countries.
Apps such as Twitter and WhatsApp have been heavily exploited by radical groups, leading some companies to shut down thousands of linked or supportive accounts.
Claudia Wagner, researcher and deputy director of the Tech Against Terrorism Project and the second speaker at the conference, described this process as futile, given that extremist groups were able to simply switch devices to the services of Telegram and other alternative communication tools to circumvent account crackdowns.
Bigger companies are able to readapt their normative framework and crack down on undesirable users, while grass-roots startups are, according to Wagner, the most vulnerable to exploitation.
The Tech Against Terrorism project, under the mandate of the U.N. Security Council, implemented by the ICT4Peace Foundation and United Nations Counterterrorism Executive Directorate, aims at making the technical knowhow available to digital actors.
“We are trying to build a community [that bridges] international tech companies so that they can help each other share best practices,” Wagner said. “This is most effective counter action to terrorism [online].”
The project is the outcome of more than 12 months of research on the ways terrorist cells use new technologies for the purpose of recruiting and propaganda.
The research is ongoing and will be fed with new information as companies share their experiences and difficulties on the platform, providing its funders with the means to keep track of the tools and tactics used by terrorist groups.
“We need to make sure solutions are coming up and we keep evolving as these technologies develop,” Wagner said.
The ICT4Peace Foundation will conduct a workshop in Beirut Wednesday to train a number of members of Lebanese startups and involve them in the community.
Participants who adopt this will gain a “trust mark,” or a certification that attests to their efforts in combatting terrorist activities.
Similarly, the Georgia-based organization ELVA Community Engagement is also using innovative technologies in order to help curb human rights abuses.
The third conference speaker, ELVA’s founder and Director Jonne Catshoek, first came up with the idea of an online platform that tracks human rights violations in real time to monitor security incidents in Russia, through a blend of technology and human intervention.
“It is important to build trust with the users in order to lead them to report potentially sensitive information,” Catshoek said.
ELVA, therefore, employs teams on the ground who are tasked with explaining to local communities the importance of reporting human rights abuses.
In order for the project to be successful, however, follow-up action is necessary. “I would not elicit information from people unless you can give something back,” Catshoek said, adding that places such as Syria and Yemen, where immediate action against the perpetrators cannot be guaranteed, are not the ideal setting for the platform.
While ELVA is not yet operative in Lebanon, Catshoek did not exclude a possible presence in the country in future.
“It is a concept that can be taken and applied many contexts,” he said. “I would love to test it here.”