Oct 1, 2014 · 3 minutes

In 2009, it felt as if Twitter was on the cusp of becoming a real agent of social change.

Following the reelection of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iranians took to the streets to protest what many felt was a fixed election. The window into this conflict for much of the Western world was Twitter, which protesters used to communicate with one another and share their experiences and opinions. The notion that Twitter would help organize and thus democratize oppressive societies became so pervasive that it inspired Malcolm "I-know-something-you-don't" Gladwell to write the definitive contrarian takedown of this view, subtitled, "The revolution will not be tweeted."

While many thought leaders and other members of the digerati scoffed at Gladwell's assessment, time has proven him right in some respects. A look back at the so-called Twitter Revolution in Iran shows that only 18,000 Iranians were on Twitter during the time of the protest, according to Collin Anderson, a researcher who studies Internet freedom in Iran. This bears out in the observation that most of the tweets spread around by Westerners during the protest originated in other countries. Even in the US, one of the most popular countries on Twitter, the power of the social network has perhaps been overstated: An Indiana university study found that Twitter did not create any new activists during the Occupy Wall Street movement.

But a new partnership between Twitter and MIT looks to finally harness all those tweets to achieve real social change. Twitter is giving $10 million and full access to real-time data to a new research group at the university called the Laboratory for Social Machines. Here's how MIT words the mission statement of this new endeavor:

The Laboratory for Social Machines is dedicated to...building tools for institutions and individuals to collaborate openly by debating and setting shared goals, then organizing themselves into sustainable networks capable of achieving social, cultural and political progress [and] deploying social machines — networked human-machine collaboratives — alongside external partners in real-world situations with transparent, measurable objectives.
The Lab says it will also partner with journalistic organizations to analyze the data their machines compile and to tell stories around it.

It all sounds very high-tech and possesses the sheen of academic legitimacy that only an organization like MIT can offer. But will it work?

Maybe, but there's at least one thing that may hinder MIT's attempts to paint an accurate picture of social movements on the ground: Propaganda.

In the wake of some of the bloodiest clashes between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian activists earlier this year, both sides took to Twitter in an attempt to shape and distort the narrative in their side's favor. The propaganda wars even ensnared Americans when Russian media presented a photo that claimed to show mercenaries from the US military contractor group once known as Blackwater in Ukraine. That photo was actually taken in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The photo was debunked fairly quickly, but not before it spread across social networks.

And of course there are the countless Twitter handles associated with the Islamic militants ISIS that, far from being trustworthy sources of on-the-ground reports, are part of the organization's well-oiled social media propaganda machine. The US has even responded with its own anti-ISIS social media campaign which a former US State official likens to "feeding the trolls."

I commend Twitter for allocating meaningful resources to efforts that may bolster its utility as an agent for social change. It proves that CEO Dick Costolo still believes in his company as something more than a celebrity sounding board and a platform for advertisers. But as MIT looks to make sense of Twitter's firehose of social and political unrest, it needs to be wary of governments and insurgent groups using the network for insidious propaganda campaigns under the guise of citizen reporting.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]