The Web as oracle

Immigration, terrorism and Islamophobia: what's in store in 2015?

The advent of big data taken from the web is triggering a new scientific revolution that might radically change the way in which we view the world and the future. Indeed, the internet and social networks are increasingly being used to understand the development of complex social phenomena and predict both real-time and future events – nowcasting and forecasting – by relying on the wisdom-of-the-crowd principle. This principle is based on the idea that it is possible to formulate astonishingly accurate predictions of future events by collecting the opinions and expectations expressed online by a large number of people, who often present widely diverging views and have access to heterogeneous sources of information.

While all this at first sight might resemble a contemporary version of Isaac Asimov's psychohistory, the method is held in high regard by some governments, including Washington, which has been financing intelligence programmes such as Open Source Indicators (OSI) and companies like Recorded Future (which has received further funding from the CIA and Google). They both monitor the real-time circulation of ideas, people and goods by collecting and analyzing data and information extracted from the web with the ultimate objective of anticipating mood shifts in the population that could potentially be connected to social phenomena, such as uprisings, economic crises and even natural disasters.

This view of analyses gleaned from the web, as a modern-day oracle that can help us better understand what to expect from the near future, forms the necessary basis for what we set out to do for East. In fact, we plumbed the internet in order to get a grasp of the most (and least) widespread expectations for 2015 in relation to what became one of the most topical geopolitical subjects towards the end of the past year: the question of the Islamic State (IS) and the relationship between the Western and the Islamic worlds 

were ones that couldn't go begging.

From 1 October to 31 December 2014, we downloaded and analyzed approximately 2.3 million comments that made reference to IS, Islam and the Arab world, separating those posted on social networks (approximately 1.8 million) from those published on news websites written in English and geolocated in the United States and Europe.

The results show that at the end of 2014 the web – especially, and revealingly, European websites – addressed the development in relations between the Islamic world and the West with obvious concern. Indeed, 93.4% of comments posted on European social networks expressed profound pessimism on this topic, which does not bode well for this new year. Albeit to a lesser extent than social networks, even news sites conveyed a host of pessimistic predictions, both in Europe (74.7%) and in the United States (72.5%).

What are the reasons behind such sweeping pessimism?

A first answer to this question may be gleaned from the comments posted online in Europe. Already at the end of 2014, 26.7% of online news and 21.7% of social media posts predicted new terrorist attacks. This fear was unfortunately and tragically substantiated at the beginning of 2015 with the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo by Islamic terrorists who spread death and fear not only in Paris, but throughout Europe. Meanwhile, in the United States, the major concern for this year revolved around the advancement and consolidation of IS (24.1%), although the same subject was also extensively and intensively discussed in Europe, both on social networks (24.3%) and on news websites (21%).

Expectations for 2015 thus seem to reveal a deep distrust of the radical Islamic world. It is no coincidence, then, that the tightening of border controls is another major expectation for 2015 to emerge from the web. It is a burning issue, and, as a matter of fact, the forecasting of stricter immigration policies turns out to be the prevailing view when surveying online news, both in the United States (33.2%) and Europe (29.4%), but even on social networks the issue was being hotly debated at the end of 2014. It remains to be seen whether this will turn out to be the actual course of action. But, once again, given the reaction of the European political elite to the tragic events of Paris – ranging from the proposal to tighten controls and reduce immigration flows to the idea of modifying the Schengen Agreement – it appears that online debates have once again accurately foreseen what will undoubtedly be one of the hottest topics on the political agenda in the coming months. 

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