Social media drive Occupy Wall Street. Do they also divulge its secrets?

Burgeoning cyberchatter about 'Occupy Wall Street' is creating an evolving database of raw information about the leaderless protest movement, a potential tool for those seeking to anticipate its next steps.

Andrew Burton/AP
Protesters affiliated with the 'Occupy Wall Street' protests wave signs and banners outside 1185 Park Avenue, where Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, lives, during a march in New York, on Tuesday. The crowd marched through out the Upper East Side neighborhood, protesting outside the homes of various billionaires and bank owners.

Social media, a main engine driving "Occupy Wall Street's" spread, both nationally and globally, are increasingly serving another vital function: helping outsiders who are trying to track and anticipate the leaderless movement’s next steps.

Every day, millions of tweets, posts, and texts swell the global chat around the topic, creating, in essence, a living and evolving database of raw information about the protest movement, its supporters, and its possible goals.

As this cyberchatter burgeons, more and more individuals – and organizations – are tuning in and trying to make sense of what they hear in order to formulate strategies and make decisions, say media analysts, researchers, and political strategists.

“People are listening,” says Ronn Torossian, CEO of 5WPR, a New York PR agency. “When the president of the United States pays attention, this is no longer a fringe event. Digital chatter has reached a critical mass.’’

But listening is easier than making sense of the avalanche of shifting information flowing through the social media universe, says Jonathan Askin, a professor at Brooklyn Law School.

Everyone, even each protester, is a real-time microblogger or photojournalist, he says via e-mail. The problem now, he says, “is in filtering, curating, dissecting and synthesizing meaningful media content from the endless flood of isolated data.”

We have the tools to create, upload, and disseminate the need information for informed public discourse, he adds, “but we still lack the curation tools needed to make sense of the dramatic changes occurring through these new social protest movements.”

Many politicians and corporations have staff devoted to scanning the social media landscape, says Atlanta-based Republican strategist David Johnson.

“I know for a fact that the Republican Congressional Committee is monitoring social media around the Occupy Wall Street movement, looking for ways to show potential voters that the movement is full of the most extreme views,” he says, “and Bank of America began running full-page ads in the Atlanta Constitution Journal telling readers how much they have done to help Georgia’s homeowners.”

But, says Mr. Johnson, just because they have picked up on the message doesn’t mean they will make the right moves. “Will that ad stop anyone from protesting in front of a bank? I doubt it,” he says.

Increasingly, our ability to collect information is “outstripping our ability to analyze and use it effectively,” says Michael Heaney, a University of Michigan professor who has studied the antiwar movement and other social causes. As technology explodes, people's capacity to understand what it enables is eclipsed by the sheer volume of information now widely available to even the most casual consumer, he adds.

A growing number of the top Fortune 500 companies, many of whom are the same financial institutions being targeted in the anti-corporate-greed slogans of the movement, are turning to relatively new social media tracking firms such as ListenLogic to analyze this evolving database.

For the past 16 months, the company has been analyzing the millions of daily social media communications in the digital town square. Its goal is to detect emerging trends within the digisphere, and this weekend it released its top picks for the nascent Occupy movement.

Vince Schiavone, the ListenLogic CEO, says the topics constantly shift, adding that while his firm can sift data and make threat assessments, it cannot recommend actions.

The top topic he sees growing around the Occupy Wall Street movement at the moment?

“A dramatic increase in the number of posts mentioning bank transfer,” he says, referring to plans for a Nov. 5 action day on which consumers are being urged to transfer their bank accounts from large, national financial institutions to community banks and credit unions. “Companies will have to decide for themselves what, if any, actions to take,” he adds.

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