Vocativ is mining Facebook posts for news. You got a problem with that?

Flashy new site uses NSA-style data mining tools to identify trends and generate stories. Meet the future of journalism.

My favorite radio newsman, Scoop Nisker, always used to end his broadcasts with the same phrase: “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”

Well, guess what? Every time you tweet, join a public Facebook group, update your LinkedIn profile, add new numbers to a Google Docs spreadsheet, or engage in other online activities, you are making news, even if you’re not aware of it.

Yesterday marks the official debut of a new news gathering site that mines the “deep Web” – the stuff Google can’t get to, like most social media updates and other dynamic content – in search of stories.

Vocativ (pronounced like “provocative” but without the “pro”) uses the same techniques deployed by hedge funds and intelligence agencies to identify stories the mainstream media has missed.

Mutant data ninja turtles

Fast Company has an in-depth look at how Vocativ works. Per reporter Neal Ungerleider:

The “deep web” consists of all the things available on the Internet that standard search engines overlook--things like spreadsheets and Word documents, subscription-only journals and pages with dynamic content. Vocativ's principals claim they can use the deep web, combined with monitoring of social media in a host of foreign languages, to find news stories other agencies can't. Their search technology is similar to that used by law enforcement to detect terrorist chatter, hedge funds to find hidden financial information, and by intelligence agencies to gauge sentiment and collect intelligence.

Vocativ pairs journalists who speak multiple languages with “data ninjas,” who pore over info trends to identify potential stories. Sounds like a total yawn fest, right? It’s not. Quite the opposite. Vocativ goes out of its way to be edgy and, well, provocative.

ty4ns-vocativ home-550p.png

Vocativ is a mashup of Vice-like investigative stories (“Exclusive: Inside the Lawless Mexican Town That Bred the World’s Most Wanted Man”) with Buzzfeed-style listicles (“The 10 Sluttiest Doggy Halloween Costumes”) in a very visual, HTML5-driven, in-your face style. You’ll find stories about homeless squatters in Venezuela living in the half-finished shell of a 45-story corporate tower in Caracas alongside PG-13 photo spreads of Swedish pinup models being splashed with milk. (Milk – it’s got something for every body.)

Among other things, Vocativ reporters and ‘ninjas’ mine tweets based on geolocation tags, then map connections between people and relevant hashtags in those areas. So it’s not surprising that much of Vocativ’s content is powered by social media.

For example, by scouring public Facebook groups, Vocativ reporters identified a thriving sex tourism trade involving mostly German women of a certain vintage and Masai warriors in Mombasa, Kenya.  They wrote about military-enforced curfews in Cairo by following the tweets of young Egyptians who were idling away their time inside by trading playlists on Spotify. A story about the US military spending $47,000 on mechanical bulls as recruiting tools was found on the FedBizOpps.gov web site. (After news of the deal leaked, the plan was put out to pasture.)

Porcine but not herd

All of this comes quite literally out of some of the same tools used by our BFFs in the NSA and other intelligence services to identify potential threats. (One of Vocativ’s major investors, Mati Kochavi, comes out of the Israeli military.)

Per Fast Company:

The company is retooling what intelligence agencies call SIGINT (signals intelligence) to source and develop individual content. When Kochavi was asked if it was safe to say Vocativ was an example of adapting the sort of data-searching technology used by law enforcement and intelligence agencies for the journalism industry, he laughed after a pause and said “maybe.”

Data mining. It’s not just for spooks and Web tracking companies any more.

Frankly, I'm not sure how I feel about this. As part of the data-minification of everything, Vocativ worries me. The problem isn't data mining per se, it's the conclusions it allows you to infer from data that may not in fact be at all accurate. (Do smart people really prefer curly fries to straight ones -- really?) For a newsgathering tool, it's worrisome. As a tool that could be used to determine if you're a bad credit risk, an untrustworthy employee, or a threat to national security, data mining scares the pants off me.

Vocativ is not the only news gathering organization using data mining as a tool, but it’s probably the one with the best chance of popularizing the practice. Remember: It’s no longer social media. It’s just plain media. And it may well be the future of news.

See you in the funny papers.

Got a question about social media or privacy? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he'll make something up). Follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to's, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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