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Internet & Democracy Case Study Series Mapping the Arabic Blogosphere: Politics, Culture, and Dissent By Bruce Etling, John Kelly, Robert Faris, and John Palfrey…
Internet & Democracy Case Study Series Mapping the Arabic Blogosphere: Politics, Culture, and Dissent By Bruce Etling, John Kelly, Robert Faris, and John Palfrey JUNE 2009 Berkman Center Research Publication No. 2009-06 at Harvard University Mapping the Arabic Blogosphere: Politics, Culture, and Dissent ABOUT THE INTERNET & DEMOCRACY PROJECT This case study is part of a series of studies produced by the Internet & Democracy Project, a research initiative at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, which investigates the impact of the Internet on civic engagement and democratic processes. More information on the Internet & Democracy Project can be found at: The project’s initial case studies investigated three frequently cited examples of the Internet’s influence on democracy. The first case looked at the user-generated news site OhmyNews and its impact on the 2002 elections in South Korea. The second documented the role of technology in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. The third analyzed the network composition and content of the Iranian blogosphere. Fall 2008 saw the release of a new series of case studies, which broadened the scope of our research and examined some less well-known parts of the research landscape. In a pair of studies, we reviewed the role of networked technologies in the 2007 civic crises of Burma's Saffron Revolution and Kenya’s post-election turmoil. In April 2009, Urs Gasser's three-part case study examined the role of technology in Switzerland’s semi-direct democracy. This case expands on our study of foreign blogospheres with an analysis of the Arabic blogosphere. This paper would not have been possible without the assistance of many individuals. The authors wish to thank our Arabic speaking coders for their tireless efforts reading and interpreting blogs; Anita Patel and Jason Callina for development work on the coding tool; Tim Hwang for research assistance; Lexie Koss for layout and design of the case; Helmi Noman, Noha Atef, and Jillian York for assistance understanding national blogospheres in the region, interpretation of YouTube videos, plus feedback on the draft; and Terry Fisher and Karina Alexanyan for their comments on the draft. Any errors remain our own. 2 Mapping the Arabic Blogosphere: Politics, Culture, and Dissent KEY FINDINGS This study explores the structure and content of the Arabic blogosphere using link analysis, term frequency analysis, and human coding of individual blogs. We identified a base network of approximately 35,000 active Arabic language blogs (about half as many as we found in a previous study of the Persian blogosphere), discovered several thousand Arabic blogs with mixed use of Arabic, English and French, created a network map of the 6,000 most connected blogs, and with a team of Arabic speakers hand coded over 4,000 blogs. The goal for the study was to produce a baseline assessment of the networked public sphere in the Arab Middle East, and its relationship to a range of emergent issues, including politics, media, religion, culture, and international affairs. We found: ã A Country-Based Network: We found that the Arabic blogosphere is organized primarily around countries. We found the primary groupings in the Arabic language blogosphere to be: - Egypt - this is by far the largest cluster and includes several distinct subclusters, one of which is characterized by secular reformist bloggers, and another by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that is technically illegal in Egypt but whose online presence appears to be tolerated. - Saudi Arabia - this comprises the second largest cluster and focuses more on personal diaries and less on politics than other groups. - Kuwait - this cluster is divided into two sub-clusters based on bloggers’ language preferences, splitting those that write primarily in English from those that use Arabic. Both groups focus heavily on domestic news and politics, though the Anglophone bloggers are more likely to advocate reform and discuss economic and women’s rights issues. - Levantine/English Bridge - this group of bloggers is located mainly in the countries of the eastern Mediterranean sometimes referred to collectively as the Levant, including Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Syria, as well as most bloggers from Iraq. Bloggers in this group frequently use English in addition to, or instead of, Arabic. They are joined in this section of the network, which connects to the US and international blogosphere, by ‘bridge bloggers’ from other Arab countries, who write mainly in English. - Syria - this cluster features frequent, though often mild, criticism of domestic leaders and both includes Arabic language bloggers with closer links to those in Saudi Arabia, and English language bloggers closer to those in the Levantine/English Bridge region. - Maghreb/French Bridge - this group is comprised of a cross-national set of bloggers located mainly in Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. Many of these bloggers write in a mixture of Arabic and French. Other bloggers from the Maghreb eschew French and are found among the religion-focused bloggers. - Islam-focus – this cluster is a loosely connected set of bloggers from various Arab countries who are focused mainly on Islam, mixing personal, theological, and political topics. 3 Mapping the Arabic Blogosphere: Politics, Culture, and Dissent ã Who are Arabic Bloggers? Demographic coding indicates that Arabic bloggers are predominately young and male. The highest proportion of female bloggers is found in the Egyptian youth sub-cluster, while the Maghreb/French Bridge and Syrian clusters have the highest concentration of males. ã Personal Life and Local Issues are Most Important: Overall, the writing of most bloggers is centered on personal, diary-style observations. Those that write about politics tend to focus on issues within their own country and are more often than not critical of domestic political leaders. Foreign political leaders are discussed less often and most commonly in terms more negative than positive. Domestic news is more popular than international news among general politics and public life topics, especially within large national clusters writing entirely in Arabic. The one political issue that commands the most attention of bloggers across the Arab world is Palestine, and in particular the situation in Gaza (Israel’s December 2008/January 2009 military action occurred during the study). ã Discussion of the United States: The United States is not a dominant political topic in Arabic blogs; neither are the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. Most discussion of the United States is in the English Bridge and Syrian clusters, and when the United States is discussed, it is usually in critical terms. ã Muslim Brotherhood: Although the Muslim Brotherhood is technically illegal in Egypt, it has a very active presence in the blogosphere. Like other Egyptian political bloggers, ‘Brother bloggers’ talk about human rights and defend those who have been arrested by the government. They are also engaged in public debate about the organization’s future and priorities. This debate is mainly between the older establishment leaders and younger reform-minded members, but there is also a wing of younger conservatives pushing back against the latter. Though a minority, a number of Muslim Brotherhood bloggers are women. ã Terrorism: Terrorism is a bigger issue among Levantine/English Bridge and Syrian bloggers than others, where it is not a major issue. Across the map however, when discussing terrorism, Arab bloggers are overwhelmingly critical of violent extremists. We consider this a positive finding, although qualified because the issue of attitudes toward terrorism hinge on the term’s interpretation across the Arab world. Whatever its presence in other, less ‘public’ online venues, overt support for violent global confrontation with the West appears to be exceedingly rare in blogs. However, it is not unusual to find blogs that criticize terrorists on the one hand, and praise Hamas or Hezbollah for violent ‘resistance’ to Israel on the other. This complex issue merits additional research. ã Iraqi bloggers: While much has been made of Iraqi bloggers during ongoing debates about the Iraq war, this group does not figure prominently in the Arabic blogosphere. Rather, they are deeply integrated into the English Bridge group. This may be because many Iraqi bloggers write in English and have many inbound links from US think tanks, journalists, and partisan political bloggers (Iraq the Model on the 4 Mapping the Arabic Blogosphere: Politics, Culture, and Dissent right, Riverbend on the left, for example), rather than mainly writing for a domestic public.1 ã Religion: Religion is a very popular topic in the blogosphere, and appears to be discussed more in terms of personal religious thoughts and experiences than in its political or theological aspects. Criticism of other faiths is minimal, though can be strident. The exception is a cluster of bloggers within the Islam-focus area, from various countries, who write about Islam from a conservative perspective and frequently criticize other faiths. ã Human Rights and Culture: Human rights (civil and political rights) are also a popular topic of conversation across the Arabic blogosphere—much more uniformly common than discussion of Western culture and values, which is concentrated mainly in the Levantine/English Bridge cluster. Among cultural topics, poetry, literature, and art are more popular across the board than pop culture (music, TV, and movies). ã Arabic Media Ecosystem: Bloggers link to Web 2.0 sites such as YouTube and Wikipedia (both English and Arabic versions) more than other sources of information and news available on the Internet. Al Jazeera is the top mainstream media source, followed by the BBC and Al Arabiya, while US-government funded media outlets like Radio Sawa and Al Hurra are linked to relatively infrequently. National media outlets are cited mainly by their respective national clusters. ã YouTube: Arabic bloggers tend to prefer politically-oriented YouTube videos to cultural ones. Videos related to the conflict in Gaza and the throwing of shoes at George Bush in Iraq are popular across the entire blogosphere, while clips related to domestic political issues are linked to more heavily by the various national clusters. ã Anonymity: In general, Arabic bloggers are more likely than not to use their name when blogging, as opposed to writing anonymously or using an obvious pseudonym. The exceptions are Syrian, Kuwaiti, and Maghreb/French Bridge bloggers, as well as a small cluster of Egyptian Baha’i bloggers, who write about their persecution. Generally, women are more likely to blog anonymously than men. 1 Marc Lynch, “Blogging the New Arab Public,” Arab Media & Society, Issue 1, Spring 2007, (accessed May 19, 2009). 5 Mapping the Arabic Blogosphere: Politics, Culture, and Dissent TABLE OF CONTENTS Key Findings 3 Introduction 7 Structure of the Network and Methods Overview 12 Results: Network Map Overview 14 Cluster Descriptions 15 Egypt Levantine/English Bridge Maghreb/French Bridge Saudi Arabia Syria Kuwait Islam Focus Baha’i 15 19 23 24 25 26 28 30 Results: Human Coding 31 Topical and Issue-Based Coding Results Demographic Results Gender and Blogs 32 36 37 The Arabic Language Media Ecosystem 38 A Closer Look at YouTube 40 Discussion and Conclusion 46 Appendix A: Notes on Methodology 51 Appendix B: Code Sheets 53 6 Mapping the Arabic Blogosphere: Politics, Culture, and Dissent INTRODUCTION On January 17, 2009, a popular Saudi TV sports program covered the day’s disappointing loss by the national soccer team to Oman in the Gulf Cup. The show’s host and his guests, including a professional soccer player and a former coach, are critiquing the team and its management when a call comes in from Saudi Prince Sultan bin Fahd, a key patron of the team. He is not happy with their analysis. On air, the prince dresses them down in turn, and goes so far as to tell one of them he is poorly raised, a serious insult in Saudi culture. The prince’s tone is disrespectful, and his words are not those of a leader to citizens, but of a ruler to his subjects. A clip of the tirade quickly appears on YouTube, and blogs and online forums post the link, spawning long chains of comments. These are overwhelmingly critical of the prince, who was seen as speaking to the commentators as though they were his slaves. On August 28, 2008, a clip entitled ‘The Pasha's Daughter is Terrifying People on the Street’ was uploaded to YouTube. Shot with a mobile phone camera, it shows a young woman threatening a man in the streets of Giza, in the aftermath of a fender-bender in which she hit his car. She brandishes an electric cattle prod and threatens him with the power of her father, a high-ranking security official, whom she calls on her mobile phone. A bystander who captured the event sent the video to a prominent blogger, who posted it on YouTube and tracked down the woman’s license plate number. The clip was cited by a number of other Egyptian bloggers, and spawned threads of comments critical of the woman’s abuse of her father’s power. Other online comments were more critical of the language she used, which was deemed impious. Someone, presumably not Egyptian, re-uploaded the clip under the title ‘An Egyptian Woman Insulting God in the Street.’ An Egyptian newspaper picked up the story and located the victim, who said that in the aftermath, the woman’s mother had come forward to apologize to him, which he accepted. These two stories (and there are many more) illustrate the collision of old realities and new technologies taking place in the Arab world, and a surprising number of elements intertwine in them: abuse of power, legitimacy of authority, the power of television, the ubiquity of video cameras, feedback between blogs and the press, traditional vs. modern sensibilities, freedom of expression, the power of online voices, and the scope of political arenas—local, national, pan-Arab, pan-Muslim, global. At stake in this collision are both the symbolic construction and the hard power of ‘The Public’ across the region. Notable is the seamless combination of modes of communication into a single system: face-to-face interaction (including cattle prods), mobile phones, television, newspapers, and multiple genres of Internet sites (blogs, forums, chat rooms, video sharing, photo sharing, etc.). Increasingly, these comprise an emerging networked public sphere, in which the power of elites to control the public agenda and bracket the range of allowable opinions is seriously challenged. Around the world, in open and repressive nations alike, Internet-based communications provide new channels for citizen voices, minority viewpoints, and political mobilization, and challenge the traditional regimes of public mass communication. Opinions are mixed about the promise and dangers that may result. Yochai Benkler presents a compelling view of the networked public sphere as a boon for individual autonomy and freedom, breaking elite strangleholds on democratic discourse and drawing diverse interests and talents into a 7 Mapping the Arabic Blogosphere: Politics, Culture, and Dissent common arena.2 Cass Sunstein warns of the radicalizing tendencies of micro-publics dividing themselves into groups of the like-minded.3 Public discussion of the Internet in the Arab world often reflects these competing views, with fear of jihadist radicalization on the one hand and hopes for a democratic transformation of the Middle East on the other. Others note the significant advantages that dictatorial regimes retain in controlling the Internet and limiting online speech.4 This last point is crucial, since the degree of freedom allowed for online speech may determine whether Benkler’s dream or Sunstein’s nightmare better describes the Arabic Internet’s future. We looked at a new, and still small, component of the Arabic Internet, but one that in many places has emerged as arguably the most consequential in remaking public sphere communications: the ‘blogosphere.’ In the evolution of Internet communication genres, older forms like e-mail, listservs, bulletin boards, chat rooms, online forums, and threaded newsgroups have been joined and often supplanted in popularity by newer ones like Web logs (blogs), social network services and, lately, Twitter. In the United States and many other places, these new genres have developed in two principal directions: a) Toward platforms for public speech that foster an interaction among viewpoints and interface with the traditional mass-mediated public sphere, and; b) Toward better-networked private sphere platforms where individuals cultivate their social networks, but also where the like-minded can collect and mobilize mainly outside the view of the uninvited. Private sphere networks such as Facebook can have a powerful public impact, when used to mobilize campaign volunteers in the United States for instance, or a labor strike in Egypt, but the network of persistent, hyperlinked discourse formed mainly by blogs has become an important component of the democratic public sphere in countries like the United States and South Korea, and even in repressive quasi-democracies like Iran. Older genres of online discourse, particularly forums and password-protected bulletin boards, are extremely popular in the Arab world, and have a history as major venues for politically sensitive topics of all sorts, from women’s rights to violent extremism. As more clearly public genres of online speech emerge elsewhere, these ‘shadow publics’ may continue to thrive in part because of government repression (or social sanction) that threaten those who would speak their minds openly. These ‘shadow publics’ are not in the scope of this study. We fully expect the tone and breadth of discussions in these alternatives forums, which are recognized as active and important venues for Internet activity in the Arabic speaking world, to be substantially different from the blogosphere. We do not intend to either underemphasize the importance of these forums or to imply that observations from the blogosphere are of equal applicability to these spaces. 2 Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedoms (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006) 129-272. 3 Cass Sunstein, “The Daily We,” Boston Review, Summer 2001, available at (accessed November 26, 2007); See also Cass Sunstein, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001). 4 Shanti Kalathil and Taylor Boas, Open Networks, Closed Regimes: The Impact of the Internet on Authoritarian Rule (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment For International Peace, 2003); see also Kristin Lord, The Perils and Promise of Global Transparency: Why the Information Revolution May Not Lead to Security, Democracy, or Peace (Albany: SUNY Press, 2006). 8 Mapping the Arabic Blogosphere: Politics, Culture, and Dissent Social theorists, from Mill and Dewey to Benkler and Sunstein, stress the importance of open dialog between differing perspectives as a key practice underlying democracy, without which democratic institutions will be ineffective and perhaps short-lived. A key question then in the Middle East is whether a space for open democratic discourse can open up between repressive, elite-controlled public spheres on the one hand, and the hidden discourse of myriad private spheres on the other. The goal of the current study is to examine the Arab publics that are coalescing online in Web logs in order to establish benchmarks for the current state of the blogosphere and to identify issues to watch going forward. We found a complex network that includes bloggers from at le
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