Ordinarily, we in Israel examine the Arab world from the political and security point of view. From that perspective it often looks monolithic and in many cases quite threatening. A study published this month by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University tried to map the blogosphere in the Arab world and reveals once again the extent to which our perceptions are one-dimensional.
Support for terror, for example, is almost entirely absent from the texts published in blogs originating in the Arab world. Researchers John Kelly, Robert Faris and John Palfrey found that only 1 percent of the more than 4,000 blogs examined supported terror activity, whereas 19 percent openly opposed terror. It would seem that these findings, along with others throughout the study, could indicate that American policymakers' fear concerning the use of the Internet to spread hate and support for terror are a bit exaggerated.
As support, the authors also refer to the trend studies at the Pew Research Center that show a consistent decline in support for suicide attacks in places like Lebanon - from a support rate of 74 percent in 2002 down to 32 percent in 2008.
"This is not to say," write the authors, "that anti-Western ideas are absent, or that groups like Hamas and Hezbollah do not have significant support, but that these ideas are countered by others, and support of Al Qaeda and civilian attacks is very rare..."
The authors also say that they "do not argue that extremist Web sites do not exist; certainly they do and our research does not address their impact. However, academic studies and media reports that focus exclusively on terrorist use of the Web can leave the impression that this is a dominant form of discourse in the Arabic language Internet, and could lead to ill-informed policy responses, which could intentionally limit the diverse, open and often civically-minded political, cultural, and religious discussions that take place in blogs and other Internet spaces."
Mapping the Arabic blogoverse
The researchers had the help of Arabic-speakers to read and identify the characteristics of 4,000 blogs. Among other things, the researchers found that the vast majority of the bloggers are young men - about 75 percent of them under the age of 35, and of this group 45 percent are between 25 and 35 years old. According to the study, only 9 percent of the bloggers in the Arab world are older than 35. The researchers also found that more than 60 percent of the bloggers are men and only 34 percent are women (a number were unidentified). However, in Saudi Arabia, for example, it emerged that the proportion of women was especially high: about 46 percent.
The study also made use of a special technology to map the Arab blogosphere in a way similar to a previous study of the Iranian blogosphere. To this end, the researchers mapped 35,000 blogs in 18 countries and examined their links to each other and other blogs. Thus, by examining the internal connections among the sites, they created clusters.
One of the patterns that stood out in the study is the clustering into countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Lebanon. At the same time, the researchers also identified groups of blogs written in English and French - mostly in North Africa but also in Syria - which the researchers have called a bridge to the wider world.
Within the countries there was also a sorting into groups. In Egypt, for example, where they found the largest number of bloggers, there are clusters of bloggers identified with or close to the Muslim Brotherhood as well as a large cluster of secular reformists who have little love for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak
A smaller Israeli blip
Researchers were interested to discover that most of the writers are more interested in domestic political issues than in regional wars. Criticism of local leaders is the most common political topic the researchers encountered, and the next most common is not hatred for the United States or Israel but rather posts critical of terror.
In Lebanon, the researchers found criticism of local political leaders in more than 50 percent of the blogs but also a broad measure of support. In Syria, by comparison, the chances that a blogger would express support for the regime are especially low.
The bottom line is that a vast majority of the bloggers write about themselves and their lives. But make no mistake: Criticism of Israel and the United States does exist and is reinforced by events in the news. The film on YouTube to which the most blogs linked was extremely critical of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. The second most popular was a video of the shoe thrown by an Iraqi journalist at former U.S. president George W. Bush.
The researchers said they were surprised to find the extent to which Web 2.0 sites have been integrated into the Arab bloggers' everyday activity. Indeed, it emerged that links to sites like Wikipedia and YouTube are more common than links to the major news sources in their countries.
Despite their tone of optimism regarding the political variety and relative openness in the blogs, the researchers are in no hurry to declare that the Internet will bring about a democratic revolution in the Arab world. They noted two contradictory theories about the way the Internet can nurture public discourse in Arab countries.
On the one hand, they noted Israeli-American Harvard law school Prof. Yochai Benkler's "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 common arena."
On the other hand, they noted, University of Chicago law school Professor Cass Sunstein warns in his book "Republic.com 2.0" that the possibility the Internet offers for uniting into groups of the like-minded does not contribute to the creation of a global village. Instead, it contributes to increasing fragmentation of society and the loss of the common denominator that, along with other things, is essential for the existence of a democracy, he wrote.
The researchers also remarked that, as in Egypt, Iran and Syria, bloggers have been arrested or blocked and they add that technology is not serving only pro-Western forces.
"The Internet does not just promise (or threaten) to change the balance of power among players on the field," cyber researcher Clay Shirky has argued, "it changes the field and changes the players too." However, from the perspective of the Berkman Center researchers, the most important thing to remember is that the field is not only black and white and that the Islamic extremists are just one aspect of it. At least in the blogosphere, they still sit on the margins.
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