"Politics, culture, and dissident:" New study maps out trends in Arab blogosphere

The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University has published an analysis of the Arab blogsphere, studying the views of Arab bloggers across the Middle East on issues such as media, politics, religion, culture, and international affairs.
Harvard's map of the Arab blogosphere
Harvard study maps out the Arab blogospehere.

BEIRUT, June 26, 2009 (MENASSAT) – A report, titled Mapping the Arab blogosphere: “Politics, culture, and dissent,” published on June 16, incorporates the perspectives of thousands of Arab blogs in the Middle East on a wide range of topics and emerging trends on the web.

Published by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, researchers identified a “base network” of 35,000 blogs and then narrowed their range down to the 6,000 most active blogs. A group of Arabic-speaking researchers then “hand-coded” 4,000 blogs for the study.

Among some of the findings, the study concluded that the majority of the Arab blogs surveyed are written in diary form, featuring personal accounts and observations on everyday life. When it comes to politics, however, Arab bloggers tend to offer a critical view of political leaders.

Demographic research shows that Arab bloggers are predominantly young and male.

The study also found that while most blogs focus on local issues, a common political issue that concerns bloggers all over the Arab world is Palestine.

Networks and sub-clusters

Researchers divided the Arab blogosphere into sub-clusters and regions.

According to the report, the largest blogging community is found in Egypt. Internet users in Egypt have increased in the past year, from 10.92 users to 13 million users. Egypt also has the largest number of female bloggers, although they are more likely to write anonymously. 

Bloggers also play an important role in disseminating information on issues rarely covered in the Egyptian mainstream press, such as police brutality, sexual harassment, and torture.

A notorious mobile phone clip depicting two Egyptian police officers torturing a man with an iron stick landed the two men prison sentences in 2007, after the footage was uploaded and circulated on the Internet by Egyptian bloggers.

“It’s (blogging) the perfect journalism. You can say things that would contradict a newspaper, bypassing censorship and dealing directly with an audience,” said Sherif Azer, a specialist on the Egyptian blogosphere, in an article published by Daily News Egypt.

After Egypt, Saudi Arabia has the highest number of bloggers in the region. However, in the Kingdom, bloggers are more likely to discuss technology over politics, the study concluded.

One of the clusters included in the report is the “Levantine/English Bridge,” which includes bloggers located in the Levant region, who are grouped with another English cluster called "Bridge Bloggers.’

According to the study, the latter cluster writes on a variety of topics and shows a particular interest in international affairs.

“This is the blog of young Lebanese woman, who is a Christian and a supporter of the Free Patriotic Movement, the Lebanese Christian faction that is allied with Hezbollah. She jokes that she supported the "evil Syrian-Iranian axis" by voting for the party. She defends the nationalist credentials of the movement, and devotes many posts to justifying her support for the Hezbollah- aligned movement as a Christian,” the report states. 

Compared to other clusters, the Levant blogging group tends tends to engage less in religious discussions.

Along with the Levant group is the “Maghrebi/French Bridge,” which includes bloggers based in the Maghreb and the group of bloggers who focus on religion, the so-called “Islam-focus” cluster. This particular group embodies a loose network of bloggers from different Arab countries concerned with religious topics, mainly Islam.

Syria and the Muslim Brotherhood

Religion is, according to the study, generally “a very popular topic in the blogosphere.” It tends, however, to be discussed and debated more from a personal perspective than from a political or theological point of view.

Those reading Syrian blogs are likely to come across some criticism of domestic leaders. According to the study, Syrian bloggers, are “among the least likely to express support for domestic political leaders compared to other clusters.”

In Egypt, while the Muslim Brotherhood remains a banned group, it nevertheless maintains a strong online presence.  Since many of its members (and bloggers) often are arrested or harassed by the national authorities, this cluster tends to use their real names when blogging more than any other group.  This is also a group that frequently discusses human rights, the study reported.

Though the study concluded that there were signs that blogging has started to have an impact in the Middle East, it said that blogging, or couch-activism as critics sometimes refer it to, cannot bring about political change by itself.

When it comes to news and information, the Arab blogsphere links to web 2.0 sites like You Tube and Wikipedia from their blogs more frequently than any other news source. Researchers with the project say Al-Jazeera is the top media source in the Arab blogosphere, followed by the BBC and Al-Arabiya.

Finally, while the study acknowledges the existence of extremist websites and forums in the Arab blogosphere, it emphasizes that the research does not aim to address the impact of these kind of sites.

“Academic studies and media reports that focus exclusively on terrorist uses 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 unintentionally limit the diverse, open, and often civically- minded political, cultural, and religious discussions that take place in blogs,” the report stated.