Monday, August 03, 2009

Blogging's impact on governments in the Arabic speaking world

Often those of us living in English-speaking countries focus on what is going on in other English-speaking nations, Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada, UK and so on. There's a perfectly good reason for this, many of us don't speak the languages used in other blogs around the world.

However the impact of social media is global, and doesn't only, or mainly, occur in English or in Western countries.

A good example of this is a recent case study looking at Arabic blogs, entitled Mapping the Arabic Blogosphere: Politics, Culture and Dissent.

Conducted by Harvard University the study,
... identified a base network of approximately 35,000 active blogs, created a network map of the 6,000 most connected blogs, and with a team of Arabic speakers hand coded 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.
The study found that the majority of Arabic bloggers were young males, though there was a significant pocket of female bloggers in Egypt. While many blogs were in Arabic, a number were also in English or French - largely based on the influence of former colonial powers.

Most Arabic blogs focused on personal diary-style observations, with personal life and local politics being more of a focus than international affairs, per the quote below,
But when writing about politics, bloggers 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, but also more in negative than positive terms. Domestic news is more popular than international news among general politics and public life topics. The one political issue that clearly concerns 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). Other popular topics include religion (more in personal than political terms) and human rights (more common than criticism of western culture and values). Terrorism and the US are not major topics. When discussing terrorism, Arab bloggers are overwhelmingly critical of terrorists. When the US is discussed, it is nearly always critically.
The study also found that terrorism was also generally not a leading topic of conversation and,
... 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.
We've already seen the impact of blogging on countries such as Iran (which is Muslim but not Arabic), which is sometimes considered the third largest nation of bloggers.

I'll leave you with one of the most powerful paragraphs from the report itself, discussing 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.

I expect that the Arabic world already has things to teach Australia about online engagement.

The full case study is available online (PDF).

Here's the visual representation of the Arabic blogosphere from the case study.

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