Mapping Change in the Iranian BlogosphereFebruary 12th, 2009 — idteam
By John Kelly and Bruce Etling
A number of recent international anecdotes indicate increased online activism by governments. A perfect example of this ’state-engagement’ in cyberspace is found in Hamid Tehrani’s recent post about the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ plan to recruit 10,000 Basij bloggers. This may help explain some changes we’ve seen in the Iranian blogosphere, and is a good opportunity to share an updated Iranian blogosphere map created by John Kelly at Morningside Analytics, Berkman’s partner on our foreign language blog studies.
Above is a current map of the Iranian blogosphere as of February 2009, as well as a map from April 2008, which we released last year as part of our paper on the Iranian blogosphere. As we noted in that paper, there are four distinct poles in this social network map: 1) Secular/Reformist, 2) Conservative/Religious, 3) Persian Poetry and Literature, and 4) Mixed Networks. We are just starting to analyze the evolution of the Iranian blogosphere in this last year, and so cannot say with certainty what the changes represent, but we have a couple educated guesses.
First, it is worth mentioning that there are more blogs plotted on the 2009 map, which partly accounts for it looking more ‘crowded’ than the earlier map. However, you’ll see that the overall structure found last year remains recognizable, but that the conservative/religious pole (bottom right corner of the map) has expanded. In the past, this pole consisted of three sub-clusters of bloggers we labeled as ‘conservative politics,’ ‘twelver,’ and ‘religious youth.’ All of these clusters have grown, and the religious youth cluster appears to have diversified. Most strikingly however, the ‘twelver’ cluster, which we are tentatively relabeling ‘CyberShia,’ has grown dramatically. It is possible that the organized Basij blog effort may account for some of this change, since these blogs are rooted in that part of the network.
But there is another intriguing possible explanation. The expanding CyberShia cluster may also reflect a growing online debate around Islamic law in Iran. Hassan Rezaei at the Max Plank Institute in Germany has been following this debate closely, and argues that the Internet may be shifting the power dynamics around Sharia debate in Iran. Hassan writes, “The more Iranian cyberspace grows, the more Sharia discourse becomes public and intersubjective and reaches out to the broader world. The emergent Iranian right-based readings of Sharia in cyberspace contain new promises and aspirations, not only for the Iranian people, but also for the entire Muslim world and even for the world community.” Babak Rahimi has also written persuasively about cyberdissent in Iran, and has argued that, “…despite measures implemented by the Iranian regime to curtail the internet use, the rapidly growing and changing internet has provided creative ways for political dissidents to challenge state authority.”
Either or both of these forces, authoritarian manipulation and internal Shia ferment, may explain the changes we see in the network. Without more analysis we cannot say if these hypotheses about evolving online debate in Iran are correct. Check back with us for updates as we continue looking into this, and let us know what you think might account for these changes in the religious portion of the Iranian blogosphere.