Study details blogs resistant to Iranian government control

Harvard study of Iran blogosphere dispels common notions about country's 60,000 blogs

A newly released Harvard Universit study dispels the conventional wisdom that says the Iranian blogosphere consists mainly of young writers critical of the ruling Islamic Republic regime. Instead, Harvard's Internet and Democracy project found that the Iranian blogosphere consists of a variety of groups with both pro- and anti-government beliefs.

The study did find that blogs may be more resistant to government control than other media. In face, the report concluded that blogs may represent the "best hope" for homegrown Democratic change in a country where the press is tightly controlled by religious leaders.

Harvard researchers used computational social network mapping and human and automated content analysis to analyze 60,000 regularly updated Iranian blogs.

The study found that the Iranian blogosphere ranges from sites providing religious conservative messages to bloggers pushing more secular or reform-focused agendas. The blogs studied in Iran span a wide array of topics, including politics, human rights, poetry religion and pop culture, the report said.

The study, called "Mapping Iran's Online Public: Politics and Culture in the Persian Blogosphere," found that the government blocks far fewer blogs than the authors had suspected in a country where the press is controlled by religious conservatives who often are part of the government.

The Iranian blogosphere, the study found, is dominated by four major sub-clusters -- secular/reform groups, the conservative/religious groups, the Persian poetry and literature groups and a mixed groups. The authors said that they were surprised to find that a wide majority of blogs - 80% -- generated by the secular/reform group are not blocked by the government.

Within that secular/reform group, though, blogs written by two subgroup -- the Secular/Expatriate group that focuses on women's rights and political prisoners, and another group made up of young males discussing politics and issues like drug abuse and environmental degradation in Iran - have the best chance to be blocked by the government. About 21 per cent of Secular/Expatriate group blogs were blocked, and 11 per cent of the latter blogs were blocked during the study.

"The implication is that despite periodic persecution of bloggers, the Iranian blogosphere remains a visible arena of political contestation and forum for viewpoints challenging the ruling ideology of the Islamic Republic," the report noted. "In this sense, it remains a robust platform for democratic discourse for a society with severely curtailed modes of practical political participation."

Given the repression of the media by the Iranian government, blogs may represent the most open public communications platform for political discourse, the report went on to note.

"The peer-to-peer architecture of the blogosphere is more resistant to capture or control by the state than the older, hub and spoke architecture of the mass media mode," according to the study. "In their blogs and online chats we see their rejection of the regime, its brutal paternalistic control , its enforcement of archaic sexual mores its corruption and incompetence and of the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic itself."

While the government has cracked down and blocked some Web sites and restricted user bandwidth in some areas, the Internet continues to be one of the best hopes for homegrown Democratic change in Iran, according to the report.

"If you read Iranian blogs, it is clear that many Iranian want drastic social and political change," the report said. "If blogs are not mass media, the blogosphere as a whole does nevertheless constitute a mass public media institution of increasingly global importance."

For the study, researchers captured links from the Iranian blogosphere over seven months to map the structure of the network. They first identified large-scale groupings of densely linked blogs on the network and then used clustering methods to discern patterns in the links from these blogs and all other Internet resources to define clusters of bloggers who linked to similar things.

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Heather Havenstein

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