By Clark Boyd
The World, WGBH Boston
Bloggers are having a real impact on opinions inside many Arabic nations, finds a broad look at the blogosphere in the Middle East.
The study has given web researchers insight into the issues and forces that are shaping online conversation in the Middle East and beyond.
The study, carried out by the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard analyzed some 35,000 active Arabic language blogs in 18 different countries. This included several thousand blogs that mixed Arabic and English, or Arabic and French.
From that set, researchers identified the most connected blogs, i.e. those that were the most linked to, and then used a team of Arabic speakers to further analyze the content.
A map of this blogging network was then created.
"The goal," said the authors, "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, religion, culture and international affairs."
The study was paid for largely with US State Department funds. The findings were presented publicly at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, DC.
"We found some surprises," said John Kelly of Morningside Analytics, which did statistical and network analysis on the project.
"We found that the Arabic blogosphere is organised primarily around countries," Mr Kelly said, noting that Egypt formed the largest cluster on the Arabic blogging map. The study also singled out Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Syria as having sizable blogging clusters.
Within a given country, the make-up of the blogging cluster turned out to be quite varied. The Egyptian cluster, for example, "is characterized by secular reformist bloggers" on one hand, and yet also "by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that is technically illegal in Egypt but whose online presence appears to be tolerated."
Saad Ibrahim, a Harvard professor and well-known Egyptian dissident, was not involved in the study but he spoke at the Washington event to launch the report and offered his opinion on Egypt's prominence in the Arabic blogging world.
"'Blogger,'" Mr Ibrahim said, "has become almost a revered term in Egypt. Groups that are otherwise completely disenfranchised, the only outlet for them is online."
He noted that many Egyptian bloggers have paid dearly in recent years for voicing their opinions online. Bloggers have been imprisoned, and even tortured by the authorities. But that, Mr Ibrahim said, has galvanized public opinion even more in the bloggers' favour.
The report also identified two large cross-national groups of what the authors call "bridge bloggers." One group is located in the countries of the eastern Mediterranean and frequently blogs in English in addition to, or instead of, Arabic. Another group of bloggers in North Africa does much the same thing, only in French and Arabic.
Blogs and online spaces are informing debate in many Arab nations
Report co-author John Palfrey noted that these bridge bloggers were important because they serve as cultural interpreters for many in the West. Bridge blogs, he said, are often where "the water-cooler chatter" of the Arabic-speaking world gets into the wider public domain.
That chatter, the study found, is largely shaped by demographics and geography. According to researchers, Arabic bloggers tend to be predominantly young and male, and they are more likely to link to YouTube videos and Wikipedia as news and information sources than to outlets such as Al-Jazeera.
The authors found that Arabic bloggers mostly focus on local politics and local issues, and that, perhaps surprisingly, "the United States is not a dominant political topic in Arabic blogs; neither are the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan."
The one political topic that did cut across all the various clusters in the Arabic blogging world, however, was the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, in particular the situation in Gaza.
Berkman's Bruce Etling noted that the authors were also surprised "that there was no cluster around extremism or jihad." In fact, the report notes, "When discussing terrorism, Arab bloggers are overwhelmingly critical of violent extremists."
But a couple of the panellists warned against making broad assumptions based on the findings of the Harvard report.
Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi who writes a popular blog called Raed in the Middle, noted that many Iraqis are not blogging at all because the infrastructure in the country remains so bad.
The study came as protests continued in Iran.
And those that are online, Mr Jarrar said, "tend to participate in private group websites or bulletin boards, not public blogs. And so it's skewed. It's all about how gets to have access, who speaks English, and who gets linked to by the Western media."
"Jihadists aren't blogging," said Georgetown University professor Daniel Brumberg, who also heads of the United States Institute of Peace's Muslim World Initiative. "They've put up the walls, but that does not suggest a lack of influence."
The reports authors, though, did not shy away from criticism. They noted that the study was only designed to analyze publicly accessible blogs, and that it should not be considered a survey of the entire Arabic-speaking world.
"We have no idea whether, or to what degree, these attitudes reflect broader public opinion," said Mr Kelly of Morningside Analytics.
Berkman's Bruce Etling said that the report was just a first step in understanding what's going on online in the Arabic-speaking world.
"We want to delve into more extremist views," Mr Etling said. "We would also like to do similar mapping with offline groups and compare and contrast them with online groups."
The report, of course, comes out against the backdrop of events in Iran in the wake of a disputed election.
The Iranian government's blocking of websites such as Facebook, and Iranians' use of services like Twitter to stay informed and to mobilize, were certainly present at the unveiling of the report.
To Mr Kelly, the situation in Iran highlights larger questions raised by the findings of the Harvard study.
"To me, the key question for this region is will online discussion be something that happens out in the light where anyone can read it and link to it, or will it be restricted to hiding out in chat rooms and behind passwords?" he asked.
"If the only place people have to talk is behind closed doors, then we're not going to get the kind of impact of this technology I think we all want to see in that part of the world," Mr Kelly said.