April 6, 2008


Bloggers in Iran push limits of government tolerance (Neil MacFarquhar, April 6, 2008, NY Times)

Troll through the Iranian blogosphere and you can find all manner of unexpectedly harsh critiques denouncing the government of the Islamic republic, from reformists who revile it as well as conservatives who support it. [...]

The study, conducted over the past year by the Berkman Center, was financed by the U.S. State Department and is part of a larger and longer project on the impact new communications media are having on democracy and democratization in several countries. The research being released Sunday documents what types of blogs are being posted in Iran.

Researchers used computer software to analyze more than 6,000 blogs by subject matter to get a general sense of what issues Iranians were discussing; then the team, which included Persian-speaking students, read more than 500 of the postings.

To build a fuller picture of the Iranian blogosphere, the researchers also used the results of a parallel study that documents what blogs were being blocked by the authorities in 60 countries, including Iran. That study is also being done at the Berkman Center in collaboration with universities in Canada and Britain.

The researchers' general conclusion was that, "despite periodic persecution," many Iranians are able to use blogs to express "viewpoints challenging the ruling ideology of the Islamic Republic."

The study found, for instance, that fewer than a quarter of blogs pushing for change, including those written by expatriates, were blocked. In addition, conservatives of all stripes maintain a lively debate about Ahmadinejad.

"Arguing about stuff, arguing about public affairs, is taking root in the blogosphere on the conservative side, on the reformist side, all over," said John Kelly, the founder of Morningside Analytics, a New York company that took part in the study and created the software that helped researchers group blogs together by subject and social networks.

"We don't know if the government is not trying or not able to block as much as we thought," said Kelly, who wrote the study with Bruce Etling, the director of the project at Berkman. "They may allow a certain amount of online discourse to be there because it seems to underline the legitimacy of the system."

Political groups bash each other with gusto from both sides of the political divide. One conservative blogger mocked reformists for pretending to care about economic matters. "The nature of the reformists is actually extremism," wrote a blogger under the name Shahrahedalat or the Highway of Justice, adding that the Iranian people would not be deceived.

Reformist supporters give back as good as they get. Even if supporting reformist politicians is nearly futile, wrote a blogger under the name Inharfha or These Talks, it is "much better than sitting back and watching how our country is being taken back to the ruins of Medieval times."

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 6, 2008 9:17 AM
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