CONTEST is the United Kingdom’s counter-terrorism strategy, with a stated aim to “reduce the risk to the UK and its interests from international terrorism.” The UK’s Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU) is set up to commission communications research to support the CONTEST strategy.
According to a recent Guardian piece, the RICU commissioned a study to estimate and track the scale and influence of Islamic bloggers in Britain. Like the Berkman Center’s mapping of the Arabic-language blogosphere, the study used link analysis as a method to determine popularity of certain blogs.
Unlike the Berkman Center’s study, however, which focused on the wider Arabic-language blogosphere and encompassed over 35,000 blogs (6,000 of which were then mapped, and 4,000 of which were hand-coded by Arabic-speaking researchers), the RICU study looked at around 140 blogs identified (by researchers, using keywords) as “pro-Islamic,” gathered from the blog directories BlogCatalog, Blogorama, (the now defunct) BritBlog, eTalkingHead, and Technorati, and found via keyword searches on Google Blog Search.
The researchers then identified the top 20 blogs for deeper analysis, resulting in the following table:
Number 3 immediately caught my eye of course; the Angry Arab News Service is a blog written by As’ad Abukhalil, a Lebanese-American professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus and visiting professor at UC, Berkeley, who on Facebook currently describes his own religion as “Banana Cream Pies” (note to those who don’t follow the Angry Arab: a) you should and b) a quick read will show you that he’s an atheist secularist with a wicked sense of humor.)
I read the whole paper, looking for an explanation–There wasn’t one. The study’s stated purpose made things no clearer:
The purpose of this study has been to measure the size of the community of Islamic (pro-leaning) bloggers who post, in English, on topics pertaining to politics in and about the UK. Second, to gain an indicative understanding of the level of social networking amongst that community and to provide some form of hierarchical structure to it.
The study relied on link analysis, so it makes sense that Angry Arab would turn up in the initial results; he is a prolific blogger, who links often to news stories–both those with which he agrees and those which he does not. But no amount of “deeper analysis” would find him to be a “pro-Islamic leaning blogger,” as the study indicates.
The first blog on the list is that of Ali Eteraz, a Pakistani lawyer and novelist, whose book made it to Oprah’s gilded list. His writing contributions online range as far as Jewcy and the Huffington Post. I don’t actually know if Eteraz is a practicing Muslim; that would require digging beyond his web site, for sure. His “Islamic leanings” seem to be derived from his background and a deep interest in politics of so-called Islamic countries, which he writes about frequently. Based solely on his web site, is he “pro-Islamic?” As much as I am.
It’s clear to me that researcher David Stevens, of Nottingham University, who carried out the research, didn’t bother to read Angry Arab’s blog at all. His reliance on link analysis and keywords (often used by bloggers to self-define) isn’t enough; blogosphere research requires a human touch. Stevens’ research, judging by his staff profile on Nottingham’s web site, has nothing to do with Internet and society. His main area of research is contemporary Anglo-American (normative) political philosophy. I’m not sure what the UK’s Home Office was thinking commissioning blogosphere research from a philosopher with limited knowledge of blogging.
In fact, I’m not sure what the Home Office was thinking at all; if CONTEST is a counter-terrorism strategy and RICU an agency to support counter-terrorism research, then why a blog study analyzing “Islamic” or “pro-Islamic” blogs? The study appears to be making the case that being “Islamic” (or Muslim) is a short hop away from being a terrorist (or for that matter, an Islamist).
If this study is taken at face value for its link analysis, it’s perfectly sound: yes, these bloggers link to “Islamic” web sites. Any deeper look, however, shows a shallow and quite frankly, racist study that attempts to draw lines between bloggers who are Muslim or Arab, with a strong interest in politics and who are prolific writers, with terrorism.
If this is what’s shaping the UK’s anti-terrorism policy, we have two reasons to be afraid: For our Muslim friends, whose very mention of their religion can apparently deem them worth tracking, and for the fear of actual terrorist activity online, which lies far beyond any place this study could reach.
*The Guardian’s Brian Whitaker also tore the study apart, but I personally don’t feel that he went far enough in his criticisms.