My first piece up at Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel:
The last time you visited your favorite blog, how wide of a cross-section of public opinion did the comments represent? It probably depended on the blogger, on the article, and on the mood of the day.
Yet these limitations haven't stopped advocates from trying to discern Palestinian public opinion from bloggers' views. Last week, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) presented to Congress a new report that puts Palestinian public attitudes, in contrast to polling data, in a decidedly hostile light. "P@lestinian Pulse: What Policymakers Can Learn From Palestinian Social Media," by Jonathan Schanzer and Mark Dubowitz is the first published study which attempts to ascertain Palestinian public opinion exclusively from web sources. But is the report accurate?
FDD contracted out to ConStrat, a D.C.-based communications firm, which mined an array of content, and then FDD drew broad conclusions such as Hamas "supporters showed no apparent disagreement with Salafists such as al-Qaeda" and "Palestinian reform factions are weak and have little influence online." But the study's methodology leaves much to be desired: it's impossible to confirm whether the sample only includes Palestinians; there isn't a clear theory of how to analyze this content or how FDD reached these conclusions.
Sentiment analysis via social media is a rising trend in the field of public opinion. In the Arabic-language context, Harvard's Berkley Center for Internet and Society published an extensive report that portrays the Arabic blogosphere as a dynamic, complex ecosystem. One of the Berkley Center's key findings was that they "found little support for terrorism or violent jihad in the Arabic language blogosphere and quite a lot of criticism." This doesn't mesh with Schanzer and Dubowitz's conclusion that participants in Arabic-language social media represent a growing radicalized population that seeks to spoil Obama's peace push.
Online social forums should tell Palestine watchers a lot. But they won't necessarily offer a more nuanced picture of the 4.7 million Palestinian refugees living in the Occupied Territory and also in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria who are less likely to have internet access than those in the West Bank. Moreover, the lines between those residing in Palestine and those in the diaspora are blurred online.Continue reading at Foreign Policy.