Mining the Middle East Political Web for Research

As part of the Center’s Mellon Foundation-funded investigation on archiving political communications from the World Wide Web (See Focus Spring 2003) the Center examined some of the scholarly uses of Web content as primary source materials for research and publication. In the process, project investigators interviewed a number of scholars who drew heavily upon Political Web sources in their work. Interviews conducted with those scholars explored the nature of their research, the kinds of Web materials used, and the products generated by their work. The purpose of the study was to ensure that the methodologies for harvesting and preserving Political Web content will support the actual research being done.

One researcher surveyed had made intensive use of the Web-based political communications pertaining to the Middle East, and published an analysis of changes in Political Web materials over time. Sean McLaughlin’s “The Use of the Internet for Political Action by Non-state Dissident Actors in the Middle East,” published in First Monday in November 2003, is a lengthy and revealing case study of Political Web production. Research for the publication was undertaken by McLaughlin for a senior honors thesis at Georgetown University under the direction of Professor Bernard I. Finel, the executive director of the university’s M.A. in Security Studies Program and the Center for Peace and Security Studies.

Unlike the other researchers interviewed for the Political Web project, for McLaughlin the medium itself was the message. Where other researchers mined the contents of Political Web communications for information on actual events, McLaughlin studied the communications strategies adopted by selected political actors, analyzing the changes in those strategies and the messages they conveyed during a finite period.

McLaughlin studied multiple successive instances of more than two dozen Web sites maintained by three dissident groups: the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia. His research involved monitoring changes in the sites produced by the subject organizations by accessing those sites, at weekly intervals, through 2001 and 2002.

McLaughlin’s study provides much information about the behaviors of Political Web producers, particularly about the activities of dissident groups in a region where censorship and other state-imposed constraints disrupt traditional channels of communication between those groups and their supporters. He showed how the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA), founded in 1996 to promote Islamic reform within the Saudi kingdom, crafted its use of Web communications to elude detection and accommodate the horizontal, non-hierarchical structure of this trans-national organization.

McLaughlin’s work also indicates the variety of activities involved in producing Political Web content in the region. Producer activities cover a complex array of endeavors: creation of original political communications and information content; mounting of the content on the Web; the hosting of that content on one or multiple servers; and the support of its functionality over time. In some instances producers also “archive” their own content in open or semi-open Web spaces. The Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA), for instance, maintains back issues of their electronic newsletters on their Web site, like many traditional news organizations. Some producers also use their Web sites as conduits for gathering subscribers for printed newsletters and newspapers (Muslim Brotherhood) or participants for authenticated online listserv discussions (MIRA).

McLaughlin supplemented his real-time monitoring of the sites with use of the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. For McLaughlin the Wayback Machine was a source of comparative material, namely of past instances of some of the subject organizations’ sites from as early as 1996. He also used the Wayback Machine in his published article as a reliable tool for making subject sites that had disappeared since he began his study viewable in his reference citations.

McLaughlin sees the archives available through the Wayback Machine as vital to his study but somewhat limited. He indicated that certain kinds of site content that the Wayback Machine did not preserve, such as images, captions, and sound and multimedia files, may have been useful in his study. McLaughlin noted that a great deal of multimedia content, like Arabic language audio recordings available on some of the sites had been lost. He remarked that the Saudi dissident groups studied rely heavily on recorded messages, some as long as thirty minutes, which change frequently, even weekly. Yet despite the occasional losses of visual and audio content, however, McLaughlin felt he was able to get “an accurate picture of the political environment.”