Thursday 1 April 2010

Mapping of Britain's Islamic 'Blogosphere' draws criticism

A study of the extent and allegely also the content of Islamic blogs in the UK, commissioned by the country's Home Office to its Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU) has been criticized by observers for its lack of profundity and rigour.

Executed within the framework of the UK government's overall Counter-Terrorism Strategy (CONTEST)*, the resulting report, entitled Estimating network size and tracking information dissemination among Islamic Blogs was released in March 2010, although the data collection was completed in April 2008.

In a commentary on a headline article appearing in The Guardian of 23 March 2010, Brian Whittaker questions the value of the exercise and less than exciting conclusions of the report's author, Dr. David Stevens of the University of Nottingham.

Even more incisive is the critique by blogger Jillian York, who is associated with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. York's criticism zeroes in on Stevens' reliance on link analysis and keywords, with no apparent attention for content. Based on her experience at the Berkman Center, York argues that this kind of research cannot be carried out without a 'human touch'. There a study of the Arabic-language blogosphere covering more than 35,000 blogs, led to a mapping of 6,000 sites, '4,000 of which were hand-coded by Arabic-speaking researchers'. Compared to that approach, the Home Office project seems indeed rather shallow. York also rightly questions the credentials of author David Stevens. Apparently a specialist in Anglo-American normative political philosophy, one wonders indeed why he was selected to conduct this research, and not a more recognized figure from the field of Islamic Studies who actually specialises in 'cyber Islam', such as Gary Bunt from the University of Wales at Lampeter, who has a track record of publications on the subject, and whose website Virtually Islamic already contains a wealth of information.

* The full policy document can be found here

For a recent study of the role of media in today's Muslim societies and communities, which also adds a useful comparative perspective, see the special issue of the academic journal Contemporary Islam of April 2010.

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