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Who’s Winning Iran’s Google War?

To understand Iranian politics, ask a search engine.

Berkman Center for Internet and SocietyOpen conversation: Now more than ever, Iranians are taking their political debates to the Web.

In recent weeks, the likely winner of Iran’s looming presidential elections has gone from a foregone conclusion to anyone’s best guess. The two front-running presidential candidates, current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, are vying for vital ground in a ballot too close to call. Polling in Iranian is notoriously unreliable. Yet Google Trends, stocked with data from 64 million Internet users in the Middle East — half of whom live in Iran — might be able to help us learn what potential Iranian voters are thinking right now. Looking at the Web tells us much about the candidates’ domestic strongholds and their international support. Online behavior, from Twitter to search engines, offers clues about where supporters are congregated.

Internet penetration in Iran has increased more than 9,000 percent since 2000. Today, more than one third of all Iranian citizens are online. And those online citizens are interested in politics; Over the past 90 days, Farsi-language Google searches for Ahmadinejad have increased by 350 percent, election by 950 percent, Mousavi by 1,300 percent, and debate (as in the televised ones between candidates) by what Google Insights for Search — a site that allows you to compare global search volumes — calls breakout proportions.

Worldwide, Mousavi has received only about half the search volume as Ahmadinejad over the last 30 days. Iran, not surprisingly, is the location of the most searches of the two rivals, followed by Indonesia, Canada, Sweden, and Switzerland — the last three of which are home to moderately-sized Iranian diaspora populations. By city, Tehran’s traffic numbers come in first, followed by Jakarta, Washington, Toronto, and Los Angeles. Persian is the most common language used in global searches, with Indonesian (Bahasa), English, and Swedish next in line. Indonesians’ interest is particularly interesting to note. With no Iranian diaspora there, it is likely religious transnational solidarity driving the attention.

Within Iran, it is telling that Mousavi has had a greater share of the English-language search volume in the last 30 days, while Ahmadinejad dominates searches in Persian. This might be because Mousavi, who has been touted as a reformist candidate, appeals to a demographic more likely to speak English. Consistent with this pattern, Mousavi’s search-query strongholds are in Tehran and Shiraz — places where you’re more likely to find urban elites. Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad’s appeal is highest among those less likely to have English as their default Internet browser language. Ahmadinejad remains a big player in all prominent Iranian cities but only completely dominates the less-cosmopolitan cities of Qom, Karaj, and Mashhad.

The 400,000-strong Farsi blogosphere is a good place to get an overall picture of the substance of Iran’s political debate. On June 5, the Berkman Center for Internet Society at Harvard University, which maps the Persian blogosphere according to thematic linkage patterns, found seven major groupings: poetry, mixed network, reformist politics, secular/expatriate, conservative politics, religious youth, and cyber-Shiism. Key terms for conservative political bloggers, for example, include Palestine, Iranian Revolution, Mohsen Rezaee (another presidential candidate), Seyyed Hossein Borujerdi (a Islamic jurist from the mid 20th century), and Masoud Dehnamaki (a conservative activist, journalist, and filmmaker). This conservative blogging cluster is one concerned with power politics and current events — one not monolithically supportive of government institutions and political leaders.

Social networking sites, too, are hosting conversations, and here, like the blogosphere, all ideological sides are involved. Orkut, Google’s social networking site, has traditionally been most accessible to average Iranians for its easy loading on slow Internet speeds. (Iran’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology has historically impeded the adoption of broadband, making it prohibitively expensive for users.) Writing on Orkut, groups comment aggressively, assigning blame for grievances and laying out their desires in strong language. Facebook, by comparison, tends to attract more reform-minded online interest groups. The split may well be explained by varying Internet speeds that trace socioeconomic lines.

Equally important, however, is what does not take place online in Iran. The OpenNet Initiative, a collaborative research initiative across four academic institutions, estimates that Iran maintains pervasive filtering in political, social, and Internet tools, with only a medium level of transparency and consistency. Information is not always accessible and debate is not always free. Facebook, for example, was intermittently blocked in May 2009, presumably to limit the tool’s influence on election outcomes. Online groups such as Supporting Iranians Access to Facebook proliferated in response, gaining more than 24,000 supporters. According to Google Insights for Search, over the past 90 days, Iranian searches for Facebook have increased 250 percent.

But if traffic monitoring makes anything clear, it is that Iranians are increasingly determined to hold political conversations online. Over time, technology will come to their aid, making such impediments as Internet speed and filtering less important. Innovative aggregators such as Lebanon’s Sharek961.org empower citizens to promote transparency by sending election-related reports via SMS, e-mail, or Twitter — all without the need for broadband. Whoever wins on Friday, it appears inevitable that in elections to come, the mouse will be even more predictive of the ballot box pen.

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