How Jonathan Guyer got our survey of Palestinian social media wrong.
Writing for Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel, Jonathan Guyer recently panned "P@lestinian Pulse: What Policymakers Can Learn from Palestinian Social Media," a study I co-authored with Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Guyer’s review is wrong on several critical points, and necessitates corrections.
Dubowitz and I undertook our study to explore the relatively new realm of Palestinian social media. Our study found that, in their discussions online, Palestinians are generally opposed to diplomacy with Israel. We also found that the Fatah faction, the most prominent party representing the Palestinians in U.S.-led peace talks, is divided somewhat evenly over the utility of violence against Israel. We also found that Hamas supporters online do not waver in their jihadist view of violence against Israel. Indeed, they appear to be in sync with a growing contingent of Salafists on this point.
How did we reach these findings? We commissioned ConStrat, a company with powerful and proprietary technology the U.S. military uses to analyze Internet trends for myriad national security concerns. They mined hundreds of thousands of sites to match key words on topics relating to peace, diplomacy, violence and radicalization. The goal was to shed some additional light on Palestinian public opinion, particularly since polling data has been wildly inaccurate in recent years.
Guyer begins with an inaccuracy of his own: "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."
This is simply wrong. Take the online environment in the United States. Politically active bloggers support the Tea Party or MoveOn.org, depending on whether they lean right or left. Few can be classified as neutral. Accordingly, content is usually driven by ideology, not mood.
The same holds in Palestinian society, where many websites and chat forums very clearly support Hamas, Fatah, or other factions. While current events may influence specific articles, posts, or conversations, comments are typically consistent with a site’s overall ideology. Unfortunately, in Palestinian society, the dominant ideologies rarely lend themselves to peacemaking. So, while our study found a few moderate voices, they were a clear minority.
Guyer apparently did not like this. He invokes a Harvard study that found "little support for terrorism or violent jihad in the Arabic language blogosphere," but offers no proof that Palestinian online trends match those of the broader Arab world. Indeed, it’s hard to understand why Guyer would lump the Palestinians together with all Arabs.
Similarly, Guyer did not like that our research in the Palestinian blogosphere found little support for third-party leaders. He cites surveys suggesting that these players "have great resonance on the ground in spite of their absence online." This could be true — our study merely noted their absence online. It simply suggests a need for further study.
Inexplicably, Guyer claims there is "no hard division in the network between English and Arabic blogs." This is patently false. On matters of Middle East peace, there is a very distinct firewall. Only a handful of Palestinian sites in Arabic openly advocate peace; almost all of them are in English. In fact, over nine weeks, we challenged the team at ConStrat to find a nucleus of moderate Palestinian websites in Arabic, and they couldn’t.
Guyer is therefore also wrong that our study was designed to focus "solely on ‘rejectionist’ posts." We were committed to surveying the breadth of opinion in Palestinian social media — it was these sites, however, that constituted the bulk of the material to sample.
On the question of methodology, Guyer falsely claims the topics we chose — peace process, violence, theological radicalization, political radicalization, Palestinian reform factions, and outside radical influences — "were apparently chosen with an end result in mind."
What do peace and reform have in common with violence and theological radicalization? Little. They represent a spectrum of approaches to issues of concern to U.S. policymakers.
Moreover, Guyer’s assertion that we omitted terms like "Israeli occupation," "settlements," or "resistance" from the study’s taxonomy is simply false. These terms were integral to our study. The word "resistance," a euphemism for violence against Israel, was a key word in our exploration of political radicalization. Similarly, "settlements" and "occupation" were useful in identifying attitudes about the peace process.
The most telling part of Guyer’s article may have been his quote from Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. Shikaki is perhaps best known for inaccurately predicting a Fatah victory in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections.
"The idea of having a representative sample by looking at the Internet is absolutely ridiculous," Shikaki told Guyer.
Shouldn’t Shikaki, a purported expert on Palestinian sentiment, be prompted for a substantive response? This quote leads the reader to assume that Shikaki is not even remotely curious about technology that could help policymakers learn more about political sentiment online. If this is the case, Guyer gives him an unwarranted free pass.
Guyer then upbraids ConStrat for not offering percentages for the trends identified. As we clearly state in the study’s introduction, and as I explained to Guyer by phone, we believed percentages would reinforce a disingenuous notion that ours was a statistical survey. Our goal was simply to provide an accurate snapshot of what Palestinians were saying online during a nine-week period and share those results in an effort to prompt further study and exploration.
To conclude, Guyer states that there is "no monolithic ‘Palestinian social media environment’." This is true. And it may even be true that online trends, on their own, could yield a "misreading" of Palestinian sentiment.
But Guyer himself admits that an "exponential rise" in access to technology among Palestinians "highlights the importance of social media and the need for further study."
This was exactly why we conducted the research that led to P@lestinian Pulse. Too bad Guyer didn’t like our findings.