At the beginning of 2013, a team from Small Media began a multi-platform study of pro-government social media users focusing on Blogs, Google+ and Twitter. The team includes researchers Bronwen Robertson and Amin Sabeti, and designer Maral Pourkazemi.

    This report, the first in a series, provides a counterpoint of opinion to what is usually reported on, highlights the concerns of the conservative users, and links these points to the current political landscape in Iran.

  2. BLOGS

    One of our researchers Amin Sabeti has been following a collection of 300 conservative blogs over the past three years. We brought together his list and a directory of 1000 URLs of pro-government ‘Arzeshi’ blogs and refined our collection using the following steps.

    1.     We scraped the directory (pw-arzeshi.com/members.php)

    2.     Then we cleaned out the dead links and added them to the collection of links we had

    3.     Then we ranked them all based on in-links, bulk searching using SEOQuake in Chrome

    4.     We sorted the list based on ranking and removed all blogs that weren’t producing original content or hadn’t been updated in the past 6 weeks

    5.     149 blogs remained

    We used these 149 blogs as our ‘start points’ and crawled the blogs to a depth of two steps. This means we looked at all of the links our bloggers were referring to, and then all of the links that the links they referred to referred to! 

    Yes, there were a lot of links. The final spreadsheet we were working with had more than 400,000 rows. And that was after we had filtered out the huge hubs like social networking sites and Wikipedia.

    Why? We wanted to measure reach, engagement and influence, explore clusters of interrelated bloggers, and identify the sources these clusters were drawing on.


    We are currently repeating the data-gathering process, so that after the presidential elections we’ll be able to show you how their community has changed over time too.


    With our bloggers, the first thing we took a look at was the mutual connections between them and who they were linking to. The big image shows you the most interconnected bloggers in the extended network. 


    A content analysis of their blogs showed us that 6 of these bloggers in the outside circle (whittled down from our original list of 149) support Jalili. One of them is still undecided, but will either vote for Jalili or Qalibaf, two others will vote for Qalibaf, and one will vote for Haddad-Adel.

    The two remaining blogs are group blogs and as such have expressed no particular candidate affiliation. As you can see from the image, those who have a mutual connection are likely to be supporting the same candidate.

    We then wanted to look at who our original bloggers had the most connections to, outside of their original network.

    There are very few mutual connections linking our outer circle with our inner circle on this refined level.

    The most interconnected blog is Arzeshiha, which is a group blog with 7 authors. The most linked-to blog, palakhmun.blogfa.com, publishes posts about the Iran-Iraq war. This was surprising to us, because we were expecting religious texts to be more important than the 1980-1989 war, which most of the bloggers are too young to remember.


    Most of the blogs in the inner circle are apolitical and include images and poems. They’re poorly designed and have lots of bad code in them and are inactive. The owners of these blogs are definitely not ‘cyber soldiers’ of the Islamic Republic, so we’re not convinced that there is a cyber army at all.


    So then we thought that maybe the most prominent news sources in the network would be a good place to look, and we set about creating the ‘info sources’ image.

    All of the tiny white dots are bloggers, and then the bigger spheres are the sources most linked to within the network. 

    Despite Facebook and Twitter being blocked in Iran, they feature prominently in the map of conservative users.

    The image shows which websites are the most commonly referenced among pro-government users and how they interact with them. The information sources can be divided into three categories: news, official websites, and tools.


    The top news sources for Iran’s pro-government bloggers are Raja News, a hardliner website close to Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, widely recognised as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s spiritual advisor, and Kamran Bagheri Lankarani. Dr. Lankarani was originally one of the 8 candidates approved for the 2013 presidential elections, however he resigned and offered his campaign and support to Saeid Jalili.

    Fars News is a news agency closely linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, the IRGC, and they are commonly known as a propaganda tool that focuses efforts around defaming regime oppositionists.


    Unsurprisingly, the top official website followed by pro-government bloggers is the website of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei (farsi.khamenei.ir) and his office (leader.ir). Websites such as president.ir and ahmadinejad.ir are frequently referenced, however ahmadinejad.ir (Ahmadinejad’s personal blog) is infrequently referenced compared with hardliner news websites such as snn.ir or yjc.ir.



    The interesting part of this map for us is that the pro-government users are using the same tools as their opposition. They link to Twitter and Facebook, totally blocked in Iran, and also to Google, which remains unblocked. Pichak is a popular website in Iran from which bloggers can download tools/themes and add-ons for their blogs.


    Of the most-linked to websites among our original users, who is actually linking to them? Maral Pourkazemi came up with this very clever way of showing which of the bloggers from our original list are linking to which sources. She’s created an animated GIF of the info sources image so that you can get a different perspective of the clusters and their reference points.  

    Pro-government bloggers have linked to many different websites, some of which are quite surprising. Goodreads is a social network for book lovers, and it’s featuring higher than Fars News. Google is a frequently referenced source, but pro-government bloggers frequently accuse Google of spying.

    For our next report we’ll probe further into the context surrounding these links, to see how and why our bloggers are using the information they get from these hubs. Just because a website ranks high on this list, doesn’t mean that they are supportive of it.


    The next platform we explored was Twitter. To do this we selected the 6 most high profile pro-government Twitter users as our start point, and sifted through their followers. A combined list of 75 high profile pro-government users was created.

    We then looked at data on the followers of these users, filtering out those who hadn’t Tweeted something during the past month. Follower IDs were called from the Twitter API.

    Our resulting network had 75,730 users, with 90,501 following/follower relationships. Of course, they’re not all pro-government Iranians. So, we had to put some filters on the network to come up with meaningful data that we could work with.

    The first thing we asked was, who are these users?

    The above image shows our 75 original users, the date they registered on Twitter, and their number of followers. As you can see, one of our users had far more followers than anyone else, and broke any kind of graph we tried to work with.

    For the rest of the data gathering, we excluded this user in order to create a more reflective portrait of a broader network without being skewed by them. The account?

    @Khomeinii1 (make sure you don’t miss the extra ‘i’) is a Twitter account fan page for the late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran. So, no surprise really that he features there.


    We looked at the metadata for our users, and found that a majority of our 75 influential pro-government Twitter users are based in Iran. Surprising was that 8 users listed themselves as being in Afghanistan.

    We then created a ‘timezone’ map for the followers of the 75 (minus 1) Twitter users as well, and found that although 45% of them were in Iran, other locations were also prominent despite most of the Tweets being in the Farsi language.

    This next image shows the top 10 locations of members of the pro-government extended network.


    Again, we were interested in finding out more about the mutual connections between our Twitter users. This image shows the connections between our 75 (minus 1) original users, with the mutual connections highlighted. We were pretty surprised to see such few mutual connections.

    The image is sorted according to the number of connections each user has with other users in the network. Among the top 10, only 3 of them have been active on Twitter recently, and they are publishing tweets only on significant occasions such as the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.

    The top 10 highlighted Twitter users don’t have any mutual connections within themselves. This shows that the pro-government Twitter users are factionalised. The idea of pro-government propaganda on Twitter is also a myth, because there is no core network and very little regular tweeting going on in this network.


    With this image we’ve gone further and taken a look, as we did with the blogs, at the mutual connections in the extended network. The image above shows our top Twitter users and their mutual connections with the top 7 Twitter users from the extended network.

    In the small images we break them down according to candidate affiliation; again, Jalili and Qalibaf steal the show. All except 3 of the Twitter users have tweeted about who they will vote for.