Monday, November 15, 2010

The Failure Of Palestinian Polling--And What Palestinian Social Media Reveals

Asaf Romirowsky writes about the inaccuracy of Palestinian polling:
[P]olling Palestinian society over the past few decades has been more art than science, and traditionally, the polls tend to reflect what their commissioners want to see. Take as a case in point Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. Despite being the go-to person on Palestinian polling, Shikaki became famous both for minimizing Hamas' influence within Palestinian society and inaccurately predicting a Fatah victory in the 2006 elections. In fact, his work helps explain why so many in the U.S. and Europe were so lax about Hamas' participation in the election to begin with. Whenever we hear statements that the majority of Palestinians accept a two-state solution, or that a majority of Palestinian refugees don't really want a right of return, or that Palestinians hate corruption as much as (if not more than) Israelis do, we will find support for these allegations in one of Shikaki's studies. Would that it were so.
The solution to the problem--the means of getting accurate data--requires taking advantage of the Internet in general and analyzing Palestinian social media in particular.

In their study P@lestinian Pulse: What Policymakers Can Learn From Palestinian Social Media, Jonathan Schanzer and Mark Dubowitz come up with results that go against the common assumptions that have been relied upon in the search for Middle East peace.

Here is the executive summary from the actual report:


The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) commissioned a study to explore the Palestinian social media environment in an attempt to determine the sentiments Palestinians hold on issues that could have a significant impact on Washington’s top policy priorities. The analysis drew from posts on blogs, web forums, online news sites, and other Arabic language internet resources, the vast majority of which originated in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, or from users
claiming to be of Palestinian origin.

At FDD’s direction, the Washington, D.C.-based web analysis company ConStrat used military-grade technology to cull information from search engines, unstructured social media sites, YouTube, Twitter, social networks, wikis, and RSS feeds. From May 3 through July 3, 2010, ConStrat viewed approximately 10,000 Palestinian social media entries and analyzed approximately 20 percent of them for relevancy. In the end, the company analyzed 1,788 statements contained within 1,114 unique posts across 996 threads written by 699 authors.

While FDD’s research, even with the help of ConStrat’s software, could not possibly cover the entire Palestinian social media environment, it identifies key trends based on a robust
representative sampling. However, the extent to which blogs and other social media platforms reflect broader public opinion in any society is still unclear. FDD undertook this project with
the assumption that online social networks provide important political insights—particularly in the Palestinian online environment—because they grant their users anonymity and freedom of expression.

FDD’s study found the following trends:
• The Islamist Hamas faction shows little desire for a negotiated peace with Israel. On this issue, the faction’s supporters showed no apparent disagreement with Salafists such as al-Qaeda.

• The Fatah faction, which is the current Palestinian representative in U.S.-led peace talks, is in disarray. Its supporters break down into two factions of roughly equal strength: one that supports non-violence, and one that seeks armed conflict and terrorism against Israel.

• The three-year conflict between Hamas and Fatah is not likely to end soon. The two sides regularly trade barbs online, and FDD found little evidence of rapprochement. Hamas was more interested in rapprochement with the Salafist factions.

• There is little evidence that Palestinians are prepared to challenge Iran’s vast influence in the Gaza Strip, where it is prevalent, or in the West Bank, where its influence is less clear.

• Palestinian reform factions are weak and have little influence online, raising red flags about institution building and/or liberalization.
On the basis of our research, FDD offers three key policy recommendations:
1) The United States cannot afford to discount the potential impact of deepening Palestinian radicalism and rejectionism. If the online environment is even a relatively accurate indicator of Palestinian public sentiment, the Obama administration should consider the serious risks to Israeli security from an overly aggressive and premature push for a comprehensive peace agreement.

2) Washington must continue monitoring and conducting research in the Palestinian online environment. It could provide a better barometer of politics on the ground than Palestinian opinion polls, which have often failed policy makers in the past.

3) The White House should increase funding for the U.S. State Department’s Digital Outreach Team, which puts Arabic speakers from the U.S. government in direct contact with Palestinians in online conversations.
It is FDD’s sincere hope that the results of this study, while somewhat disheartening, will help the Obama administration craft Middle East policies that reflect realities on the ground,
particularly if diplomacy gains momentum
Read the whole report.

The conclusions reached about the disarray of the West Bank infrastructure in general and the weakness of the reform movement there in particular should mitigate against the current rush to establish a second Palestinian state. Unfortunately, that is not likely to happen.

Instead, popular misconceptions and inexperienced leadership inform the current decision making process in Washington.

The next 2 years will be interesting times.

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