The explosion of social media services such as Twitter, which allow researchers to pull data on who is following whom and where has led to another explosion — of social science that seeks to map out social media relationships, and figure out how they influence (or are influenced by) politics, economy and society. One of the people doing interesting work in this space is John Kelly, chief data scientist at Morningside Analytics (Full disclosure — I’ve worked with Kelly on the Blogs and Bullets project for the United States Institute of Peace).

He and his colleagues have done work in the past mapping out the online politics of Iran, and he currently is analyzing data on Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s online presence. The map above shows Rouhani’s Twitter followers, and groups them into different clusters, depending on their other interests. This gives us some interesting clues about who is following Rouhani and why. I asked Kelly five questions about Rouhani’s role on Twitter, and about what this kind of data analysis can do more generally. The answers are below.

What can this kind of mapping of the social media landscape tell us about politics in Iran and the broader region?

As use of social media becomes standard practice for political actors, mapping can reveal the configuration of the political field in a country or region. Additionally, the more a wider slice of the population also uses the tools, the better particular political forces can be understood in relation to cultural features of the population. At the regional level, particularly in the Middle East and Central Asia, the social networks reveal broader societal/civilizational cleavages that exist within and across countries, such as the Sunni/Shiite split, or the cultural footprint of the ancient Persian empire or modern Soviet Union.

For instance, we observed that Afghan Web blogs are densely connected with the Iranian blogosphere. The Afghan language Dari is a version of Persian, and so it makes sense that they would connect, just as you find lots of connections between blogs from Brazil and Portugal. But the fascinating thing was that most of the connections were to the clusters of the Iranian blogosphere that focused on poetry and literature, and represented a shared ancient cultural heritage.

How are you able to detect communities of Twitter users with shared interests, and how do you figure out the social ‘distance’ between them?

Different “layers” of the networked public sphere are treated in special ways, appropriate to the data type. We cluster users based on their social network connections, i.e. who do they follow, mention, retweet, etc. Open Web (blogosphere) maps cluster based on URL hyperlinks. Facebook pages on patterns of likes and comment engagement. “Distance” between sets of actors can be measured in various ways, but in the diagram is visualized based on a “physics model” in which actors appear close in the map to those they are more strongly connected to. The visually clustered groups represent densely interconnected “network neighborhoods.”

Facebook public pages might be clustered together because they like the same musicians or television shows. When we map Facebook in different countries we discover key communities of interest, such as Filipino hip-hop or Turkish soccer clubs. Networks of people discussing electric and hybrid vehicles in Twitter will feature clusters associated with eco-conscious consumers who follow green living experts, and also various clusters of car enthusiasts, who follow custom mod shops, NASCAR racers, or Detroit insiders.

There seem to be many Iranians following Rouhani from within Iran. How can they do this, given Iran’s Internet censorship regime?

Satellite TV is banned also, but lots of people have it. A technically proficient user can fairly easily jump the firewall using proxies and circumvention technologies. It’s the same story with China.

[HF – By subtracting some communities from the map, it is possible to focus in more closely on the importance of others. The map above shows only Rouhani followers who fit into communities focusing on important countries in the region, including Turkey, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia.)

Looking at this data, it doesn’t surprise me that there are lots of journalists and expatriate Iranians following Rouhani. But what does surprise me is how many people are following Rouhani in the broader Middle East region. This is especially interesting given how many Middle Eastern states seem to fear Iran. What do you think is going on here?

This was my greatest surprise as well. I think that the region is now broadly politically active, and particularly since the onset of Arab Spring many political actors and engaged citizens have realized that social media is a key playing field, and so they are active there. When a leader stakes out a presence, particularly a leader as important as Rouhani is now, we should expect those with a stake in regional politics to engage, or at least listen. It’s to be expected that a prominent actor would be followed by friend and foe alike. If you look at networks around liberal think tanks and organizations in D.C., for instance, there are strong clusters of conservative followers. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer!

So should majority Sunni regimes be worried about Shiites’ interest in what Rouhani has to say?

The availability of high-visibility leadership via social media certainly provides a rallying point or frame for bridging claims and identities of concerned actors, such as Shiites in the region. In the past, national audiences could be effectively shielded from outside expressions of leadership. That’s very hard to do now. Should they be worried? I probably would be.