Voice

The Tehran Connection

How much can a superfast algorithm tell us about Iran? Quite a lot, actually.

Iran's nuclear program has been one of the hottest topics in foreign policy for years, and attention has only intensified over the past few days, as an interim agreement was reached in Geneva to limit enrichment activity in pursuit of a more comprehensive deal. The details of the deal itself are of course interesting, but in aggregate the news stories about Iran can tell us far more than we can learn simply by reading each story on its own. By using "big data" analytics of the world's media coverage, combined with network visualization techniques, we can study the web of relationships around any given storyline -- whether it focuses on an individual, a topic, or even an entire country. Using these powerful techniques, we can move beyond specifics to patterns -- and the patterns tell us that our understanding of Iran is both sharp and sharply limited.

In the diagram below, every global English-language news article monitored by the GDELT Global Knowledge Graph -- a massive compilation of the world's people, organizations, locations, themes, emotions, and events -- has been analyzed to identify all people mentioned in articles referencing any location in Iran between April and October 2013. A list was compiled of every person mentioned in each article, and all names mentioned in an article together were connected. The end result was a network diagram of all of the people mentioned in the global news coverage of Iran over the last seven months and who has appeared with whom in that coverage.

This network diagram was then visualized using a technique that groups individuals who are more closely connected with each other, placing them physically more proximate in the diagram, while placing individuals with fewer connections farther apart. Then, using an approach known as "community finding," clusters of people who are more closely connected with each other than with the rest of the network were drawn in the same color. The specific color assigned to each group is not meaningful, only that people drawn in the same color are more closely connected to one another. Together, these two approaches make the overall macro-level structure of the network instantly clear, teasing apart the clusters and connections among the newsmakers defining Iranian news coverage.

(For the technical readers, the software used was Gephi, the layout algorithm was "Force Atlas 2," and the community-finding tool was Blondel et al.'s implementation of modularity finding.)

Because most names in the news occur in just a handful of articles, the visual above shows the result of filtering the network to show only those names that occurred in 15 or more articles. This eliminates the vast majority of names, while preserving names that are more likely to be directly related to Iranian affairs and still capturing a broad swath of the discourse around Iran. The purple cluster is largely the United States and its allies, with Barack Obama right in the center, while the dark blue node towards of the lower center of the entire network is Edward Snowden, capturing the way in which he has become one of the most prominent figures in discussion of U.S. foreign policy. This is a fascinating finding: While Snowden obviously has no part in the Iranian-U.S. nuclear talks, his outsized role in the global conversation about U.S. foreign policy has made him part of the context in which those talks are discussed. In particular, there has been substantial media coverage connecting the approaches Snowden used to defeat the NSA's internal security procedures with some of those used by the United States in its attempts to sabotage Iran's nuclear efforts. The media has also used the materials Snowden has released to reconstruct how U.S. spy agencies may have been involved in the Stuxnet attack on Iran.

The blue-green cluster in the bottom right largely consists of Israeli reporters and commentators, while the light blue cluster at top left consists of international reporters. The yellow cluster along the left side of the graph is where all of the Iranian names appear, with key figures like Hassan Rouhani, Ali Khamenei, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad all playing prominent roles in bridging Iran to the other clusters. Iranian politicians like Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Mohammad-Reza Aref, and Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel play central roles internally to the cluster, representing their important roles within Iran, but their limited engagement and contextualization over the last several months with the rest of the world.

The fact that this network accurately distinguishes internal and external leaders is a critical finding. Such resolving power means that this approach of externally mapping the newsmaker network around a country using public news coverage is sufficiently accurate to capture the nuance between newsmakers who operate largely within a country and those who have a more external role, and the external newsmakers with whom they are most closely connected. That such a news-based network would be capable of perceiving such nuanced detail suggests this approach may have powerful applications for mapping the internal structure of countries and organizations that receive considerable media coverage, but for which policymakers lack the detailed leadership diagrams compiled for higher-profile subjects like Iran.

The visual also makes it clear that the discourse around Iran does not focus on Iran itself or its internal politics, but rather on its nuclear ambitions and how they fits into the rest of the world. In particular, there is a strong Western-centric narrative to the English-language coverage around Iran, emphasizing U.S. interests, with Iranian leaders mentioned only in passing as they relate to those interests. In other words, news coverage across the world focuses on what the United States wants from Iran and what Iran needs to do to satisfy those demands, rather than the Iranian perspective on its role in the world. This is a key finding, as it reflects Iran's intense marginalization over its nuclear program and is in contrast to other nations like Egypt. (An interactive version of this network is available here.)

The visualization below displays the same network as above, but this time filters to include only names and connections appearing in at least 50 articles, reflecting the most dominant newsmakers in global coverage of Iran. As one might expect, this graph reflects a much simpler structure, with Iranian figures occupying the lower green segment and the United States, its allies, and related countries like Russia occupying the top yellow cluster. The orange cluster at far lower left consists of a set of major reporters and a few politicians connected back to the broader network through Edward Snowden. In a nod to Israel's key influence, Benjamin Netanyahu is the central pink node that connects the U.S. and Iranian clusters, while other key European figures like Catherine Ashton and William Hague also reside in this interface layer. (An interactive version of this network is available here.)

In Iran, it is notable that the actual nexus of power, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, does not occupy any more central of a network role than current President Hassan Rouhani or former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This reflects the fact that despite his actual ultimate authority over Iranian politics, he maintains a relatively low external profile, delegating most interactions with foreign dignitaries and formal public statements of policy. This can be used to better understand how a nation's political elite view themselves and their internal and external roles, and especially how this may be changing over time.

Perhaps the most interesting finding is that when these "newsmaker networks" are constructed for a nation, the resulting layers of the network appear to at least largely match the broad contours of the political environment in that nation. Leaders most closely connected with external nations like the United States are those representing that nation's foreign policy efforts, while those in successively inward layers are those who occupy progressively more internal roles in domestic politics.

This, however, raises the critical question: If data mining only tells us what we already know, is it actually useful? The ability of a network diagram, constructed automatically by computers and entirely of open global news coverage, to capture at least a semblance of the internal political structure of a nation, especially the separation of internal and external layers, is remarkable in what it enables. Our deep understanding of Iran's internal power structure comes only through the breathtaking investment by the U.S. foreign policy community of decades of intense study by vast teams of analysts. The ability of a computer algorithm to arrive at even a most remotely similar diagram in a matter of seconds based only on open news coverage represents a fundamental transformation of our ability to rapidly understand a world in constant change.

EPA/MARTIAL TREZZINI

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The Vatican's Secret Life, by Michael Joseph Gross, Vanity Fair

In Rome, the author learns how the Catholic Church's gay cardinals, monks, and other clergy navigate the dangerous paradox of their lives.

Meanwhile, some gay clerics were outgrowing the "particular friendships" that had long been part of monastic life and joining the sexual revolution. By the 1970s, the center of gay life in Rome was a cruising area called Monte Caprino, on the Capitoline Hill. At a small party of gay monks and their friends in Rome last summer, conversation turned to recollections of that place. "It was like its own little city," one monk remembered, "with hundreds of people-everyone from seminarians to bishops-and then there were, conveniently, bushes off to the side." The fellow feeling at Monte Caprino was compromised by the air of secrecy around the place. The area was a target for muggers and thieves, who figured rightly that clerics would make ideal victims because they had much to lose by the public act of pressing charges. One gay former seminarian recalled a night when three men beat him up and stole his wallet while numerous men in the crowded park stood by. Left bloodied by the thieves, the seminarian hollered at the bystanders, "There's three of them and 300 of us!"

He told me this story, with its echoes of the parable of the Good Samaritan-in which a traveler is robbed, beaten, and left by the side of the road, and pious men do nothing to help him-to illustrate the every-man-for-himself dynamic of Rome's gay clerical culture. Gay clerics often fail to help one another, he says, for the same reason that no one tried to help him the night that he was robbed: solidarity entails the risk of being outed.

Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

Unaccompanied Miners, by Wes Enzinna, Vice

Down the shaft with Bolivia's child laborers.

Luz Rivera Daza, one of UNATSBO's fully grown supporters from the NGO Caritas in Potosí, where she works with unionized children, is part of a larger shift in the thinking among some Latin American intellectuals and activists about how best to respond to the realities of child labor in the 21st century.

"If I tell kids to stop working in the mines, what can I offer them instead?" she told me when I visited her at her office in Potosí. "The families of these children may literally starve if they stop working-their wages help keep the families afloat. Restrictive laws hurt these children," she said. "We need to eradicate poverty before we can talk about eradicating child labor."

Luz told me she hadn't received pay for three months because a crucial grant to her NGO had failed to come through. "I don't believe that work is bad for kids," she said. "What's wrong is exploitation and discrimination because you're a child."

But when I asked Luz if she would allow her own children to work, she paused. "No," she said. "I wouldn't."

AIZAR RALDES/AFP/Getty Images

John Kerry Will Not Be Denied, by David Rohde, Reuters

The secretary of state's critics call him arrogant and reckless -- but his relentlessness might produce some of the most important diplomatic breakthroughs in years.

The nearly universal expectation was that Kerry's tenure would be overshadowed by his predecessor's, for a long list of reasons. For starters, he was arriving in Foggy Bottom when the country seemed to be withdrawing from the world. Exhausted by two long wars, Americans were wary of ambitious new foreign engagements-certainly of military ones, but of entangling diplomatic ones, too ... The consensus in Washington was that Kerry was a boring if not irrelevant man stepping into what was becoming a boring, irrelevant job.

Yet his time at the State Department has been anything but boring-and no one can argue his lack of relevance. Nearly a year into his tenure, Kerry is the driving force behind a flurry of Mideast diplomacy the scope of which has not been seen in years. In the face of widespread skepticism, he has revived the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; brokered a deal with Russia to remove chemical weapons from Syria; embarked on a new round of nuclear talks with Iran, holding the highest-level face-to-face talks with Iranian diplomats in years; and started hammering out a new post-withdrawal security agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Some of these initiatives seemed to begin almost by accident; all of them could still go awry; any of them could blow up in Kerry's face. His critics say that even if these initiatives don't collapse, they may do more to boost Kerry's stature than to increase geopolitical stability. But it's looking more and more possible that when the history of early-21st-century diplomacy gets written, it will be Kerry who is credited with making the State Department relevant again.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


The Life and Death of Juliano Mer-Khamis, by Adam Shatz, London Review of Books

The mystery of the death of Juliano Mer-Khamis, the founder of the West Bank's Freedom Theater.

Two years after his murder, the theatre Juliano created still stands in a converted stone house rented from the UN. But until the murder is solved, al-Raee told me, 'we remain under threat.' The question is from whom? Al-Raee no longer believes that Juliano was killed for challenging the ways of the camp; he thinks the killer was a hired hand, acting on behalf of more powerful forces inside the PA and Israel. At the theatre, Juliano was seen as a political leader, not just a director: therefore his killing must have been an assassination. But elsewhere, one hears other theories, mostly to do with money, corruption and factional struggles. These theories have taken on a life of their own. The idea that Juliano was killed for introducing transgressive Western ideas about personal liberty to a community that adheres to a conservative form of Islam is no longer popular, except among Israeli Jews for whom it confirms old prejudices. As people in Jenin will tell you, violence against solidarity activists, even if they are Israeli, is almost unheard of in Palestine. That's what made the killing so unsettling.

It's possible, of course, that Juliano's murder had little to do with his work and more to do with the man himself. The most important question may not be who killed him, but why his killer, or killers, believed they could eliminate him with impunity. Whoever killed him knew that no one in the camp would rush to his defence. Juliano loved the camp -- no one doubts that. But he seemed to forget that he was a guest there, and that the more deeply he penetrated the life of the camp, the more cautiously he had to tread.

SAIF DAHLAH/AFP/Getty Images

Stuxnet's Secret Twin, by Ralph Langner, Foreign Policy

The real program to sabotage Iran's nuclear facilities was far more sophisticated than anyone realized.

... Stuxnet is not really one weapon, but two. The vast majority of the attention has been paid to Stuxnet's smaller and simpler attack routine -- the one that changes the speeds of the rotors in a centrifuge, which is used to enrich uranium. But the second and "forgotten" routine is about an order of magnitude more complex and stealthy. It qualifies as a nightmare for those who understand industrial control system security. And strangely, this more sophisticated attack came first. The simpler, more familiar routine followed only years later -- and was discovered in comparatively short order.

With Iran's nuclear program back at the center of world debate, it's helpful to understand with more clarity the attempts to digitally sabotage that program. Stuxnet's actual impact on the Iranian nuclear program is unclear, if only for the fact that no information is available on how many controllers were actually infected. Nevertheless, forensic analysis can tell us what the attackers intended to achieve, and how. I've spent the last three years conducting that analysis -- not just of the computer code, but of the physical characteristics of the plant environment that was attacked and of the process that this nuclear plant operates. What I've found is that the full picture, which includes the first and lesser-known Stuxnet variant, invites a re-evaluation of the attack. It turns out that it was far more dangerous than the cyberweapon that is now lodged in the public's imagination.

EPA/ABEDIN TAHERKENAREH