23 Jan Who Reads International Law Blogs? Tracing Country-specific Footprints
As students from the Global South who hope to participate in the international legal system and academy, it has been encouraging to see recent efforts by ‘Opinio Juris’ to help critique systemic biases in these spaces. For example, Radhika Kapoor reminds us of how unpaid internships have the effect of excluding Global South students from important international opportunities and making mobility selective, and particularly so with intersectionalities like race, caste, and gender. Research by Dr Dias demonstrated how scholars from certain geographies in the Global North, especially cis men, dominate publications in mainstream international law monograph series. Articulating such realities is the first step towards dialogue on inclusivity and accessibility.
Through this post, we want to continue this spirit by asking the following question: who comprises the audience of major international law blogs? Is it the case that the knowledge produced and debated in these spaces is largely accessed by viewers only from a few geographies, particularly countries from the Global North? Given our responsibilities as editors at a student-run blog, we were compelled to wonder not only whether such disparities exist, but also what our response should be if the answer is in the affirmative. Using online softwares that track the traffic of domain names, we have gained data that gives us some indication of country-specific footprints of international law fora. We discuss and reflect on our initial findings below.
Before presenting the data we found, it is necessary to discuss our method for tracking country-specific traffic and some disclaimers that come with it. The data we cite has been sourced from two leading competitive intelligence sites that help with search engine marketing and optimisation: Semrush and Similar Web. From Semrush, we extracted data about website traffic from 1st January 2022 to 1st January 2023 (one year). Meanwhile, from Similar Web, we were able to find data from 1st September to 30th November, 2022 (one quarter). We present country-specific data from both these softwares in the subsequent section.
To briefly discuss the reliability of this data, some experts consider Semrush and Similar Web as providing the most accurate traffic analysis estimates among the estimates that are publicly available. Their data accuracy was found to reach rates of 83 and 70 percent respectively. Semrush creates its estimates by using the popularity of websites, while Similar Web makes estimates using data collected from four sources cumulatively – first party analytics such as Google Analytics, Contributors Network, Public Data and Partnerships. Both these softwares are external services for studying another website’s statistics since we cannot access their internal statistics. The data presented from Semrush tracks the four countries with the highest traffic in any website, whereas from Similar Web, data for the five most traffic generating countries is available.
We do not claim that the data discussed here is faultless. These traffic estimates have possibilities of errors and are useful mostly for providing broad benchmarks as opposed to absolute numbers. In fact, we would encourage any blogs highlighted to correct us in the event of a mismatch between their traffic analysis and that discovered at Semrush and Similar Web. Our aim is not to introduce impeccable research on blog traffic, but to problematise the geographic reach of the scholarship produced in such spaces.
Keeping the limitations of this data in mind, we are unable here to further account for viewer demographics and their intersectionalities. Similarly, the traffic analysis we rely on only shows the geographic location of viewers, and not factors like their nationality, or the usage of technology like virtual private networks to change one’s apparent location. It is entirely possible that many international lawyers and scholars from the Global South who are present and participating in geographies in the Global North are among the viewers accounted for in the latter traffic set. Having emphasised these cautions, we now proceed to discussing revelations from the traffic analyses we found.
In the process of this research, given the presence of hundreds of international law blogs world-wide, we had to first choose which websites would form our point of focus in this short piece. This choice-making was based on our limited perceptions of the popularity and influence possessed by the particular blogs and the aims professed in their mandate (especially those prioritising critical scholarship). Considering the importance of self-critique, we also felt it important to be transparent about the reach of the blog at which we are editors (‘JFIEL’). Aside from blogs, we thought it fit to search for the footprints of the official websites of the United Nations and the International Court of Justice, given their relevance to international lawyers, researchers, and the like. Assessing the geographic reach of these institutes is an important marker of their accessibility or their perceived interest to regional audiences. With that said, we consecutively present our findings from Semrush in Table 1 (data from the whole of 2022) and from Similar Web in Table 2 (data from September-November specifically).
From the foregoing table, it will likely surprise few that the United States has appeared among the four highest traffic generating countries for all eight selected websites. For fora like Afronomics and TWAIL:R, given their focus on prioritising Global South voices and scholarship, the fact that the United States has been estimated as their highest traffic generator might be worth contemplating (though their other traffic generators are Global South countries, aside from the United Kingdom).
What was surprising, at least for us, was that viewers from India were also present in estimates for all eight websites; the same goes for the extent of their corresponding traffic (for JFIEL, this is less surprising since we are an Indian-origin blog). All in all, from the 32 instances of countries counted in Table 1, countries from Europe and North America (excluding Mexico) appeared 18 times (more than half the total). Interestingly, as this piece was being written, Professor Dapo Akande released a post sharing data about the traffic estimates of EJIL:Talk! as per Google Analytics (which are only internally accessible unless shared by the website team itself). Those estimates seem to great extents match the findings here (with the United Kingdom, the United States, India, and the Netherlands indeed being in their top viewer counts, along with Germany and China). Team Opinio Juris also kindly shared their internal data with us, showing similar results: while Canada was replaced by the Netherlands, the other three countries remained constant (although admittedly, not in the same order, as their traffic projections differed by noticeable margins from the estimates). Assuming the correctness of the Semrush estimates, although some of our intuitions about the geographical receptions of these websites have been confirmed, at times other facts have challenged possible assumptions. Let us turn now to the data retrieved from Similar Web.
Similar Web only allowed us to access its traffic analysis for these websites for the September-November quarter in 2022, with its estimates for the remaining year being inaccessible without charges. This limited projection, however, does not indicate results contradicting our broad findings from Semrush. The United States is, once again, present among the five highest traffic generating countries for all eight selected websites. India is also still a majority traffic generator, although it is absent from the EJIL:Talk! estimates. This quarter in Table 2 had 40 instances of countries counted, of which 24 can be viewed as Global North participants [from Europe, North America (excluding Mexico) and Australia]. For Afronomics and TWAIL:R, the majority of traffic generating countries are from the Global South, apart from the United States and the United Kingdom. For us at JFIEL, there is some room for introspection with respect to this quarter since, apart from India, our four highest traffic generating countries are from the Global North. Yet how should we perceive and act upon such data?
The foregoing findings are concerning when countries and peoples from the Global South, as expressed by Dr Eslava, could be better categorised as ‘most of the world’. Data analysis of this kind makes us wonder about possible explanations for any disparities seen, and how we as editors can contribute towards remedying them. We likely cannot, however, expect such disparities to diminish only with editorial action. For example, the ever-presence of traffic from countries like the United States, even in fora not centred around the Global North, might be because it is home to more potential readers than other countries. This, in turn, would likely result from its high institutional capacities in international law, aside from the fact it houses many key international organisations. By implication, countries with less readers interested in international law or foreign-origin legal spaces in the first place, those having less internet access, or those with less English-reading audiences, are likely to be on the margins of such traffic generation. Furthermore, differences in the accessibility of these spaces are bound to be heightened with intersectionalities in each country. Still, it is also possible that among the international legal websites accessed by relevant audiences in some of the countries absent from these lists, the ones referenced in this piece might hold a significant majority.
Drawing again from the research of Dr Dias, biases are ever-present in the geographies represented in the background of authors in academic spaces, and as a consequence, the probable geographic themes or practices of their focus. Any such geographic biases in the knowledge-production of blogs naturally might also have an impact on the audiences attracted in their traffic. Further research or introspection within blogs might show potential correlations between the general generation of traffic from certain geographies and the publications of posts featuring areas of interest to viewers from those regions. In this vein, if we are indeed committed to making international legal spaces inclusive, accessible, and representative, problematising our viewerships should count as one among many important metrics. Transparency about viewership is one way to work towards this aim. At JFIEL, we will certainly think deeply about how Global North countries tend to rank highly in our traffic generation, even though we are an Indian-origin blog with most of our authors representing the Global South. Similarly, researchers formally trained in statistical methods could hopefully make important contributions to the questions raised in this piece.
Needless to add, what we say here comprises our personal reflections, and we do not take the liberty of speaking on the behalf of other international law fora. We welcome thoughts, reflections, and disagreements, especially from other editors, in the hope that this post might spark an important conversation about editorial responsibility.