The great promise of this democratic tool depends on participation by all people
Jay Walljasper | May 2006 issue
“I have no interest in being anti-establishment,” proclaims Matt Stoller, a leading progressive blogger on at the popular U.S. web site MyDD.com. “We’re going to be the establishment.”
Predictions that bloggers are going to turn the world upside down are heard everywhere these days—even in the mainstream media, which would be dethroned from their status as the most influential sources of news as a result. (Blogs, for anyone who has been vacationing in the outer reaches of the galaxy for past few years, are online journals in which people offer up opinions on a whole range of subjects from their favourite pop stars to world politics.)
No one knows exactly how many blogs are out there in the “blogosphere,” but a new one is launched every second, according to Technorati.com, a Web site that tracks blogs. Most are of little interest to anyone who does not personally know the blogger or share their idiosyncratic passions. The typical blogger is said to be a teenager who updates the world once a week about what happened in algebra class or at the school dance.
But those who underestimate the power of blogs do so at their peril. Just ask former news anchor Dan Rather, former Republican leader of the U.S. Senate Trent Lott, and former CNN Chief News Executive Eason Jordan. Rather left CBS under a cloud after a blogger from FreeRepublic.com exposed the fact that documents used in a story he aired about George W. Bush’s military record were faked. Lott was deposed from his role as leader of the Senate after bloggers drew wide attention to some racist-sounding remarks he made at a birthday party. Jordan lost his job after a blogger at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, highlighted his comments that journalists might become targets for U.S. troops in Iraq.
Besides bringing down the mighty, blogs can draw worldwide attention to previously unknown people with something important to say. Consider the following:
* Salem Pax, a 29-year-old architect in Baghdad, has become one of the most widely known voices of the Iraqi people under the pseudonym “Baghdad Blogger.” His accounts of the war were quoted in newspapers around the world and he has signed book and movie deals. Foreign Policy magazine (Nov./Dec. 2004) declares, “If the first Gulf War introduced the world to the ‘CNN effect,’ the second Gulf War was blogging’s coming-out party.”
* Juan Cole, a University of Michigan history professor who speaks three Middle Eastern languages, found no interest among journalists for his commentaries about the Muslim world until he launched the influential blog Informed Comment (JuanCole.com). Now he’s heard regularly on news networks and has testified before the U.S. Congress.
* Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, an immigrant from El Salvador, has become one of the leading progressive voices in America, thanks to his Daily Kos blog (DailyKos.com). In fact, the progressive news magazine In These Times (Feb. 6, 2006) reports that many progressive bloggers believe they will revive the Democratic Party in this year’s critical Congressional elections the way talk radio did for Republicans in1994.
* Sina Motallebi, a prominent Iranian blogger, was sent to prison “for undermining national security through ‘cultural activity,’” according to Foreign Policy. But he won his freedom thanks to Iranian and international bloggers protesting his arrest online. Blogs have been embraced as an effective way to raise dissent against Iran’s repressive regime, which may account for the fact that Farsi—Iran’s major language—is the world’s fourth most popular for blogs.
Bloggers are creating headaches for authorities everywhere. The Chinese government is trying to keep the lid on this new vehicle for free expression, going so far as to jail a 23-year-old psychology student who offered some satirical comments about the Communist Party. A blog-led international campaign freed her, but several of the organizers were then arrested. Even the U.S. military has shut down blogs of soldiers in Iraq, saying there was a danger that sensitive information might inadvertently be revealed. Critics, however, charge that the real concern is firsthand accounts of the war undermining the message of the Pentagon’s propaganda.
North Korea appears to be the only spot on Earth that’s successfully kept bloggers on leash, because average citizens are not allowed access to the Internet. Still, former CNN journalist Rebecca MacKinnon’s NKZone.org is making life a little uncomfortable for the dictatorship by gathering information from the outside about what’s happening there, reports Foreign Policy.
While blogs are clearly a powerful tool, some observers caution against “blog triumphalism”—overblown claims that blogs will kill traditional journalism, launch a new era in democracy and revolutionize the world. As Ana Marie Cox, editor of the influential U.S. political blog Wonkette.com, notes, “A revolution requires that people leave their houses.”
Lakshmi Chaudhry notes in In These Times that top bloggers, even progressive ones, “tend to be young, well-educated, middle class, male and white.” She notes that at this point they are primarily talking to one another. Massive political change is unlikely to happen without the participation of lower-income people in the United States, in Europe and around the world. Most of the world today does not even have access to computers, she points out. “Technology is only as revolutionary as the people who use it, and the progressive blogosphere has thus far remained the realm of the privileged—a weakness that may prove fatal in the long run.”
Blogs are a very powerful force, and will no doubt become more so. But their real impact will come in the ways they heighten more familiar methods of creating social change: community organizing and political participation. They give anyone with the means to own a computer and create a Web site the power to become a reporter, an editor and a publisher. It’s a democratic breakthrough for the information age, less like the invention of the printing press, as blog triumphalists are fond of claiming, and more like the establishment of universal suffrage, which extended the right to vote from wealthy white, male property owners to all citizens.
The real triumph of blogs will be the expansion of this 21st-century tool of democracy to poor neighbourhoods, working-class communities and remote villages all over the planet.