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The Blogger's Democratic Revolution

By Alexandra Reihing | July 31, 2007

CREDIT: blogger-china (CC).

2007 marks the tenth anniversary of the blog. One of the most beneficial side effects of blogs over the last ten years has been the advent of citizen journalism. Technorati, which monitors what it calls citizen media, currently tracks 92.6 million blogs and estimates that 175,000 new blogs are created each day. Thanks to blogs, the love of commentary has led to an explosion of connections among people, and the resulting discussions have, in many cases, affected democratic change.

Jorn Barger coined the word weblog in 1997, and its shortened form blog has come to represent a gamut of online forums, from the ramblings of disgruntled teenagers to the rantings of political wonks who would otherwise be yelling at their televisions. The essence of blogging is the expansion of social dialogue. It allows literally anyone with Internet access to present information online, which others can then comment on or reference.

In authoritarian states where mainstream media is censored, blogs offer a viable alternative for reporters as well as oppressed citizens to publicize stories that would otherwise go undocumented. About 137 million people in China are wired to the Internet. Many of China's bloggers are popular culture figures and not political activists or current affairs buffs, as in the United States. In China, blogs can still be censored or blocked by hosting sites, meaning sensitive material often goes unpublished. But Lian Yue, a freelance writer in the Chinese city of Xiamen, is one of the 16 million Chinese bloggers who may force a change.

In March, Lian published a story on his blog about the harmful impact the construction of a paraxylene chemical factory would have on Xiamen's environment and citizens. Lian's article, though taken down by Xiamen authorities, sparked a grassroots campaign to stop construction. The story, which was passed on by word-of-mouth, instant messaging, and text and photo messages, was published in a local newspaper and appeared on the webpages of other bloggers. As a result, the government was forced to announce a "reevaluation" of the factory construction.

This method and level of activism shouldn't come as a surprise. The 2004 World Internet Project Report found that the Chinese are among the most active Internet users. The Internet provides a way for them to socialize with others who share their political interests, hobbies, and faith. According to the WIP report, Chinese users are willing to discuss religion online "more than in any other country," which is significant in a country where religion is officially banned. Even with only 9 percent of Chinese wired, Internet use and blogging have already become part of China's social life and popular culture.

For an understanding of what happens when more than 70 percent of a population is wired, we turn to Korea. The country's main search engine, Naver, handles 77 percent of web searches that originate in South Korea, and its "Knowledge iN" question and answer service operates much like a blog. Blogging in South Korea has had a major effect on politics, particularly the 2002 presidential election. The election of Roh Moo-hyun, a liberal labor lawyer who advocated more participatory government, was in part attributed to OhMyNews, a news service launched in 2000. At the time of the 2002 election, OhMyNews was viewed 20 million times per day.

"South Korea is the leader of the rise of citizen journalism in Asia by a wide, wide margin. The younger generation has really embraced blogging," Robert Pickard told The Korea Times. "The media is seen not as the 'voice of authority,' but as the voice of the people challenging that authority." Pickard is managing director of the public relations firm Edelman in Korea.

With 33 million Internet users, 50 percent of whom have their own websites, blogs have exploded in South Korea. The country also pioneered the concept of social networking services (SNS). Ninety percent of Koreans in their twenties use Cyworld, their largest SNS provider.

"It's about democratization, where people can participate by writing back," Sabeer Bhatia told Economist magazine. Mr. Bhatia is the founder of Hotmail and in March 2006 he launched, a tool to enhance blog browsing and interaction. "Just as everybody has an e-mail account today, everybody will have a blog in five years," Bhatia continued. "Journalism won't be a sermon any more, it will be a conversation."

Iran is another country with reform-minded bloggers. In the past, opposition to the conservative government was expressed in the reformist newspapers. The mullahs shut down many of these papers during the administration of Mohammed Khatami, the former president who was a supporter of the reformists. Consolidation of government control over mainstream media outlets, including newspapers and television, has led to an explosion in Weblogistan, as the Iranian blogging community is known.

There are currently between 70,000 and 100,000 active blogs in Iran today. One such blog is "Under Underground—My Thoughts about Nothing," written by an Iran-based soldier who goes by the name of Yasser. Yasser writes that anti-filter software is needed to post on Blogger in Iran.

Not only does Iran's government use filtering software, but it also enacts laws forbidding Internet users from visiting un-Islamic sites. It has also cracked down on bloggers as it did on reformist writers a few years ago. Hossein Derakhshan, the Canada-based creator of the blog "Editor: Myself" in Persian and English, is credited with introducing blogging to Iran. He was detained by the Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and questioned about the content on his blog, but was later released after signing a letter of apology for his actions.

Writer Hanif Mazroui was arrested in 1994 and charged with acting against the government through his writings. He was jailed for two months before being acquitted. "It's normal for authorities to summon and threaten bloggers," Mazroui told The Associated Press. He eventually shut down his blog after being summoned again and told not to write about nuclear issues. Mazroui's case is not unique, and the oppression may get stronger if the government feels it is losing control over public debate.

The crackdown on bloggers began in earnest at the end of 2004 with the arrest of a number of bloggers and even Internet technicians who had no control over what was being written. According to Jasmine Samara of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, this move had a chilling effect on the community and led to the emigration of many active bloggers.

As in China, most Iranian bloggers focus on social issues and popular culture due to the restrictive political atmosphere. Yet blogs have helped reconnect Iranian residents with the diaspora, which numbers 3 million. Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University, suggests that this contact could dramatically accelerate democratic change. "We in the diaspora can seriously participate in Iranian politics as vibrantly as those inside, allowing democratic forces to keep in touch," Milani said in an interview with USA TODAY.

The Iranian government is well aware of this fact. According to Ms. Samara of the IHRDC, many bloggers are charged with conspiring with foreign regimes to destabilize the Iranian state. A new law passed by the government seeks to block this threat, requiring all websites and blogs to be registered with the government as of March 1, 2007. Information including the blogger's name, address, telephone number, intended audience, and approximate number of readers must be reported.

"Not only does the new law grant the Islamic Republic full control over the content of all websites launched within Iran, but now authorities can filter the thousands of websites and weblogs written in Farsi outside of Iran," writes Omid Memarian, an Iranian journalist, civil society activist, and blogger who blogs in both English and Persian. However, Ms. Samara of the IHRDC notes that "the extent to which this new legislation has been implemented is unclear" due to many bloggers' refusal to comply.

All of this is not to say that there are no downsides to blogging. On the contrary, because bloggers are not held to the same standards as career journalists, they are not bound by the same code of ethics or rules. Bloggers may engage in smear tactics and present misinformation to try and drum up unfounded, negative criticisms of politicians or governments. In authoritarian countries, the idea of free expression is a novel one; and blogs represent for many the first time they have been able to speak their minds, whatever the topic.

Should bloggers adopt a code of ethics to help readers distinguish between facts and opinions? Author and blogger Rebecca Blood thinks so. In The Weblog Handbook: Practical Advice on Creating and Maintaining Your Blog, Blood argues that bloggers should abide by six rules:

  1. Publish only as fact that which you believe to be true.
  2. If material exists online, link to it when you reference it.
  3. Publicly correct any misinformation.
  4. Write each entry as if it could not be changed; add to, but do not rewrite or delete, entries.
  5. Disclose any conflict of interest.
  6. Note questionable and biased sources.
Blood's ethical code approximates that of out-and-out journalists, though that's not her aspiration for blogs. She also prompts a second question: Are bloggers citizen journalists or merely concerned citizens?

Blogging has come a long way in ten years, infiltrating popular culture and politics and becoming a reliable news source in many cases. Despite the attempts to stifle political dissent and social connections, bloggers have had an effect on democratic discourse within authoritarian states. And, as seen in South Korea in particular, democratic institutions can even flourish as a result of citizen journalists empowered by blogs. As blogs become a more popular way to disseminate information, the ethical debate surrounding blogs and their authors will likely grow louder.

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Read More: Communication, Culture, Democracy, Ethics, Globalization, Governance, Technology, China, Iran, Korea (South), Asia, Global, Middle East

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