The Democratic Nature of Blogging

July 23, 2010 @ 17:46 EDT

Here is a PDF of this paper, with a bibliography at the end (this is where to find the sources cited within this post): The Democratic Nature of Blogging

One of humanity’s most influential creations is that of government. Another extremely influential invention is much more recent, namely the Internet. A popular claim is that the Internet is democratizing governments around the world. This is, at best, a vague claim. For the Internet is just a medium, and democracy means many different things to many people. A much more reasonable claim is that blogging (short for web logging) is causing governments to become more democratic. In this sense, the word democratic is used to express the idea of a government which provides freedoms to its citizens (such as those of speech and assembly), provides equality among citizens, and provides a means for the citizenship to participate in government. The following paragraphs will support this claim, first through the specific examples of China, Iran and Malaysia, then will examine this claim in general and establish its truth.

Blogging in China got off to a slow start, and has since proved a disappointment to those hoping to see the Chinese Communist Party collapse like a house of cards when free media came into the country. Thus many, such as Aditya Chakrabortty of the Guardian, conclude that blogging fails to democratize a nation, as a sufficiently clever government can effectively censor political content in blogs. According to Ms. MacKinnon, even scholars on Chinese politics conclude that “[China] has succeeded in preventing people from using the Internet to organize any kind of viable political opposition”.

Yet despite this, Ms. MacKinnon, Dr. Wang, and Mr. Li argue that blogging has brought a greater degree of freedom to Chinese life, as well as providing a way for a limited degree of political discourse within the public realm, a defining characteristic of democratic governments. Dr. Wang himself is a Chinese blogger who posts daily, and has observed the Chinese government slowly loosen restrictions on speech and accept more criticism over the past decade. Dr. Wang and Ms. MacKinnon both point out that most Chinese bloggers are not political. Mostly they describe their own personal life experiences. Celebrities use it as a way to gain popularity. Even the government blogs to discuss popular topics such as the World Cup or corrupted politicians. Nonetheless, politically contentious topics can get posted (at least temporarily) since the government cannot censor all blogs in real time due to the sheer volume of them. Thus the government is forced to accept a small amount of political blogging. This, in turn, forces the government to provide a less restrictive atmosphere for speech everywhere. So while it is not a quick and sudden revolution, blogging has provided the means for the Chinese populace to work slowly towards a democratic government.

These next two case examples are different than the Chinese case. Firstly,  they are already officially ‘democracies’, but fail to meet the criteria of freedoms, equalities, and to a large extent popular government participation as laid out in the beginning. The first of these nations, Iran, has experienced the most dramatic democratic effects of blogging. One of the reasons for this is that Iran has a huge blogging population, the third largest in the world as of 2009 (Whitaker, Goldberg, and Sullivan). The blog has fulfilled the roles of “liberal newspapers, civil society organisations and even private gatherings” (Amini). For in a country where there is no freedom to assemble, in order to get together with others of like minds one must do it through the Internet and blogging. It is only through blogging that uncensored political analysis and criticism is found within Iran. Furthermore, in this misogynistic society, blogging provides the one way for women in Iran to make their side of life heard (Amini, and “The Blog Shall Make You Free”).

Not only are blogs incredibly important to the internal politics of Iran, but they are the main source for international societies to observe Iran’s domestic situation. This became extremely important in the last election, when all the foreign journalists were kicked out of the country (Whitaker, Goldberg, and Sullivan). This led to American and other support from the western world to reach the Iranians, giving them renewed confidence that they were doing the right thing in protesting the elections. This could not have happened before, for the government cannot provide support due to political concerns, and the American people themselves couldn’t directly communicate with Iranians (Whitaker, Goldberg, and Sullivan).

Unfortunately in Iran it appears that guns are still more powerful than blogs (Whitaker, Goldberg, and Sullivan). For after the last elections, after protests against the rigged elections, the government managed to regain control (Chakrabortty). Nonetheless, blogging has opened up a little bit of room for criticism of Islamic orthodoxy in public discourse in Iran (Whitaker, Goldberg, and Sullivan). While this demonstrates the superiority of a well-armed state over bloggers, democratic virtues are still finding their little footholds through blogging in Iran. Thus it appears that blogging will once again be the catalyst of a slow, gradual march towards democracy in Iran, just as it is in China (Whitaker, Goldberg, and Sullivan).

While blogging is slowly working on reforming China and Iran, it is democratizing Malaysia much faster. First, some background. The current system of government in Malaysia was formed in 1963. Since then, the same political coalition has held the majority in their parliament (Lee). In the 1990’s, in order to create an Asian analogue of Silicon Valley, Malaysia began constructing the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) in hopes of bringing Malaysia to the status of developed nation by 2020. To encourage foreign companies to invest, Malaysia made a “MSC bill of guarantees”, within which the Malaysian government promised not to censor the Internet (Smeltzer). This was intended to facilitate development, not online political discourse. As the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Content Code states in part 5, section 3.5: “If something is illegal ‘off-line’, it will also be illegal ‘on-line’.” Nonetheless, since the government controls (either directly or indirectly) all other forms of media within the country (Smeltzer, Lee), the availability of the Internet has facilitated a huge change towards democratization.

The most obvious manifestation of this change is that in the elections in 2008, the opposition won over 1/3 the seats in parliament, and took control of 5 state governments. Never before have they had this large of a voice in government. Furthermore, since they now hold over 1/3 the seats in parliament they have enough votes to block laws, for the first time ever (Lee). Their success was due, in large part, to the Internet and blogs. For unconventional opinions and news have had the chance to spread. This is especially true among the younger generation and the urban populace (Lee).

Thus, in one fell swoop, Malaysia went from a one party system to a democracy with different and opposing voices being heard. And this was facilitated in large part by blogging. While this may be a special case of blogging being especially effective, the same principles are found in all nations where the people are trying to democratize their government.

A populace looking for freedom, who furthermore has access to the Internet and blogging resources, can utilize this medium to effectively push for democracy. Oppressive governments can censor this, as has happened in China, but nonetheless are forced to slowly accept more democratic principles due to the inherit democratic nature of blogs. So despite the lack of a sudden blogging revolution, blogging still promotes a free, equal society run by the people.