Ethan Zuckerman


Internet International

The revolution won't be blogged, but it will be online.

The revolution won't be blogged, but it will be online.

In June, 2005, political bloggers in the U.S. were riding high. They weren't able to get Howard Dean into the White House, but they did help make him head of the Democratic Party. Liberal bloggers claimed the scalp of former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (since regrown); conservative bloggers basked in the warm glow of "Rathergate," which brought down Dan Rather for his ignorance of the finer points of typesetting.With such political power at the "netroots" level in the U.S., surely it was only a matter of time before bloggers showed their international strength, challenging repressive regimes abroad. The smart money for a web-led upheaval was on Iran, where more than 70,000 Iranian bloggers were discussing politics and personal life with furious intensity.In the last election, Dr. Mostafa Moeen, the reformist candidate for president, had the backing of many Iranian bloggers. Reading Iranian blogs-especially those written in both Farsi and English-could easily give the impression that Moeen was the front-runner, and that Iran was headed toward an era of progressive politics led by the power of free online speech. Alas, Moeen's poor showing and the victory of the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were reminders that the effect of internet tools on real-world politics is more complicated than American cyber-optimism might suggest. Simply being able to speak freely online isn't a sufficient precondition for political change.
The efforts in Kenya and Bahrain haven't topped a government or ended a politician's career ... yet.
Blogs in Iran created a space for discourse that didn't exist in a country where most independent media has been shut down. Some of the bloggers who moved into this space were prominent authors in the alternative press before a crackdown on newspapers by religious authorities-in many cases, their politics were far from the Iranian mainstream. While these bloggers' views received a great deal of attention in the international media because of the novelty of hearing individual Iranian voices, their writing was not necessarily influential in Iran. Americans read Iranian blogs and thought they were hearing the precursor to a revolution-instead they were hearing voices far outside the political mainstream.American commentators see the importance of blogs to be their ability to let advocates of various positions sharpen and disseminate their rhetoric. But the audience for this rhetoric is still comparatively small, especially in countries where the internet isn't yet widespread. The real value of the web may be that it lets people find and share information they didn't have-whether that information can lead to political change is a function of the political climate.It's unlikely that the government of Bahrain viewed the launch of Google Maps as a threat to its political stability. But an anonymous activist saw the potential of the program to expose inequitable land distribution in the most densely populated nation in the Middle East. The activist produced a 45-page document of annotated Google Maps, comparing the size of densely packed slums with spacious royal palaces, highlighting the "reclaiming" of protected parkland and sea for the Sheikh's family.Bahrainis knew that much of their country was reserved for royalty, but seeing the lawns, yachts, and swimming pools that lay hidden behind walls had a visceral effect. The document was quickly passed around the Persian Gulf from one internet user to another. Batelco, the nation's sole internet provider, blocked Google Maps for three days but then abandoned the block when it became clear that many Bahrainis were accessing the site through proxies, and that the ban was further publicizing the troubling photographs.In Kenya, it wasn't the spreading of maps that shocked the government-it was curricula vitae. The Kenyan parliament launched a website in September, 2005, with biographical data on MPs, accidentally revealing that some MPs hadn't finished secondary school, let alone Oxford.LEARN
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