My following essay appears in today’s Weekend Australian newspaper:
The young online tribe is more interested in discussing sex, drugs and rock’n’roll than political revolution, writes Antony Loewenstein
Early last month, some Iranian members of parliament voted to debate a draft bill that aimed to “toughen punishment for disturbing mental security in society” by adding to the list of offences punishable by execution crimes such as “establishing websites and weblogs promoting corruption, prostitution and apostasy”.
Nikahang, a Canadian-based Iranian online cartoonist and blogger, was defiant: “Only people who disturb people’s mental security could support such a thing.”
During a visit to the Islamic Republic in 2007 to research the blogging community, I found this attitude was common. With a population of 70million, most of them under 30, Iran is home to one of the Middle East’s largest online communities, which is thriving despite onerous censorship and risk of imprisonment.
The more than 100,000 active Iranian bloggers, writing mainly in Farsi, include hardline Islamists battling with reformists over religious dress, anti-Semitism, the war in Iraq and dating rituals.
The rise of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it seems, has only emboldened activists of all political persuasions.
I spent a day with the country’s former vice-president Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a regular blogger. This chubby man, a frequent giggler, chastised me when I asked why it was impossible to criticise Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei publicly, just as Westerners routinely slam elected politicians. “One of the misunderstandings is that you try and compare the institutions of countries, which are not similar to each other,” he instructed.
I quickly discovered that in a country such as Iran, the divide between conservative and moderate is far narrower than generally presumed. Iranian reformers are Islamists in less fundamentalist garb and most citizens appear to want an Islamic nation with a modern face.
Across the world, young generations are challenging tired state media by writing online about politics, sex, drugs, relationships, religion, popular culture and especially Angelina Jolie. From Egyptian activists opposed to female circumcision to outspoken, pro-Western women in Cuba, people are being empowered by new technology to create spaces away from the prying eyes of meddling authorities.
The rise of the online community means the relationship between the state and its people is shifting radically. Individuality is emerging in societies that routinely shun such behaviour and repressive regimes are not pleased.
A recent University of Washington report reveals that 64 people have been arrested for blogging since 2003. Iran, China and Egypt are the main offenders.
In the West, blogging has become an essential part of the media, with millions of internet users cataloguing their daily lives. The US-based Co-operative Congressional Election Study has found that although political blogging is popular, only a minority of web users regularly engage with political bloggers. The study’s report confirms that readers “tend to visit blogs that share their viewpoint”.
The need for alternative sources of information, voices not processed through a Western journalist’s filter, became pronounced after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, DC. I shared the frustration of many with the mainstream media’s lack of insight into nations deemed Western enemies or allies.
Blogs offered a window into mainly middle-class segments of societies rarely examined in the West. What does a Saudi Arabian male think about his country’s adherence to Wahhabism? How does the average China web user cope with multinational-assisted filtering? What is Cuba’s likely future after Fidel Castro?
These are just a few of the issues that blogs have helped to elucidate.
My on-the-ground investigation of the blogging revolution and its influence on the relationship between the West and the rest took me to Iran, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and China. In these countries I met writers, bloggers, dissidents, politicians and journalists.
The subjects we discussed included the role of companies such as Google, Yahoo, Cisco and Microsoft in helping repressive regimes censor the internet.
The results were surprising. As one blogger told me in Tehran: “Most of the people (I knoware) in favour of reform, not revolution, because people are too tired to experience another revolution.” I found the same message echoed throughout the countries I visited: the desire to experience incremental change without foreign involvement.
Vocal activism was the exception, not the norm. Take China. A recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that the vast majority of China’s web users — who number more than 250 million, the largest online community in the world — expressed support for Beijing managing or controlling the internet. A book editor in Shanghai explained to me that online filtering didn’t bother many Chinese, given that 99 per cent of blogs discussed food and daily life. He thought that most citizens questioned the sincerity of leaders who talked about “democracy with Chinese characteristics”. “Is China ready for free elections?” he asked sceptically.
Despite these realities, during the past decade there has been a steady increase in awareness about political rights, principally because of satellite television and the internet.
China’s leading video-sharing site, Tudou (which means couch potato), is reportedly bigger than YouTube, with more than one petabyte of daily data transfers. Tudou founder Gary Wang explains that officials phone in several times a week to demand the removal from the site of films they consider suspect. Wang is philosophical. Change is coming but it will take time. Political reform isn’t a priority for most citizens. Even though he spent years living in France and the US, Wang resents questions about “oppressive censorship” from Western reporters. “They seem to pity us,” he says.
Earlier this year, most Chinese bloggers reacted with outrage at what they perceived to be anti-Beijing coverage in the Western media of the pro-Tibet protests in Lhasa and the troubled Olympic torch relay. “For a long time now,” one of them wrote, “certain Western media, best represented by CNN and BBC, in the name of press freedom, have been unscrupulously slandering and defaming developing nations.”
I heard repeatedly during my visit to China, usually after a tirade against foreign journalists who rarely travel beyond Beijing, that satisfaction with the Communist Party regime is strong and growing. This doesn’t mean the Chinese endorse authoritarian methods. Rather, it means incremental change and battles against corruption are considered preferable to Western-style capitalism.
A separate global Pew Research Centre study conducted this year found 86 per cent of Chinese were happy with their country’s direction, double the 2002 figure. In comparison, only 23 per cent of Americans surveyed thought their nation was heading the right way.
Blogger Mica Yushu told me in Shanghai that most of her middle-class friends didn’t crave political change. “We use the internet mostly for entertainment, sharing information, earning money or other fun,” she said. The sight of darkened internet cafes across the country was something to behold, with thousands of users gaming, watching downloaded films and soft-core pornography, blogging and instant messaging. Politics seemed the furthest thing from these monitored minds.
China’s economic boom has mostly silenced the internal critics and agitators who do speak up pay a high price for challenging Beijing’s unelected clique.
Online culture is thriving in almost every country I visited. The exception is Cuba, although the elevation of Raul Castro to the presidency is slowly leading to economic and social perestroika, despite some politically tinged websites being blocked.
Most bloggers prefer to protest privately, anonymously or not at all. The fight against repression takes many forms, from drinking contraband vodka in Tehran to appropriating American hip-hop culture in Havana. The price of protesting in Egypt, one of the highest annual recipients of US aid, is likely to be imprisonment and torture.
Despite their relatively small numbers and the penalties they attract, dissenting bloggers are playing havoc with the established order. According to Human Rights Watch researcher Elijah Zarwan, “bloggers have succeeded in doing something that years of standing on the street corner and shouting ‘No to torture’ or ‘No to the interior ministry’ has never managed to accomplish”: putting these issues on the public agenda.
The small size of online communities in Syria and Saudi Arabia has not stopped bloggers from challenging authoritarian rule.
Neither country employs harsh online filtering, but users learn quickly there are lines that cannot be crossed.
Saudi Arabian actor Mohammad al-Qass explains that in a fundamentalist nation such as his, internal reform — for women’s rights and broader legal and social rights — needs space to develop. “Fifty years ago, Saudi Bedouins were riding around on camels. Now they’re using mobile phones and the best technology,” Qass says. “It will take time for society to catch up with this technology.”
Meanwhile, for the first time a more nuanced view of the West is being offered via the web, and it allows a woman in Damascus the freedom to admire Brad Pitt as well as pray five times a day at the local mosque. Cross-cultural pollination is occurring, no matter what the religiously pious may think about it.
The issue of online representation is central to this debate. I recently presented a paper in Budapest at the Harvard University and Google sponsored Global Voices Citizen Media Summit. While we heard countless tales of bloggers across the world using online tools to highlight police torture and corruption, many participants wondered about the voices we weren’t hearing online: such as those of minorities, the poor and Luddites uncomfortable with technology.
US writer Clay Shirky explains in his book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organising Without Organisations that “communications tools (such as YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and blogging) don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring”. In other words, it’s only now becoming possible to come across online the words of indigenous communities in Bolivia, dispossessed voters in Kenya or sex workers in India.
Letting people speak and write for themselves without a Western lens is one of the triumphs of blogging. The culture of blogging is unlike that of any previous social movement. Disjointed and disorganised, its aims are deliberately vague. While many want the right to be critical in the media, others simply crave the ability to date and listen to subversive music. That in itself is revolutionary for much of the world.
The Blogging Revolution by Antony Loewenstein (Melbourne University Press) is published next week.