Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Voice of "The People" and the internets...

Came across an interesting comment thread at a short Crooked Timber post about how Chinese authorities are being circumvented in official efforts to blackout a news story.

At first glance, it looked like a spirited online discussion about an essay written nearly 80 years ago by modern China's greatest author. But then again, the exchange on a popular Chinese bulletin board site seemed a bit emotional, given the subject.

[Commenters were using the essay] as a pretext to discuss a more current and politically sensitive event -- the Dec. 6 police shooting of rural protesters in the southern town of Dongzhou in Guangdong province.
Comments left at this post make interesting reading.
(Aside: When I decided to report my find I noticed the date was three days ago -- ancient history in the world of blogging. In the information age we measure history in hours more than days. I come across references to "news cycles" as though the phenomenon is a natural as the smoke-trail of a campfire splashed with water. That's a great feature of blogging. If I want to grab an old meme and give it new life, the idea is not as crazy as it seems. According to my Sitemeter "entry pages" list I'm still getting hits from posts I have long forgotten, some of them a year old. Go figure.)
This is harvested from the comments thread...

I wonder what the real impact of the Internet is having in Iraq. I think the one major difference between Vietnam and Iraq is the Internet, and especially the many Iraqis who are now blogging. In any closed society great power is held by the government press, and in Vietnam this was true. But the VC gained great power by use of the rumor mill. So, are the blogs in Iraq just modern rumor mills? Or are they a source of what is really taking place in the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people?

This sort of thing has a very long history in China. Metaphors of one sort or another as code for political speech. It’s lovely to watch.And when have things not involved such elites?

The other more recent case is to bear in mind is the beating to death in detention of Sun Zhigang by the police in 2003 (IIRC). The subsequent outcry, which began online, and an open letter by prominent academics, led directly to a reform of China’s system for detaining and repatriating those in the cities who could not produce the required paperwork, “vagrants and beggars” I think the law said (very reminiscent of the Elisabethan Poor Law) but also used as a catch-all against migrant labourers.I have become a deal less sceptical about the value of the internet, partly because of cases like that, and partly because of once working with a migrant worker support group in Panyu (a suburb of Guangzhou) on their website. That showed me that in fact, perhaps because of the prevalence on internet cafes here, a surpising number of ordinary workers and even peasants do get on line.

I think the basic problem with international blogging is far simpler than most people think. I don’t want to sound like a tedious old reactionary here, but one of the most disturbing things about the way Britain and the US (and to a lesser extent, Australia and Canada and the rest) are going is simply the fact that less and less young people learn a foreign language at school.

But if you restrict yourself to English you commit yourself (obviously) to only reading and accessing what English speaking people can say. There are translations services but of course they can cherry pick what they translate and translate in the most ‘unfriendly’ possible way (not thinking of anyone in particular here…….).

So in Iraq I think blogging is going to be a huge force for democracy and freedom……for Iraqis. Whether it will help outsiders understand the situation is another question. ‘We’ can only read the blogs that are written in English, which tend to be orientated (reasonably enough) towards those who have been educated in English speaking countries or who have done business with English speakers: i.e. the highly educated middle class. This is an important part of Iraqi society of course, but we always run the risk of extrapolating, and deciding that the views of these people are representative of the views of Iraqis as a whole. For example, if it is true (and it may not be) that Allawi has done far worse in the current elections than we were led to believe by the Western media, this may be because Allawi’s broadly secular, pro-American policies were more popular with the secular pro-American middle class, and I would guess that a disproportionate number of these people are bloggers.

This goes double for the rest of the world. There are growing numbers of bloggers in African languages and South American languages (not to mention, as the article above, Chinese bloggers) but how many of us will have a chance to read these in the original?

Of course you’re right about an English-only speaker reading only English written … well, English written anything. But nevertheless, one can easily factor that into the equation, and one has to admit the enormous difference the Internet makes for the ‘common’ folk telling their story. Diaries and journals have always been the glee of the historian, reading about daily life in rural 17-Century America puts a whole new perspective to the written history of 17-Century America. But a dozen discovered diaries does not history make. But now with countless blogs, in all languages, we have history writing itself!

For an example how bloggers and the Internet community can be wrong about the mood in a country witness the latest Iranian election. Very few thought Ahmadinejad would have any chance, because his support among the middle class was very small.

The lack of knowledge of foreign languages in the West Brandon brings up may to some extent be a good thing. It does make it a lot harder for foreigners to start large propaganda efforts to corrupt the exchange of information, leaving the locals somewhat free to develop their own dialogue. We know CIA bought stories in Iraqi newspapers, and they would probably want to swamp all of the Iraqi media with their own sanitized stories, but I doubt they have the people to do it.

Another classic example, it occured to me, was Venezuela. Not only were pro-Chavez bloggers more likely to write in Spanish or in indigenous languages rather than in English, but in a wildly divided country like Venezuela, few members of the poor/ethnic classes who were the bedrock of Chavez’ support even had access to a computer, let alone the internet.

So in the West when we read Venezuelan blogs, we tended to read blogs written in English by the uppper middle class elite, who were disproprtionately anti-Chavez. This helps to explain, I think, why so many in the West were shocked by the result of the recall vote.Hopefully the ‘access to a computer’ issue will become less of a problem over the next few decades, but until we in the West (for example, as regards Iraq) actually bother our arses to learn some Arabic we will always get a one sided view of the situation.

What is interesting about blogs and bloggers is that they reveal just how human it is to want to be stripped bare. In the past what did we fear? The FBI and CIA tapping our phones, injecting us with truth serum, locking us up until we talk, anything to make us expose our deepest thoughts and plans and schemes. Yet now everyone is freely telling the world with blogs their deepest thoughts and plans and schemes. How ironic?

How long would it have taken the CIA to uncover this bit of information? Blogs are the new truth serum.

Where journalists once gave us “experts say,” blogs give us the experts themselves. And where faceless, “objective” editorial boards once handed down opinions and endorsements, bloggers sound off, the numbers on their public sitemeters lending them unassailable credibility as voices for the rest of us.”

There may be more, but I have observed that comment threads tend to dry up after a few days. Like sliced bread goes stale left out of the package, so goes the comments thread...too bad. Just when things could have become interesting...

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