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Beating the western drum

In a country such as Russia, the space for alternative and critical views are rare. During the recent war between Georgia and Russia, bloggers on both sides provided searing accounts of atrocities and maneuvers unseen by western journalists. The war showed an authoritarian regime’s narrative being challenged by a handful of insiders and outsiders. The government-run media looked staid by comparison.

This was merely the latest example of bloggers beating mainstream journalists at their own game. Online media have exploded in western nations, challenging decades-old business models and forcing reporters to answer questions about their methods and sources. But in repressive states, blogs and websites have become essential sources of information on topics – from women’s issues to sexual orientation, dating rituals to human rights – routinely shunned by channels for official propaganda.

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These openings for citizens in the non-western world to be heard are far more empowering than the equivalent outlets in our own societies. But how often do we hear these voices in the west? September 11, for example, should have been the perfect opportunity for the western media to listen to the grievances of the Muslim world. Alas, with notable exceptions, indigenous voices were excluded then and remain largely absent from the pages of the world’s leading papers. It is as if only a western journalist’s filter can validate such perspectives.

Hearing local voices

In 2007 I traveled to Iran, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, and China to speak to dissidents, bloggers, writers, politicians, and ordinary citizens about how the internet is changing their countries. I wanted to gauge their interests, desires, frustrations, and attitudes towards each other and the west. My new book, The Blogging Revolution, is a chance for these local voices to reveal how the web has democratized their minds – although it also reflects the fact that the vast majority of global netizens prefer online dating and downloading pirated films and music to challenging political orthodoxy.

Also addressed is whether multinationals such as Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Cisco have assisted net filtering and censorship in China, Cuba, and the Middle East. On the eve of the Beijing Olympic Games, Naomi Klein wrote that western firms were essential in “authoritarian communism – central planning, merciless repression, constant surveillance – harnessed to advance the goals of global capitalism.”

How much do we know about Yahoo’s or Google’s willingness to modify their behavior to please paranoid officials? I discovered that the western executives of these companies have been more than comfortable allowing their Chinese counterparts to self-censor thousands of sensitive keywords, far more than just “democracy” and “Falun Gong.” Moreover, they ignore disturbing developments such as Yahoo China’s decision earlier this year to post images of wanted Tibetans on its home page after the Lhasa uprising.

Democratic force

An important question is whether the web is an automatic democratiser, as is widely assumed in western media circles. The consensus across the globe was that political and military meddling by Washington and London was making the job of real democrats much more difficult. As one blogger told me in Tehran: “Most of the people I know are in favor 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.

Take China. It has 250 million internet users – now the largest online community globally, far surpassing America – based in both the cities and rural areas. Politics is often the furthest thing from their minds, but connecting with friends has become an essential part of life. I met very few bloggers who wanted to discuss anything political, and most expressed general satisfaction with the regime’s economic policies—no great desire for “democratization” there.

Mica Yushu, a blogger in Shanghai, told me 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 soft-core pornography, blogging, and instant messaging.

A recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that most of China’s web users expressed support for Beijing managing or controlling the internet, including the banning of “pornographic” sites. This is not to say that the Chinese desire authoritarian rule. While they want to change, curbing corruption and ensuring essential services are their top priorities, not the advances in human rights the west puts at the top of the agenda. After the Beijing Games, Chinese bloggers fiercely debated the economic direction the country should take over the coming years. It was a far more robust debate than one would expect from coverage of China in the west, where the emphasis is always on rampant nationalism.

One anonymous blogger noted – after sarcastically praising the country’s free-market reforms as the “best system seen not just in Chinese history, but also in humankind’s” – that greater political development could only come with a “basic welfare system.” Such discussions on a massive scale were impossible in China before the internet. Equally, important debates are occurring in every country I visited. Allowing people to speak and write for themselves without a western filter is one of the triumphs of blogging. The online culture, disorganized and disjointed in its aims, is unlike any previous social movement. While some want the right to criticize their leaders, others simply want the ability to flirt and listen to subversive tunes. That is revolutionary for much of the world.

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