Blogs Propel Digital Democracy

Several influential blog personalities gathered for a series of panel discussions to explore democracy and democratic participation in the digital Internet age. The Humanities Center and Humanitech organized the all-day event, beginning bright and early at 8:30 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 24.
The first panel set the groundwork for social interaction prior to novel Internet technology. Chair of the German department John Smith, along with Humanities Core Course Director Ann Van Sant and philosophy professor Sean Greenberg started their discussion about 18th century coffee shops in the Middle East, the social discussion venue of the time, compared with the social interactions of contemporary blogs.
“The Internet in general has led to an increase of public media,” Smith said. “The use of the Internet has extended and fragmented public speech.”
Greenberg noted the predominance of legitimacy issues in the blogosphere.
“There’s no reason to believe that 18th century people could trust [each other more than today],” Greenberg said. “[The discussions coming from] this new information technology shouldn’t be treated as hard facts, but as ever-changing documents.”
The Internet’s awesome distribution potential has resulted in a flow of information in the blogosphere of incredible quantity.
“It’s impossible to censor in any real way,” Smith said.
The Internet, Professor Van Sant argued, is more of a public forum, citing Wikipedia as an Internet authority managed by its users.
“The filtration is much more communal than authoritative,” Smith said.
The second panel featured bloggers from popular critical blogs, including Scott Kaufman from Acephalous and Eszter Hargittai from Crooked Timber. Catherine Liu, associate professor in film and media and director of the Humanities Center, accompanied the celebrity bloggers.
Hargittai, who received a Ph.D. from Princeton University, is a veteran blogger who created her first Internet Web log in 2002, named Eszter’s Blog. Although she typically blogs about her research as a fellow at Harvard University, she has received praise for blogging about personal hobbies. Still, the anonymous nature of the Internet breeds more criticism than an intimate, interpersonal forum.
“I find it cowardly when people attack you and don’t use their name,” Hargittai said. “Blogging is emotionally draining; it takes energy.”
Hargittai found an interesting correlation between female bloggers and anonymity – namely, that female bloggers were less likely to use their real names, relying on anonymity to prevent vicious gender criticism undermining her Internet opinions.
“A big part of [the anonymity] is probably these big attacks [by other bloggers],” Hargittai said.
Many of these comments are by critical users colloquially known as trolls, who go out of their way to attack blogger comments.
“These trolls aren’t content-creative, but responsive … if you get a community of people who do that it produces something [not related to the original topic],” Kaufman said.
Steve Franklin, the director of Academic Outreach at the Network and Academic Computing Services, appreciated the flow of discussion between the panelists and attendees.
“We started talking about blogs, but ended up talking about the public space that isn’t there for the people who post, but the people who comment,” Franklin said.
The conference dedicated the afternoon to international issues and politics.
Alice Brysk, a professor in the Department of Political Science at UCI, moderated “The Transnational Public: China and Iran” portion of the event.
Brysk opened the discussion with a series of guiding questions, quickly turning the discussion into a comparison between bloggers in America, China and Iran, nations with vastly different free speech rights and political climates.
“Iran makes a big effort to censor blogs on a routine basis. It did enjoy a free press during the eight years of reform, but there is more censorship now than ever before,” said Elham Gheytanchi, a reporter for the Huffington Post who teaches sociology at Santa Monica College.
“You have Iranian Americans blogging, Chinese Americans blogging. But as far as Iranian blogs, most of the time it is about national issues,” Gheytanchi said.
Gheytanchi went onto emphasize the benefit of anonymity in blogging.
“Many of the people who write with pseudonyms are not liberals, but conservatives criticizing their own leaders,” Gheytanchi said.
The anonymity of the Internet has increased citizen participation in discussions, Gheytanchi stated.
“There are some myths going around with regards to Iranian blogs that it is all about young, freedom-loving individuals. This is wrong – it is everyone,” Gheytanchi said.
This citizen journalism often grows out of the need to fill in the gaps of censorship or inaccurate representations by state media.
Kenneth Pomeranz, a blogger for The China Beat, discussed his frustration with the lack of information provided by the media in the United States.
“One of the things that I had in mind is one that aims essentially at as much as possible, correcting some of the grossest misinformation that Americans have about the Middle East,” Pomeranz said.
He later talked about his memory of meeting a foreign correspondent at a conference on the history of cotton textiles. The report revealed some disturbing news on the state of information in his publication.
“He said, ‘Oh, the story won’t be run in the domestic version. After Sept. 11, our management decided that Americans were going to respond to this by pulling inward, and wanted news from the heartland, and therefore the magazine would respond by reducing their international coverage; 80 percent used to run in both international and domestic, now it is 20 percent,” Pomeranz said.
Jeff Wasserstrom, the final speaker and also a contributor to The China Beat, commented on the positive attributes of the blog in general.
“Things that would take weekly research and probably a trip to China now just take a trip to your computer screen,” Wasserstrom said.
The last panel, concerning the 2008 presidential election, dealt with the dynamic issues facing voters and the reactions in the blogosphere.
“The biggest issue of the campaign – race in American politics – this hasn’t gotten much commentary in the blogosphere,” said Jon Wiener, a professor of history at UCI and radio host on KPFK 90.7 FM.
Wiener cited a New York Times survey that found that 25 percent of those polled believed that America is not ready for a black president. A similar survey found that 35 percent of those polled believed America is not ready for a female president.
Drum stated that while many blogs exist, only a fraction of those are influential.
“As a quick conclusion, the top 20, 30, 40 blogs probably drive all the conversation in the political blogosphere,” Drum said.
Kevin Roderick, a journalist and political commentator for Los Angeles Magazine, cited the increasing importance of blogs for this coming election.
“The campaigns do pitch to the bloggers,” Roderick said, “and send them e-mails, just pummel bloggers with information and [treat them] like members of the media. I could not imagine an election cycle in the future where blogs are not a huge part of it.”