Web of Influence
Every day, millions of online diarists, or "bloggers," share their opinions with a global audience. Drawing upon the content of the international media and the World Wide Web, they weave together an elaborate network with agenda-setting power on issues ranging from human rights in China to the U.S. occupation of Iraq. What began as a hobby is evolving into a new medium that is changing the landscape for journalists and policymakers alike.
It was March 21, 2003 — two days after the United States began its "shock and awe" campaign against Iraq — and the story dominating TV networks was the rumor (later proven false) that Saddam Hussein’s infamous cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid ("Chemical Ali"), had been killed in an airstrike. But, for thousands of other people around the world who switched on their computers rather than their television sets, the lead story was the sudden and worrisome disappearance of Salam Pax.
Otherwise known as the "Baghdad Blogger," Salam Pax was the pseudonym for a 29-year-old Iraqi architect whose online diary, featuring wry and candid observations about life in wartime, transformed him into a cult figure. It turned out that technical difficulties, not U.S. cruise missiles or Baathist Party thugs, were responsible for the three-day Salam Pax blackout. In the months that followed, his readership grew to millions, as his accounts were quoted in the New York Times, BBC, and Britain’s Guardian newspaper. If the first Gulf War introduced the world to the "CNN effect," then the second Gulf War was blogging’s coming out party. Salam Pax was the most famous blogger during that conflict (he later signed a book and movie deal), but myriad other online diarists, including U.S. military personnel, emerged to offer real-time analysis and commentary.
Blogs (short for "weblogs") are periodically updated journals, providing online commentary with minimal or no external editing. They are usually presented as a set of "posts," individual entries of news or commentary, in reverse chronological order. The posts often include hyperlinks to other sites, enabling commentators to draw upon the content of the entire World Wide Web. Blogs can function as personal diaries, political analysis, advice columns on romance, computers, money, or all of the above. Their number has grown at an astronomical rate. In 1999, the total number of blogs was estimated to be around 50; five years later, the estimates range from 2.4 million to 4.1 million. The Perseus Development Corporation, a consulting firm that studies Internet trends, estimates that by 2005 more than 10 million blogs will have been created. Media institutions have adopted the form as well, with many television networks, newspapers, and opinion journals now hosting blogs on their Web sites, sometimes featuring dispatches from their own correspondents, other times hiring full-time online columnists.
Blogs are already influencing U.S. politics. The top five political blogs together attract over half a million visitors per day. Jimmy Orr, the White House Internet director, recently characterized the "blogosphere" (the all-encompassing term to describe the universe of weblogs) as instrumental, important, and underestimated in its influence. Nobody knows that better than Trent Lott, who in December 2002 resigned as U.S. Senate majority leader in the wake of inflammatory comments he made at Sen. Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party. Initially, Lott’s remarks received little attention in the mainstream media. But the incident was the subject of intense online commentary, prodding renewed media attention that converted Lott’s gaffe into a full-blown scandal.
Political scandals are one thing, but can the blogosphere influence global politics as well? Compared to other actors in world affairs — governments, international organizations, multinational corporations, and even nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) — blogs do not appear to be very powerful or visible. Even the most popular blog garners only a fraction of the Web traffic that major media outlets attract. According to the 2003 Pew Research Center for the People and the Press Internet Survey, only 4 percent of online Americans refer to blogs for information and opinions. The blogosphere has no central organization, and its participants have little ideological consensus. Indeed, an October 2003 survey of the blogosphere conducted by Perseus concluded that "the typical blog is written by a teenage girl who uses it twice a month to update her friends and classmates on happenings in her life." Blogging is almost exclusively a part-time, voluntary activity. The median income generated by a weblog is zero dollars. How then can a collection of decentralized, contrarian, and nonprofit Web sites possibly influence world politics?
Blogs are becoming more influential because they affect the content of international media coverage. Journalism professor Todd Gitlin once noted that media frame reality through "principles of selection, emphasis, and presentation composed of little tacit theories about what exists, what happens, and what matters." Increasingly, journalists and pundits take their cues about "what matters" in the world from weblogs. For salient topics in global affairs, the blogosphere functions as a rare combination of distributed expertise, real-time collective response to breaking news, and public-opinion barometer. What’s more, a hierarchical structure has taken shape within the primordial chaos of cyberspace. A few elite blogs have emerged as aggregators of information and analysis, enabling media commentators to extract meaningful analysis and rely on blogs to help them interpret and predict political developments.
Under specific circumstances — when key weblogs focus on a new or neglected issue — blogs can act as a focal point for the mainstream media and exert formidable agenda-setting power. Blogs have ignited national debates on such topics as racial profiling at airports and have kept the media focused on scandals as diverse as the exposure of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity to bribery allegations at the United Nations. Although the blogosphere remains cluttered with the teenage angst of high school students, blogs increasingly serve as a conduit through which ordinary and not-so-ordinary citizens express their views on international relations and influence a policymaker’s decision making.
THE TIES THAT BIND
University of Michigan history Professor Juan Cole had a lot to say about the war on terror and the war in Iraq. Problem was, not many people were listening. Despite an impressive résumé (he’s fluent in three Middle Eastern languages), Cole had little success publishing opinion pieces in the mainstream media, even after Sept. 11, 2001. His writings on the Muslim world might have remained confined to academic journals had he not begun a weblog called "Informed Comment" as a hobby in 2002. Cole’s language proficiency allowed him to monitor news reports and editorials throughout the region. "This was something I could not have been able to do in 1990, or even 1995," he told a Detroit newspaper, referring to the surge of Middle Eastern publications on the Internet. "I could get a level of texture and detail that you could never get from the Western press."
Fellow bloggers took an interest in his writings, especially because he expressed a skepticism about the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq that stood apart from the often optimistic mainstream media coverage following the successful overthrow of the Baathist regime. Writing in the summer of 2003, Cole noted: "The Sunni Arabs north, east and west of Baghdad from all accounts hate the U.S. and hate U.S. troops being there. This hatred is the key recruiting tool for the resistance, and it is not lessened by U.S. troops storming towns. I wish [the counterinsurgency operation] well; maybe it will work, militarily. Politically, I don’t think it addresses the real problems, of winning hearts and minds."
As a prominent expert on the modern history of Shiite Islam, Cole became widely read among bloggers — and ultimately journalists — following the outbreak of Iraqi Shiite unrest in early 2004. With his blog attracting 250,000 readers per month, Cole began appearing on media outlets such as National Public Radio (NPR) and CNN to provide expert commentary. He also testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "As a result of my weblog, the Middle East Journal invited me to contribute for the Fall 2003 issue," he recalls. "When the Senate staff of the Foreign Relations Committee did a literature search on Moktada al-Sadr and his movement, mine was the only article that came up. Senate staff and some of the senators themselves read it and were eager to have my views on the situation."
Cole’s transformation into a public intellectual embodies many of the dynamics that have heightened the impact of the blogosphere. He wanted to publicize his expertise, and he did so by attracting attention from elite members of the blogosphere. As Cole made waves within the virtual world, others in the real world began to take notice.
Most bloggers desire a wide readership, and conventional wisdom suggests that the most reliable way to gain Web traffic is through a link on another weblog. A blog that is linked to by multiple other sites will accumulate an ever increasing readership as more bloggers discover the site and create hyperlinks on their respective Web pages. Thus, in the blogosphere, the rich (measured in the number of links) get richer, while the poor remain poor.
This dynamic creates a skewed distribution where there are a very few highly ranked blogs with many incoming links, followed by a steep falloff and a very long list of medium- to low-ranked bloggers with few or no incoming links. One study by Clay Shirky, an associate professor at New York University, found that the Internet’s top dozen bloggers (less than 3 percent of the total examined) accounted for approximately 20 percent of the incoming links. Some link-deprived blogs may become rich over time as top bloggers link to them, which helps explain why new bloggers are not discouraged.
Consequently, even as the blogosphere continues to expand, only a few blogs are likely to emerge as focal points. These prominent blogs serve as a mechanism for filtering interesting blog posts from mundane ones. When less renowned bloggers write posts with new information or a new slant, they will contact one or more of the large focal point blogs to publicize their posts. In this manner, poor blogs function as fire alarms for rich blogs, alerting them to new information and links. This self-perpetuating, symbiotic relationship allows interesting arguments and information to make their way to the top of the blogosphere.
The skewed network of the blogosphere makes it less time-consuming for outside observers to acquire information. The media only need to look at elite blogs to obtain a summary of the distribution of opinions on a given political issue. The mainstream political media can therefore act as a conduit between the blogosphere and politically powerful actors. The comparative advantage of blogs in political discourse, as compared to traditional media, is their low cost of real-time publication. Bloggers can post their immediate reactions to important political events before other forms of media can respond. Speed also helps bloggers overcome their own inaccuracies. When confronted with a factual error, they can quickly correct or update their post. Through these interactions, the blogosphere distills complex issues into key themes, providing cues for how the media should frame and report a foreign-policy question.
Small surprise, then, that a growing number of media leaders — editors, publishers, reporters, and columnists — consume political blogs. New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller said in a November 2003 interview, "Sometimes I read something on a blog that makes me feel we screwed up." Howard Kurtz, one of the most prominent media commentators in the United States, regularly quotes elite bloggers in his "Media Notes Extra" feature for the Washington Post‘s Web site. Many influential foreign affairs columnists, including Paul Krugman and Fareed Zakaria, have said that blogs form a part of their information-gathering activities.
For the mainstream media — which almost by definition suffer a deficit of specialized, detailed knowledge — blogs can also serve as repositories of expertise. And for readers worldwide, blogs can act as the "man on the street," supplying unfiltered eyewitness accounts about foreign countries. This facet is an especially valuable service, given the decline in the number of foreign correspondents since the 1990s. Blogs may even provide expert analysis and summaries of foreign-language texts, such as newspaper articles and government studies, that reporters and pundits would not otherwise access or understand.
Even foreign-policy novices leave their mark on the debate. David Nishimura, an art historian and vintage pen dealer, emerged as an unlikely commentator on the Iraq war through his blog, "Cronaca," which he describes as a "compilation of news concerning art, archaeology, history, and whatever else catches the chronicler’s eye, with the odd bit of opinion and commentary thrown in." In the month after the fall of Hussein’s regime in April 2003, there was much public hand-wringing about reports that more than 170,000 priceless antiques and treasures had been looted from the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad. In response to these newspaper accounts, a number of historians and archaeologists scorned the U.S. Defense Department for failing to protect the museum.
Nishimura, however, scrutinized the various media reports and found several inconsistencies. He noted that the 170,000 number was flat-out wrong; that the actual losses, though serious, were much smaller than initial reports suggested; and that museum officials might have been complicit in the looting. "Smart money still seems to be on the involvement of Ba’athists and/or museum employees," he wrote. "The extent to which these categories overlap has been danced around so far, but until everything has been properly sorted out, it might be wise to remember how other totalitarian states have coopted cultural institutions, enlisting the past to remake the future." Prominent right-of-center bloggers, such as Glenn Reynolds, Andrew Sullivan, and Virginia Postrel, cited Nishimura’s analysis to focus attention on the issue and correct the original narrative.
As the museum looting controversy reveals, blogs are now a "fifth estate" that keeps watch over the mainstream media. The speed of real-time blogger reactions often compels the media to correct errors in their own reporting before they mushroom. For example, in June 2003, the Guardian trumpeted a story in its online edition that misquoted Deputy U.S. Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz as saying that the United States invaded Iraq in order to safeguard its oil supply. The quote began to wend its way through other media outlets worldwide, including Germany’s Die Welt. In the ensuing hours, numerous bloggers led by Greg Djerijian’s "Belgravia Dispatch" linked to the story and highlighted the error, prompting the Guardian to retract the story and apologize to its readers before publishing the story in its print version.
Bloggers have become so adept at fact-checking the media that they’ve spawned many other high-profile retractions and corrections. The most noteworthy was CBS News’ acknowledgement that it could not authenticate documents it had used in a story about President George W. Bush’s National Guard service that bloggers had identified as forgeries. When such corrections are made, bloggers create the impression at times that contemporary journalism has spun out of control. Glenn Reynolds of "Instapundit" explained to the Online Journalism Review that he sees parallels between the impact of the blogosphere and Russia’s post-Soviet glasnost. "People are appalled, saying it’s the decline of journalism.… But it’s the same as when Russia started reporting about plane crashes and everyone thought they were just suddenly happening. It was really just the first time people could read about them." Media elites rightly retort that blogs have their own problems. Their often blatant partisanship discredits them in many newsrooms. However, as Yale University law Professor Jack Balkin says, the blogosphere has some built-in correction mechanisms for ideological bias, as "bloggers who write about political subjects cannot avoid addressing (and, more importantly, linking to) arguments made by people with different views. The reason is that much of the blogosphere is devoted to criticizing what other people have to say."
The blogosphere also acts as a barometer for whether a story would or should receive greater coverage by the mainstream media. The more blogs that discuss a particular issue, the more likely that the blogosphere will set the agenda for future news coverage. Consider one recent example with regard to U.S. homeland security. In July 2004, Annie Jacobsen, a writer for WomensWallStreet.com, posted online a first-person account of suspicious activity by Syrian passengers on a domestic U.S. flight: "After seeing 14 Middle Eastern men board separately (six together, eight individually) and then act as a group, watching their unusual glances, observing their bizarre bathroom activities, watching them congregate in small groups, knowing that the flight attendants and the pilots were seriously concerned and now knowing that federal air marshals were on board, I was officially terrified," she wrote. Her account was quickly picked up, linked to, and vigorously debated throughout the blogosphere. Was this the preparation for another September 11-style terrorist attack? Was Jacobsen overreacting, allowing her judgment to be clouded by racial stereotypes? Should the U.S. government end the practice of fining "discriminatory" airlines that disproportionately search Arab passengers? In just one weekend, 2 million people read her article. Reports soon followed in mainstream media outlets such as NPR, MSNBC, Time, and the New York Times, prompting a broader national debate about the racial profiling of possible terrorists.
Some bloggers purposefully harness the medium to promote wider awareness of their causes. With the assistance of experts including Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, and Samantha Power, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide, cyberactivist Joanne Cipolla Moore set up a blog and Web site, "Passion of the Present," devoted to collecting news and information about genocide in Sudan. Moore sought out dozens of elite bloggers to link to her site and spread the word about Sudan. The blog of Ethan Zuckerman, a researcher at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, not only links to Moore’s site but has issued a call to arms to the entire blogosphere: "Blogs let us tell offline media what we want. When blog readers made it clear we wanted to know more about Trent Lott’s racist comments, mainstream media picked up the ball and dug deeper into the story.… What sort of effort would it take to choose an important issue — say the Sudanese government’s involvement in Darfur — and get enough momentum in the blogosphere that CNN was forced to bring a camera crew to the region?"
In all of these instances, bloggers relied on established media outlets for much of their information. However, blogs also functioned as a feedback mechanism for the mainstream media. In this way, the blogosphere serves both as an amplifier and as a remixer of media coverage. For the traditional media — and ultimately, policymakers — this makes the blogosphere difficult to ignore as a filter through which the public considers foreign-policy questions.
RAGE INSIDE THE MACHINE
Blogs are beginning to emerge in countries where there are few other outlets for political expression. But can blogs affect politics in regimes where there is no thriving independent media sector?
Under certain circumstances, they can. For starters, blogs can become an alternative source of news and commentary in countries where traditional media are under the thumb of the state. Blogs are more difficult to control than television or newspapers, especially under regimes that are tolerant of some degree of free expression. However, they are vulnerable to state censorship. A sufficiently determined government can stop blogs it doesn’t like by restricting access to the Internet, or setting an example for others by punishing unauthorized political expression, as is currently the case in Saudi Arabia and China. The government may use filtering technologies to limit access to foreign blogs. And, if there isn’t a reliable technological infrastructure, individuals will be shut out from the blogosphere. For instance, chronic power shortages and telecommunications problems make it difficult for Iraqis to write or read blogs.
Faced with various domestic obstacles, bloggers inside these countries (or expatriates) can try to influence foreign blogs and the media through indirect effects at home. Political scientists Margaret Keck of Johns Hopkins University and Kathryn Sikkink of the University of Minnesota note that activists who are unable to change conditions in their own countries can leverage their power by taking their case to transnational networks of advocates, who in turn publicize abuses and lobby their governments. Keck and Sikkink call this a "boomerang effect," because repression at home can lead to international pressure against the regime from abroad. Blogs can potentially play a role in the formation of such transnational networks.
Iran is a good example. The Iranian blogosphere has exploded. According to the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education’s Blog Census, Farsi is the fourth most widely used language among blogs worldwide. One service provider alone ("Persian Blog") hosts some 60,000 active blogs. The weblogs allow young secular and religious Iranians to interact, partially taking the place of reformist newspapers that have been censored or shut down. Government efforts to impose filters on the Internet have been sporadic and only partially successful. Some reformist politicians have embraced blogs, including the president, who celebrated the number of Iranian bloggers at the World Summit on the Information Society, and Vice President Muhammad Ali Abtahi, who is a blogger himself. Elite Iranian blogs such as "Editor: Myself" have established links with the English-speaking blogosphere. When Sina Motallebi, a prominent Iranian blogger, was imprisoned for "undermining national security through ‘cultural activity,’" prominent Iranian bloggers were able to join forces with well-known English-language bloggers including Jeff Jarvis ("BuzzMachine"), Dan Gillmor ("Silicon Valley"), and Patrick Belton ("OxBlog") to create an online coalition that attracted media coverage, leading to Motallebi’s release.
An international protest campaign also secured the freedom of Chinese blogger Liu Di, a 23-year-old psychology student who offended authorities with her satirical comments about the Communist Party. Yet, even as Di was released, two individuals who had circulated online petitions on her behalf were arrested. Such is life in China, where an estimated 300,000 bloggers (out of 80 million regular Internet users) uneasily coexist with the government. Bloggers in China have perfected the art of self-censorship, because a single offensive post can affect an entire online community — as when Internet censors temporarily shut down leading blog sites such as Blogcn.com in 2003. Frank Yu, a Program Manager at Microsoft Research Asia’s Advanced Technology Center in Beijing, described this mind-set as he profiled a day in the life of a fictional Chinese blogger he dubbed "John X": "After reading over his new posting, he checks it for any politically sensitive terms which may cause the government to block his site…. Although he is not concerned as much about being shut down, he does not want all the writers that share the host server with him to get locked out as well.
Living in China, we learn to pick the battles that we feel strongly about and let the host of other indignities pass through quiet compliance." Text messaging is a much safer medium for the online Chinese community. Some bloggers, however, do manage to push the envelope, as when Shanghai-based Microsoft employee Wang Jianshuo offered candid, firsthand accounts (including photos) of the SARS and Avian Flu outbreaks.
North Korea is perhaps the most blog-unfriendly nation. Only political elites and foreigners are allowed access to the Internet. As might be expected, there are no blogs within North Korea, nor any easy way for ordinary North Koreans to access foreign blogs. However, even in that country, blogs may have an impact. A former CNN journalist, Rebecca MacKinnon, has set up "NKZone," a blog that has rapidly become a focal point for North Korea news and discussion. As MacKinnon notes, this blog can aggregate information in a way that ordinary journalism cannot. North Korea rarely allows journalists to enter the country, and when it does, it assigns government minders to watch them constantly. However, non-journalists can and do enter the country. "NKZone" gathers information from a wide variety of sources, including tourists, diplomats, NGOs, and academics with direct experience of life in North Korea, and the blog organizes it for easy consumption. It has already been cited in such prominent publications as the Asian Wall Street Journal and the Sunday Times of London as a source for information about North Korea.
BLOGO ERGO SUM
The growing clout of bloggers has transformed some into "blog triumphalists." To hear them tell it, blogging is the single most transformative media technology since the invention of the printing press. Rallying cries, such as "the revolution will be blogged," reflect the belief that blogs might even supplant traditional journalism. But, as the editor of the Washington, D.C.-based blog "Wonkette," Ana Marie Cox, has wryly observed, "A revolution requires that people leave their house."
There remain formidable obstacles to the influence of blogs. All bloggers, even those at the top of the hierarchy, have limited resources at their disposal. For the moment, they are largely dependent upon traditional media for sources of information. Furthermore, bloggers have become victims of their own success: As more mainstream media outlets hire bloggers to provide content, they become more integrated into politics as usual. Inevitably, blogs will lose some of their novelty and immediacy as they start being co-opted by the very institutions they purport to critique, as when both major U.S. political parties decided to credential some bloggers as journalists for their 2004 nominating conventions.
Bloggers, even those in free societies, must confront the same issues of censorship that plague traditional media. South Korea recently blocked access to many foreign blogs, apparently because they had linked to footage of Islamic militants in Iraq beheading a South Korean. In the United States, the Pentagon invoked national security to shut down blogs written by troops stationed in Iraq. Military officials claimed that such blogs might inadvertently reveal sensitive information. But Michael O’Hanlon, a defense specialist at the Brookings Institution, told NPR that he believes "it has much less to do with operational security and classified secrets, and more to do with American politics and how the war is seen by a public that is getting increasingly shaky about the overall venture."
One should also bear in mind that the blogosphere, mirroring global civil society as a whole, remains dominated by the developed world — a fact only heightened by claims of a digital divide. And though elite bloggers are ideologically diverse, they’re demographically similar. Middle-class white males are overrepresented in the upper echelons of the blogosphere. Reflecting those demographics, an analysis conducted by Harvard University’s Ethan Zuckerman found that the blogosphere, like the mainstream media, tends to ignore large parts of the world.
Nevertheless, as more Web diarists come online, the blogosphere’s influence will more likely grow than collapse. Ultimately, the greatest advantage of the blogosphere is its accessibility. A recent poll commissioned by the public relations firm Edelman revealed that Americans and Europeans trust the opinions of "average people" more than most authorities. Most bloggers are ordinary citizens, reading and reacting to those experts, and to the media. As Andrew Sullivan has observed in the online magazine Slate, "We’re writing for free for anybody just because we love it…. That’s a refreshing spur to write stuff that actually matters, because you can, and say things you believe in without too many worries."
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner