Influential nobodies

A few days ago a little known legislator in Alaska earned himself a special place in the blogosphere’s hall of shame by outing the hitherto anonymous local pundit ‘Mudflats.’ After modest beginnings as a charmingly sceptical observer of state politics, Mudflats had become one of the most famous blogs in the world the moment John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. Rep Mike Doogan explained his decision to unmask Mudflats − after months of persistent detective work − as a matter of high principle, a question of ensuring that commentary on public affairs was undertaken only by people willing to put their names next to their opinions. A principle that no doubt assumed greater importance each time this unknown gadfly showed him and Governor Palin to be somewhat less competent than their spin doctors would have the public believe.

In a lengthy rebuttal, Mudflats pointed out that “I don’t need to remind [my] readers that Alaska is in a time of turmoil.  We are facing… an erupting volcano… critical issues in the legislature… an incredibly divisive and extreme right wing ideologue as our new Attorney General.  And there are only three weeks left in the legislative session.  It bothers me quite a bit that instead of focusing all his energy on doing his job, one of our elected representatives would rather spend his time stalking and harassing a political blogger.” Ín an ideal world, “if our politicians were doing their jobs better, there would be no need for political bloggers, and we could all write diaries about our dogs, or our kids, or knitting.”

Blogs have been around for everyone to understand the ways they have changed mainstream news gathering, but few politicians and bureaucrats − except perhaps  those in authoritarian states like China and Myanmar − have really grasped how dangerous the blogosphere has become to the centralized power that determines their status. Glenn Reynolds, better known to his readers as legendary author of Instapundit.com, memorably described the corps of ordinary netizens keeping public figures honest as “an army of Davids.” Linked, with increasing ease, by the ability to share and sift through large amounts of data, this new tribe of anonymous warriors has started to decentralize political power as radically as any seventeenth century English pamphleteer.

One striking example of the emerging change is the case of Ezra Levant. As editor of the Western Standard, Levant published the controversial Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed. When a single complaint led to his summons by the Alberta Human Rights Commission in January 2008, Levant decided not to bargain his way out of trouble, as most sensible people would have done. He pushed back aggressively against his interrogator at the commission, videotaped the encounter and posted the footage to YouTube. A few days later his clips had been seen more than 400,000 times and his cause was taken up by bloggers all over the world. They not only helped him to research and publicise his case − for free − they even donated large sums of money to help him pay the substantial legal costs associated with his heroic defence of free speech. Levant finally triumphed over the bureaucrats who intended to charge him with the rather Orwellian sounding offence of  “hate speech” but he readily concedes that his victory could not have happened before the social networks often referred to as ‘Web 2.0’ had become commonplace.

Similar stories can be found all over the world. Chinese bloggers are undermining Beijing’s illusion of political harmony and even using the Internet to push back against the official propaganda with documents like Charter 08.  (Commemorations of the twentieth anniversary of Tiananmen Square this June will not reach ordinary Chinese via print or television, but no matter what the censors do, this unwelcome news will get into the country via the Internet.) Inconvenient truths are also percolating through Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Mudflats’ counterparts in these countries often lose their freedom or their lives if their secret identities are unmasked, and the authorities chasing them scarcely bother to cloak their real motives with a high-sounding rationale. But just as quickly as the censors adapt to the new technology, another set of ingenious evasions is devised and the criticism continues, often more provocatively than before. Repressive governments all over the world have good reason to fear the army of Davids that are rising up against them. George Orwell once observed, brilliantly, that every joke is a tiny revolution. So are the best political blogs – that’s why so many powerful people want to silence them.

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