So I set up this website less than a month ago. Every time I got a few ideas and some time left at the end of the week, I would write something down. Or I would not. And then some people would read my very valuable contributions. And some others would not. It is an extremely simple process and every smartypants with internet access can become active easily. In the United States, people have been blogging in a long time already, and it seems that blogs have been quite institutionalized in the minds of American information seekers. Digital marketing expert Jeff Bullas picked up this subject and cited a stat from Technorati’s State of The Blogosphere 2010 Report which reveals 40% of internet users trusting blogs as a source of information and news. Seems like a rather high ratio to me, but it will also depend on what sort of “information and news” was taken into account. I doubt that blogs have already made it to a serious alternative to mainstream media in Western democracies and I suppose that it will require a whole lot of change on the established media markets to get even close to 40% of real trust in relation to blog sources. Nevertheless, the community is growing very fast, especially within specific interest groups, such as tech nerds or expectant mothers. Nobody can blame them for their enthusiasm.
In this post, I want to raise awareness for a different sphere with regards to blogging and social media. Since December 2010, we all have been following the so-called Arab Spring live on television. A string of protests and riots has led to overthrows of governments in countries such as Tunesia, Egypt, Lybia, and Yemen. And considering the recent happenings in Syria, there can be no talk of an early end of violence. People have become aware of their freedom of expression and have legitimately developed a sense for democratic participation. The sources of the revolts have been corruption, an unfair distribution of wealth, and a highly dissatisfied youth, but the main catalysts have been blogs and social media. Everybody knows it, especially the former and current autocrats in power. This means that the internet may have become a very useful tool for political communication, a place where people get introduced to each other’s ideas, but it has just as well become increasingly dangerous for the same people to use it. Today’s situation is that threats are growing massively in terms of censorship and surveillance. Syrian authorities have recently blocked WhatsApp and are continuously tracking people’s communication histories on the remaining communication platforms. Activists are being arrested. Hardly surprising that surveillance is shutting many people up.
But where do the tools to monitor people come from? They are certainly not made in Syria. The truth is that U.S. and European companies have a big influence on the supply-side of such tools. A physical catalogue with related examples might be heavier than the bible. Just a few days ago, a Wall Street Journal article (Spy-Gear Business to Be Sold) revealed how a French company that considers itself a leader in the conception and integration of high-tech systems sold their sophisticated IT products to Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2007, who intercepted “emails, online chats and Facebook messages of targets”, such as “Libyan dissidents, journalists, human-rights campaigners and everyday enemies of the state”. The company’s communication policy is vague, and it can be suspected that considerable parts of the total revenue have come from repressive Arab and African governments. Gaddafi was overturned regardless, and today, six months after the information about the deal became public, the French managers do every effort to get rid of the critical business unit. Many tech companies from all around the globe are still highly active in similar trades with today’s dubious political authorities. On the other end, the according governments have not taken any substantial actions to stop this sort of trade. My liberal mind generally reacts against any type of governmental restrictions for the private sector, but it reacts even more against authoritarian governments hindering people from expressing their opinion and gathering knowledge.
At the end of his post, Bullas raises the question on how blogs are about to evolve in the foreseeable future. Fair enough, he is not talking about this dark side of the blogosphere, but it still made me think on a related note. In view of various national and transnational events and dynamics of the past few years, it is very unlikely that the blog will lose its importance as a key communication channel in states with very specific political and social frameworks. Considering such circumstances and taking the online and mobile growth on emerging markets into account, it must be assumed that blogging, as a global trend, is in the early stages of development. What changes though is the enormous range of promotion options, driven by the groundbreaking innovations on the social media markets. In the comment section of my last week’s post about Social TV, I prompted the issue of oversharing, which I still consider a severe problem regarding individual entertainment experiences on the web. This is where the line between emerging and developed markets becomes very clear, because the internet takes up different functions based on respective priorities of the people. Therefore, yes, oversharing can be a problem on our Western entertainment markets, but no, it certainly is not a problem in regions where authoritarian governments suppress every critical review by individual citizens.
The key thing is to raise awareness that censorship exists and to start establishing some sort of global responsibility. There are a lot of associations (Reporters Without Borders, Global Voices, Tor Project, Tactical Technology Collective etc.) trying to make a change. What remains important though is that everybody becomes aware of the issue. It is not crucial that few associations do a lot, but that everybody contributes just a little. Might sound weird, but I am convinced that we are living in a universal internet sphere: a setting that would make us citizens of the internet in a way. The least we can do in this role is care about it and try to understand how new media work.