“Blogging Democracy: The contribution of political blogs to democracy” by Gareth Lewis

The essay that I am discussing was one of the two that won The Dalton Camp Award this year. You can read the full version of the essay at the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting website.

Generally, Lewis’s argument can be summed up in his line “thanks to weblogs, any civic-minded citizen with a computer, a modem and the moxie to express their opinions can contribute to the media and the public dialogue.” Blogs provide a way for citizens to break through the increasing corporate control of media outlets – only 1% of newspapers are independently owned today,and in this environment blogs offer a way to expand the number of news sources because its low cost of entry. Free services such as Blogger and Livejournal, where all of the hard work is done by a company behind the scenes, are perfect for citizen-journalists to quickly begin publishing.

The benefits of blogs are numerous, and Lewis strikes on several of them. In particular, the anonymity that individuals (falsely) believe they have when writing and commenting on blogs lowers their inhibitions about speaking about sensitive issues in public – genuine ‘town hall’ style meetings can take place online without needing to arrange for a set place, time, and agenda for political discourse to take place. Thoughts and ideas can be transmitted across the blogosphere without worrying about the factors that traditionally limit community meetings. The increased speech is, defacto, a good thing – Lewis notes that any “media development that encourages greater self-expression can only be seen as a positive for democracy.” Moreover, “blogs can bring back issue based politics and help substance triumph over image. Blogs’ interactive nature helps facilitate debate over political policy, and helps avoid the automatic acceptance of catchy bumper sticker slogans.”

Beyond the local benefits of blogging (local meaning national) blogging is useful because it lets citizens in authoritarian regimes express their opinions to their fellow. Hossein Derakhshan, for example, is instrumental in assisting Iranians create Persian blogs from which they voice opinions , and criticize their government and religious figures. Similar blogs encourage civil disobedience and assist Iranian, Egyptian, and Chinese citizens to set up webspaces to engage in unauthorized sharings of ideas and participation in amoral social networking.

In defending blogs from their critics Lewis notes that they do not exist in a vacuum – other bloggers can comment on and work to correct erroneous ideas, thoughts, and arguments. Beyond this, the possibility of more information means that consumers will have access to more and more news outlets – the consumers “can become intensely involved in editing, discussing and debating with the very people providing their news.” This lets consumers make news sources accountable by enabling consumers to question the validity of information that is presented to them. The ‘media elite’ can no longer assume that they are delivering news to passive consumers – consumers now demand to be involved in the process itself. “Blogs” Lewis notes, “have provided the equalizing platform to make demands and satisfy [the need to have their voices heard].” Rather than naively assuming that blogging will replace traditional media, Lewis envisions that it will revitalize mass media by developing an increasingly interactive relationship between the press and readership – profits will not be challenged.

While Lewis’ thoughts on blogging are interesting, his essay looses its critical edge by (a) deluding itself about the capacity for blogs to shape media decisions, (b) not recognizing the coercive power of the nation-state, (c) avoiding the issue of gaining readership, and (d) focusing on consumer rather than citizen action. While true that media outlets are increasingly adopting blogs, their webpostings betray corporate leanings when staff are hired to post on behalf of more prominent editors. More importantly, by not addressing the issue of the digital divide or the ease of censoring ‘inappropriate’ ideas by nation-state’s expressing their sovereign wills, he suggests that blogging is some kind of emancipatory mode of communication. It is not. Blogging is a poor way of enacting significant changes in the media – each individual acts as an individual in the blogosphere, with only a few gaining enough prominence to have an effect outside a few dozen readers. When individuals use blogs to try and express points, and are subsequently unheard, they come to realize that blogging is not a particularly effective way of reshaping the media landscape. Instead of using blogging as a way of making the new media conglomerates honest, citizens (rather than consumers) should use blogging to unite and work with one another to reverse the hold that mega-conglomerates that have taken over the mass media.

Ultimately Lewis’ arguments are a good start towards looking that the benefits of blogging but his failure (or unwillingness given the award this essay was written for) to genuinely examine the conglomeration of mass media institutions, compression of citizen and consumer, and perception of blogs as just a new way of keeping news organizations honest, fails to identify or suggest solutions to the larger issues surrounding the mass media as it exists today.