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THE CYBER REVOLUTIONARIES

The Blogging Revolution: How the newest media is changing politics, business and culture in India, China, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Cuba and Saudi Arabia By Antony Loewenstein, Jaico, Rs 350

Antony Loewenstein’s book is an intelligent examination of the dichotomous character of the internet, a force that can be both “liberating and restrictive”. Political analysts have often excitedly pointed at the arms of the new media — Facebook, Twitter, blogs — as catalysts for the Arab Spring that toppled several autocratic regimes in the Muslim world. As proof, they refer to the spark that was lit in Tunisia. When a street vendor immolated himself to protest against harassment by authorities, irate local people posted the video of his death on Facebook. Al-Jazeera distributed the video on its network, starting a fire that singed despotic regimes in the region. Loewenstein’s journeys across Iran, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and China and his interactions with online dissenters have given him the leverage to posit a caveat in this respect. The internet, he argues, has crystallized into a critical platform for disseminating information among dissidents. But it remains only one of the many arrows in the quiver in the battle for democracy.

Loewenstein bolsters his argument by citing the failure of the ‘Green Revolution’ in Iran. All the factors needed for yet another revolution inspired by the ‘web’ was in place: a repressive regime, tech-savvy youth, YouTube videos of State violence, and so on. Yet Ahmadinejad could not be dislodged from his throne. If anything, the tables have been turned on anonymous dissidents by regimes in China, Russia and Iran that are covertly colluding with technology companies to root out online dissent. Loewenstein’s research reveals that Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are competing to design effective deterrents to curb freedom in cyberspace. Significantly, the institutional backlash against online dissidence has borrowed heavily from the rule-book of dissenters. Iran, for instance, has assisted in the formation of individual religious blogs to counter ‘revolutionary propaganda’.

The Blogging Revolution dismantles several other half-truths. In mainstream media, dissidence is often glorified, but journalists seldom pay attention to the forlornness of the enterprise. Here, we come across an Egyptian dissident who confides that his battle against the State has left him terribly lonely. He seems to echo the pain of the Cuban woman activist who confesses her estrangement from her son on account of her opposition to Castro.

Loewenstein also punctures the claim that cyber dissent has helped forge a pan-Arab nationalism. He unearths the ethnic tensions that continue to brew in Syria over the question of Iraqi refugees, thereby exposing new faultliness that are eroding old ties based on identity.

Online campaigns are not only about democracy. For the women respondents, the war is also against regressive norms and their proponents. An Iranian artist complains that she cannot exhibit her work in Iran; an Egyptian blogger reveals that she finds the views of the Muslim Brotherhood extreme. It is heartening to see Loewenstein address the question of women’s empowerment to suggest that the battle against tyranny is complex and layered, and that political change is meaningless without social transition.

Loewenstein should also be thanked for his attempt to democratize information. He is aware that the debased culture of contemporary reportage often prioritizes Western hegemony and interests. His unembedded travels help liberate voices that are seldom accommodated in the mainstream Western media. A Saudi blogger insists that change can never be imposed from the outside on the Muslim world. He could have been speaking for nearly every other dissident. Their views offer compelling evidence for the West to temper its campaign to project the new media as a tool to engineer revolution in the Muslim world.

Loewenstein’s book would also be of use to Indian readers and journalists. The latter, who often succumb to the lure of sensationalism, will find in it a template for objective reporting. Loewenstein’s sympathies may lie with the oppressed but he does not allow his sentiments to cloud his broader objectives. His prose thus remains dispassionate, economical, and nearly always enquiring. As for Indian readers, this book will perhaps make them value their freedom of expression and remind them not to take that right for granted. It will also make them wary of seemingly innocuous developments such as the minister for human resources directing social networking sites to remove ‘objectionable’ content or the judiciary mulling over guidelines for the media in India.

But what of the future, both in the real and cyber world? Even after revolutions — whether or not aided by the social media— things may remain unchanged. In Egypt, recently freed from the shadow of Mubarak, a blogger was imprisoned for criticizing the military. Loewenstein reminds us that it is imperative for dissident bloggers to remain engaged with the injustices that are perpetrated not just in repressive states but also in the free world.

An Iranian blogger had once written that every light that remains switched on in Teheran at night showed that “somebody is sitting behind [sic] a computer, driving through [sic] information road; and that is in fact a storehouse of gun powder that, if ignited, will start a great firework in the capital of the revolutionary Islam”. That light, Loewenstein urges, should never be turned off.