What’s In A Tea Party

I’ve been watching the rise of the quasi-libertarian “Tea Party” movement with bemused curiosity. The viral explosion of the net-based movement must far exceed the expectations of its original proponents: the unwitting Rick Santelli, conservative commentator Michelle Malkin, and the host of libertarian organizations which helped to build up publicity.

Yet, as Andrew Sullivan and at least one perceptive Daily Dish reader have noted, there is a certain haziness to the movement’s goals. What exactly are they agitating for (or against)? Besides the Boston Tea Party metaphor and a populist and indistinct discontent with taxes and the stimulus bill, protesters seem to be running on the hot air of their own fervor. Social networking and brilliant internet marketing have created a behemoth with no head, all grassroots and no agenda.

This presents, as I see it, some of the limits of crowd-sourced politicking. Yes, as with the election of Barack Obama, we are seeing thousands of people participate in digital activism; but without some kind of central organization, the momentum is all centrifugal. Or as that Dish reader put it:

Let them find out how easy it is to have things go viral and how hard it is to sustain something without a cogent message or an articulate messenger.

If, on the other hand, the Tea Party camp can stay loud into next year, I think the effect on the big tent of mainstream conservative politics might be tangible. This “squeaky wheel” electoral effect would prove the power of the web to amplify messages, even mildly incoherent ones, through the blogosphere and beyond.

Whistleblowing, Bloggers Need Not Apply

A new Texas “shield” law, designed to protect journalists from being forced to yield up confidential sources, will reportedly not include bloggers. Of course, the line between the two is rapidly blurring as established journalists (Mark Ambinder, for example) begin quasi-blogging full-time. Yet, because those journalists are paid to blog, they may be included under the shield. Rather, this is a blow for citizen journalists, whose un-paid status somehow makes them ineligible to report on corruption or malfeasance. Disappointing, to say the least…

Morozov: The Internet No Democratic Cure

I’ve had some time to pour over Evgeny Morozov’s thoughtful and sobering piece on cyber-utopianism. He’s dead on in diagnosing Western academics and activists with quixotic belief in the Internet’s power to democratize. The web is no panacea for totalitarianism, Morozov warns, and to fervently hope otherwise is hopeful blindness.

In at least two respects, I agree with Morozov. First, simply increasing access to the internet has not taken down the world’s notorious human rights offenders. “Logistics,” as Morozov points out, “are not the only determinant of civic engagement.” The web may have amplified the efforts of democracy activists (in the Ukraine, Burma or China), but this fact has not necessarily swelled the ranks of freedom fighters.

Connected to this is a corollary point, and one which I previously discussed in connection to a paper Morozov wrote for the Open Society Institute. The Web contains as much distraction as dissidence; it’s a hall of mirrors, often a projection of active fantasy, not political activism. In the BR piece, Morozov nails this:

Once they get online unsupervised, do we expect Chinese Internet users, many of them young, to rush to download the latest report from Amnesty International or read up on Falun Gong on Wikipedia? Or will they opt for The Sopranos or the newest James Bond flick? Why assume that they will suddenly demand more political rights, rather than the Friends or Sex in the City lifestyles they observe on the Internet?

Returning to my first point, Chinese and Burmese cyber-dissidence has simply been met with heavier repression and authoritarian backlash. In direct proportion to the expansion of internet access, Chinese users have seen the creation of a behemoth Great Firewall, monitoring all traffic, even Skype conversations, for subversive keywords. Those bloggers and netizens caught red-handed are shut down or arrested — in chilling 1984-esque slang, they are “harmonized.”

In Burma, by contrast, the Saffron Revolution of Buddhist monks was defeated by a complete take down of the internet and brutal military repression, despite well publicized and shocking photographs from citizen journalists and bloggers. Indeed, one of the motivating questions in our study of the Saffron Revolution was why democratic reform did not materialize in Burma despite the pro-democratic catalyst of internet activists.

However warranted Morozov’s cyber-pessimism may be, there is some room for counter-argument. Cyber-utopians may falsely subscribe to technological determinism, but that doesn’t exclude the possibility that the web’s influence on democratic reform is subtle and slow, almost Burkean in quality.

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Bluehost To Sack Iranian Blogs

Bluehost, which hosts several WordPress blogs in Iran, is set to start removing Iranian users due to a clause  which allows them to deny service to countries under American government sanctions. The sad irony is that this action only hurts political speech, civil society and democratic participation in Iran, the very values that thinking Americans would like to flourish there.

In deeply conservative Iran, whose outspoken anti-Americanism and atomic ambitions have prompted punitive sanctions from the West, the blogosphere has become one of the few avenues of robust political speech. As Persian blogger Arash Kamangir eloquently puts it:

My father once took me to the streets in front of the University of Tehran, now called Revolution Street, and showed me the pavement. He said, “There was a time when, at every inch of this pavement, a person was passionately advocating for a political group.” The Persian blogosphere is the electronic version of those packed streets which were silenced soon after the takeover of power by the current administration.

There are, of course, enormous complications to any Iranian-American rapproachment, Obama’s recent holiday well-wishing aside. See The Atlantic’s sobering Netanyahu interview for what I mean by this. At the same time, the Manichean image of Iran as an evil theocracy of mad mullahs must be checked against the aspirations of average Iranians, who simply desire the autonomy to speak, discuss and protest. Bluehost’s disappointing denial of service does nothing to foster this web-based civil society and, in fact, may only prop up hardliners, anxious to shackle hosting services and executve bloggers.

Missionary/Blogger Detained in Iran

The Committee to Protect Bloggers reports that an Iranian blogger and convert to Christianity has been detained by a police dragnet for writing about the Bible. Conversion from Islam to another religion has long been a taboo in Muslim countries, and in some (like Iran or Afghanistan) it still carries penalties like death or jail time for “apostasy.” For more background, read the Council on Foreign Relations’s primer on theocratic sharia law and conversion.

What is unique to this case is the blogging aspect. Of course, as global access to the Internet increases,  I think an inevitable conflict between conservative sharia courts and free expression will explode and multiply. The recent condemnation of an Afghan journalism student for even downloading articles which question Islam represents an extreme example of the phenomenon.

In more internet savvy Iran, there are over 60,000 Farsi language blogs. Potentially, that includes thousands of aberrant opinions, converts to other faiths, missionaries, satirists and dissidents — many of whom are currently self-censor out of fear.

The Iranian state’s battle against free religious speech may already be underway. As Al-Jazeera recently suggested, a proposed Iranian law making seditious blogging a capital offense would include, from the perspective of Sharia, conversion in its definition of “fasad.” Fasad is a category from Islamic legal interpretation which broadly encompasses what we might call sedition or “mischief against the State.”

The New Censorship Regime Frontier: Western Democracies

FP has a great piece on the increasing number of Westernized democracies joining the internet censorship game. I made some similar observations last week about Australia (available here). Internet censorship is a tricky business, and because anonymity by web users and censors is high, the potential for abuse is palpable.

Even if there are narrowly tailored and legitimate reasons to block content from the Internet (say child pornography), the framework under which actual censorship takes place ought to be very carefully designed.

To the degree I agree with any censorship regime, I like the compromise reached by Google and the German government. Google removes sites which do not comply with German laws (those banning Nazi propaganda, for example), but also makes you aware that they are doing so, with directions to ChillingEffects.org (for other background on German censorship, see here and here.) My search for “Mein Kampf” on Google.de yields several results, but two, likely white supremacist merchandise stores, are blocked:

Aus Rechtsgründen hat Google 2 Ergebnis(se) von dieser Seite entfernt. Weitere Informationen über diese Rechtsgründe finden Sie unter ChillingEffects.org.

For legal reasons, Google has 2 Result(s) from this page. For more information on these reasons, see ChillingEffects.org.

This anyway is somewhat more upfront than other censorship regimes (China, Thailand, Turkey), which alter the information universe of their users. Tiennamen or the recent Tibet police beating video simply do not exist for Chinese users. Perhaps this is one explanation for the polls which suggest the Chinese are supportive of benign internet censorship. They have been excluded from the necessary and demystifying power of internet muckracking. Internet censorship, including troubling new developments in Western democracies, cuts muckrackers off at the source.

How To Blog Anonymously

For readers and netizens living under an iron curtain of internet and political repression (fighting river crabs), anonymous blogging is an important free speech enabler. Like 18th century phampleteers (or even the writers of the Federalist papers), anonymous bloggers are empowered by their aliases to challenge taboos, censors and government power.

This updated guide (edited by Global Voices/Berkman guru Ethan Zuckerman) lays out the best practices of protecting your identity without silencing your voice, including the Tor anonymizer with WordPress and email tricks. The internet is the last bulwark against totalitarian control because of its fluid and democratic character. That is why anonymous blogging is so important. Difficult to trace or gag, it is the kind of speech most likely to impact an increasingly interconnected and web-dependent world.

Of course, be extremely careful. Use these tools at your discretion. Reporters Without Borders has a comprehensive list of jailed cyber-dissidents. This past week, an Iranian blogger died in prison custody, while the Iranian parliament considered passing a chilling law, turning seditious and anti-clerical blogging into a capital offense. And this in a country with millions of internet users and thousands of blogs…

Obama’s YouTube Diplomacy

For those that haven’t seen it yet, below is Obama’s YouTube Nowruz (New Year) message to the people and leaders of Iran. In my opinion, he seems to have gotten the tone just about right. And I found that the use of online video to speak directly to the Iranian people, but also its leaders, a great example of Internet diplomacy. In our research into both the Persian and Arabic language blogospheres, we have found that online resources such as YouTube and Wikipedia are by far the most popular online media sources. Although YouTube has been blocked on and off in Iran, I understand it is currently not blocked. We need more people there to use Herdict and tell us if this is true or not. Obama’s use of YouTube also ensures that he will get a far larger audience than the usual White House press release garners. My only concern, though, is that the media and blogosphere are so focused on Obama’s video that nobody is talking about the death of Iranian blogger Omid Reza Misayafi, which is far too important, and upsetting, of a story to be overlooked.

Eulogy for Omid Misayafi

I am having trouble expressing how sad and angry I feel over the death of Iranian blogger Omid Rez Misayafi. Bruce’s post this morning announcing it, via Global Voices, left me shaken and upset. I have spent the last hour frantically pouring over the accounts of a writer whom I’ve never met or read (he wrote in Farsi, mostly about traditional Iranian music), but with whom I feel the deepest and most immediate brotherhood. As the Committee to Protect Bloggers put it: “They’ve Killed One of Us.”

I am trying to wrap my mind around how something this cruel and unnecessary could happen. Misayafi, whose chief offense seems to have been a few quickly penned satires, was sentenced in December for insulting religious clerics and opposing the Islamic Republic. That this could merit *two and a half years* in an Iranian gulag, the infamous Evin Prison (listen to this NPR report)… the mind reels in a complex reaction of weary disgust.

The true cause of Misayafi’s death is not yet known. According to official sources, his death was a suicide. Depressed and isolated in prison, the writer simply OD’d on sedatives. Misayafi’s sister is rightly suspicious of this story, especially after the Zahra Kazemi incident. Iranian officials first reported that the detained Canadian-Iranian journalist had died of a stroke while in custody. As it turns out, she was brutally raped, tortured and beaten to death.

They've Killed One of Us

Even if Misayafi died by his own hand, he did so under awful conditions and unfair imprisonment. I encourage you to read the statement by Reporters Without Borders, which has demanded a full investigation and detailed autopsy.

Finally, I express my condolences to the Misayafi family. Though you are thousands of miles away, speak another language and come from a different culture, your grief is rawly felt by anyone who believes in free expression. Omid Misayafi, rest in peace.

Iranian Blogger Dies In Prison

Hamid Tehrani at Global Voices tells us that Iranian blogger and journalist Omid Reza Mir Sayafi has died in prison. Hamid writes:

Omid Reza Mir Sayafi, a 29-year old Iranian blogger and journalist died in Evin Prison in Tehran on March 18. In December, he was sentenced to two and half years in prison for allegedly insulting religious leaders, and engaging in propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Mir Sayafi was still awaiting an additional trial for insulting Islam.

According to the Human Rights activists in Iran website, Omid Reza suffered from deep depression in jail and was prescribed medications of which he apparently took too many. Dr. Hesam Firouzi, a jailed doctor and human rights activist says [fa] he urged prison authorities to send Omid Reza to a hospital outside prison but that prison doctors refused, and would not perform even basic tests.

See Hamid’s full blog post here.