This week, Talking Points Memo is convening a discussion of Eric Boehlert’s new book, "Bloggers on the Bus", about American political bloggers and the 2008 presidential campaign. I wrote a post briefly comparing the role of political blogs in the U.S. and Iran, and arguing that Eric’s depiction of American surveillance politics underplayed how blog protests were positioned in broader networks. The post — which may disappoint some of the techno-skeptics in our Nation comment section — is below.
This is an auspicious time to discuss Eric’s book on networked politics — you can’t scan Google News without coming across reports of how blogs, Twitter and cell phones are channeling political protest in Iran. Tuesday’s New York Times, for example, reports on how the Iranian government’s repression has focused on technology.
The crackdown on communications began on election day, when text-messaging services were shut down in what opposition supporters said was an attempt to block one of their most important organizing tools. Over the weekend, cellphone transmissions and access to Facebook and some other Web sites were also blocked. Iranians continued to report on Monday that they could not send text messages.
But it appears they are finding ways around Big Brother. Many Twitter users have been sharing ways to evade government snooping, such as programming their Web browsers to contact a proxy — or an Internet server that relays their connection through another country.
The technology only matters, of course, because there are so many like-minded people trying to communicate with each other and build political power. Now Iran’s heated protests and surreptitious tweets may seem like a long way from the American political bloggers that Eric profiles. But Iran’s current new media activity is working partly because online political networks were already in place, primed by an active blogosphere that favors Mousavi. (A Harvard study on election eve tells the story in colorful clusters.)
Likewise, here in the U.S., some of the liberal blogosphere’s most successful efforts occurred when it operated in tandem with larger political networks. While I agree with many of Eric’s points in his chapter on Glenn Greenwald and surveillance activism, I would put a bit more emphasis on how the blogosphere’s campaign fit into a larger network — including, as it happens, this very [TPM] website. Eric depicts Obama’s opposition to telecom immunity during the primary, for example, as an "announcement" designed to box in Hillary Clinton:
Pressuring his rival Hillary Clinton from the left, Obama even announced he would support the filibuster of any bill that tried to hand the telecoms a get-out-of-jail pass in the form of retroactive immunity.
Yet it wasn’t exactly a proactive Obama Campaign announcement, issued in a press release or speech. It was an exclusive comment from spokesperson Bill Burton to TPM’s Greg Sargent, in response to pressure from MoveOn and leading liberal bloggers. By fusing activism and aggressive reporting, the netroots-MoveOn-blogger network got Obama on record. And when Obama later reversed that position, it was not just blog criticism, but the large gatherings on MyBo, his campaign social network, that garnered traditional media attention and cajoled a rare response from the candidate. (To be fair, Eric also notes that "Bloggers formed a potent alliance with presidential campaigns, congressional staffs, and outside advocacy groups," working with "readers to try to block the effort under way to codify Bush’s wiretapping.")
And the Obama White House largely picked up where the campaign left off. It benefits from liberal blogs’ output, but largely routes around them to address supporters directly (through OFA and the federal government’s expanding new media operations). In his first post here, Eric dryly notes "the blogosphere’s nuanced and complicated relationship with the Obama White House" (emphasis added) — and observes that challenging Obama on policy is "more challenging" for liberal bloggers than thrashing the prior president. Alright. Yet I hope we can go deeper here — especially with the panel TPM has assembled and the hyper-informed readers. (Including DanK.)
For many traditionalists, especially in the press, the blogosphere’s largest impact in this governance phase comes with policing unilateral administrative actions, like the words the president uses, and the people he nominates. (The blogs have "zapped" two intel candidates that way, in this narrative.)
For some tech idealists, including the wiki-government crowd, bloggers can help debate and formulate policy in real time.
Or we can move from process to actual agenda-setting. Many non-partisan supporters of government accountability see the blogosphere as one of the only public places to advance a reckoning for the torture and abuses committed by the last administration — and often suppressed by the current administration.
Eric has given us important questions and some fascinating stories, so let’s get this conversation going…