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June 25th, 2009 at 12:33 pm

Guobin Yang on Online Activism in China and Iran

The Power of the Internet in ChinaIn a recent article on Yale Global Online, Guobin Yang, author of the recently published The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online, examines the similarities and differences among Internet activists in Iran and China.

While Iranian protesters have been able to get around censorship via social media such as Twitter and Facebook, the Chinese government has been quite vigilant in censoring the Internet. Recently the government announced a new policy requiring computers to pre-install a software called “Green Dam-Youth Escort.” While the policy was put in place to protect Chinese children from online pornography, others were concerned about the government’s hidden intentions.

This comes at a time when there are an increasing number of activist-bloggers in China. Below is an excerpt from Yang’s post. For more on the book you can also view an excerpt from the book (kindly posted on Yale Global Online), listen to a talk or watch a video of Yang discussing online activism in China.

“Increasingly, in China at least, online oppositional power depends on a new type of activist-bloggers. They write about a broad range of public issues, usually expressing dissent. Whenever major events or crises occur, readers can invariably turn to these bloggers for critical commentaries. Fully aware of the expectations of their audience, these activist-bloggers rarely fail to publish their critical responses. Indeed, the culture of the blogosphere is such that bloggers are compelled to produce for their audience to keep their names in the limelight. In the Green Dam case, it is these activist-bloggers (whom I will not name here) that quickly became the leading critical voices in Chinese cyberspace. Online activism hardly happens out of the blue, but has found a social basis in these activist-bloggers and their followers.

Further, online activism has sustained its power because it has become a vital link with the mass media. Tweets of protests in Iran would not have become so widely known and influential if they had not been picked up by the most powerful global cable networks. Similarly, online protests about the “Green Dam” software in China were encouraged when even some official media stories questioned the policy. This is by no means to underestimate the power of the Internet. One might just as well argue that mass media would not have been as powerful without citizens’ constant news feeds from their tweets and blogs. The truth is that web power has become part and parcel of mainstream media power. Media scholars sometimes talk about the growing convergence between “old” and “new” media. Converging or not, the spectrum of media channels has vital connections, and the power of old or new media is enhanced by establishing such linkages.

To seize the attention of the mainstream media and the general public, Internet activists also depend on two mutually reinforcing resources: size and rhetoric. Large gatherings in the Freedom Square in Tehran or Tiananmen in Beijing generate a sense of power. On the Internet, large volumes of traffic are a sign of web power. And just as passionate rhetoric attracts crowds in the streets, so do surging passions online expand participation.

The tragedy of Neda, the young Iranian woman whose death by gunshot during a peaceful protest was captured on grisly video and subsequently posted on YouTube, is a telling example. The #Neda tag in Twitter stays among the top trending topics, because Neda has become a symbolic vehicle for ordinary people to express their political passions. “Just saw the YouTube video of Neda being murdered in the #iranelection protest. Absolutely horrifying,” goes one Twitter message. Another states: “In Memory of Neda. You did not die in vain.” When millions of such tweets shoot through cyberspace, their message reverberates far beyond. It is a message about the power of the web and of the people, and in the Internet age, web power is people power.”

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