Blogs have never completely lived up to their early hype. They haven't made many bloggers rich, or ushered in a new era of "citizen journalism", or wrested control of political debates from the mainstream media. But they are gaining political importance, and they are influencing the conduct of foreign and strategic policy. Not only do academics, experts, bureaucrats and political staffers monitor blogs as part of their work, governments are starting to see that the medium itself can improve the way they do business.
Blogs from all over the world provide unique on-the-ground perspectives that can be critical to understanding a country or a crisis. Burma bloggers gave first-hand accounts during the regime's recent crackdown. An Iranian exile illustrated the barbarity of the Iranian Government by posting a video of a woman being hanged in a public square in Tabriz. And a Baghdad architect calling himself Salam Pax became a blog sensation with his first-hand descriptions of America's invasion of Iraq .
There are rich pockets of information like this all around the blogosphere. Chinese military-themed blogs have become a useful source for China watchers looking for new pictures of secretive weapons systems. Google Earth plays a part here too - an American blog recently confirmed the existence of a new class of Chinese submarines using commercial satellite images.
It is not just as witnesses that bloggers contribute to international security debates. Blogs can also bring a level of analysis to international events that governments and the media cannot always match. For instance, arms control professionals keep a keen eye on an American blog called Arms Control Wonk. It offers outstanding analysis by subject-matter specialists, and occasionally even breaks stories - its editor, Jeffrey Lewis, was first with the news in January that China had conducted a successful test of an anti-satellite weapon.
It took years of experience, a deep knowledge of the subject and excellent contacts among peers for Lewis to get this story. No news organisation in the world could have done it, because the skills are just too specialised. And by using his blog, he could get the news out instantly around the world, without help from the mainstream media.
The technology of blogging has radically reduced the economic and technological entry barriers for this kind of strategic and political analysis. Anyone with access to a computer and a modem can reach a worldwide audience at almost no cost.
That's good for political debates in highly specialised and technical areas such as arms control. The mainstream media, for sound business reasons, often shut subject-matter experts out of debates because their views don't interest a broad enough audience.
Blogging gives these experts a voice that can influence policy.
Governments are learning that blogs can not only be observed but also used. US intelligence agencies are experimenting with blogs to improve their analysis of foreign countries and terrorist dangers. In an age where threats materialise suddenly and warnings are vague and fragmentary, blogs can spread news and analysis instantly, and allow others in the system to build on them, creating a clearer picture.
Blogging is also a highly accountable medium - if you have evidence, the convention is to cite it with a hyperlink. Readers can then check your sources with a single click. And if a blogger gets something wrong, attentive readers can quickly point out errors in the comments section, or on their own blog.
But there is a roadblock: government secrecy impedes the take-up of blogging as a bureaucratic tool. Blogs thrive in a culture of openness, whereas governments live in fear of leaks, so tend to leave big decisions to small groups of senior people. This inhibits the kind of innovative thinking that can happen when groups of people with fresh perspectives are allowed to tackle an old problem. It also makes it impossible for bureaucracies to exploit pockets of expertise they did not even know existed.
Politicians already see blogs as useful public relations devices, and a number of foreign ministries are using them in their public diplomacy. Now governments are beginning to explore blogging as a tool for improving international policy.
Blogging may have proven to be something less than a media revolution, but the slow spread of blogs into government suggests they are more than a passing fad.
Sam Roggeveen, a former intelligence analyst, is the editor of the Lowy Institute's blog ( www.lowyinterpreter.org).
© Fairfax Business Media
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