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Blogging and Politics in Jordan - Ikhwanweb

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Blogging and Politics in Jordan
Blogging and Politics in Jordan
No Longer a Novelty: Blogging and Politics in Jordan
Following is a study of the Jordanian blogosphere and its role in political discourse in Jordan.
Wednesday, January 2,2008 22:50
by Sam Bollier Sam In Amman.blogspot

Abstract

The purpose of this study was to determine the amount of influence that Jordanian blogs exert on political discourse in Jordan. Due to the recent advent of blogs, very little literature currently exists on this topic, despite its increasing importance. The author carried out this research through interviews with Jordanian bloggers themselves and with professionals working in what is commonly referred to as the “traditional media” – newspapers and television. The author found that, while the Jordanian blogosphere may indeed grow to become a significant force in Jordanian politics, its influence remains marginal at present. In order for the situation to change, the actualization of four factors would have to occur: the rate of Internet penetration in Jordan would have to increase, the culture of self-censorship would have to be overcome, the traditional media would have to view blogs as “legitimate” entities and, perhaps most importantly, there would have to be greater opportunities for public participation in Jordanian politics.

Introduction

I first “discovered” blogs in fall 2006, in the midst of the American congressional elections. Newspapers were hailing blogs as forces to be reckoned with in the coming elections, as liberal blogs such as DailyKos.com managed to raise from their readers thousands of dollars in donations for progressive candidates popularly regarded as “unelectable.” When the dust settled, it was widely regarded that about a dozen congressmen as well as two new senators had won their respective races thanks to massive influxes of individual donations raised by left-wing blogs.

However, I wish to make it clear that, despite my interest in blogging being initially piqued by an electoral victory favorable to me, my primary interest in blogging is not as a partisan political force per se, but as an emerging entity that is increasingly capable of forging new groups, spurring political activism, and fostering a public discourse outside of the realm of that created by traditional media sources. What fascinated me was the fact that these blogs managed to bring thousands of individuals together to discuss the merits of various candidates, debate electoral strategy, and even part with significant amounts of their own money.

What Are Blogs?

Due to the brief history of blogging and myriad misconceptions about their nature, it would be beneficial to give a brief overview describing what exactly blogs are. Although online diaries existed starting in the mid-1990s, the term “blog” was coined in 1999, as a portmanteau of the words “web” and “log.” A blog consists of a series of entries, or posts, displayed in reverse chronological order – that is, the most recent posts are displayed at the top of the page. Although many bloggers write about their personal lives, many other blogs are themed, providing stories, news, or commentaries on a given topic.

The vast majority of blogs have hyperlinks to news stories, videos, sound clips, or other blogs, thus making it a medium that relies heavily on networking. By permitting blog readers to leave comments on any post, blogs are also interactive, facilitating discussion about the subject at hand. Many bloggers also employ a “blogroll,” a list of hyperlinks to other blogs that they support or find useful.

The number of blogs has grown at an exponential rate since their genesis ten years ago. Technorati, a blog search engine and monitor, currently tracks upwards of 112 million blogs. The term “blogosphere” is used to define the set of all blogs in a given domain.

The Arab blogosphere, needless to say, is signally different from that of the United States. First, rates of Internet access are much lower in the Arab world than they are in Western nations. In a 2006 Nielsen study, it was estimated that the number of people with Internet access in the Arab world is approximately 19 million, which comprises about 10 percent of the population of the Arab world. This, however, is a 500 percent increase from six years ago. Nevertheless, the International Telecommunication Union estimates that just 4 percent of people in the Arab world “regularly” use the Internet. Although Internet penetration rates remain low, rates of broadband Internet access increased at a higher rate in the Middle East than in any other region in the world. According to AME Info, an online provider of business information in the Middle East, the number of broadband subscribers in the Middle East rose by 38 percent in 2006.

The number of blogs in the Arab world remains small. According to Technorati, Arabic-language blogs make up less than 1 percent of all blogs. Marc Lynch, an expert on Arab media, estimates that, out of the approximately 25,000 total Arab blogs, there are “a few thousand” blogs of a primarily political nature. Maktoob, a blog aggregator, puts the number of Arab “political and news blogs” at 4,360.

Arab governments preside over some of the strictest Internet censorship in the world – indeed, of the 133 countries press watchdog group Reporters Without Borders deemed to be “enemies of the Internet” in 2006, five of them were in the Middle East or North Africa. According to OpenNet.net, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Tunisia were found to “consistently block Web sites of opposition groups.” The Muslim Brotherhood’s website is “intermittently” blocked in Egypt. And most Gulf states, in addition to Sudan, Tunisia, and Yemen, also censor websites deemed culturally inappropriate, such as those dealing with gambling, alcohol, and sex. Yet the Internet is ultimately a decentralized entity, and, due to this fact, Internet users tend to remain one step ahead of the authorities.

I was aware of bloggers’ key role in the reformist Kifaya movement in Egypt, and had heard that, despite several of their number being thrown in jail, their activism was covered by several Egyptian newspapers and that they organized protests and demonstrations demanding a change in Egypt’s autocratic government. I presumed, prior to my research, that a similar situation existed in Jordan: that a coterie of activist bloggers were arranging protests and drawing attention from the mainstream media.

I soon discovered that, while blogging in Jordan is a vibrant, growing phenomenon, it is fundamentally a politically “quieter” scene than in, say, Egypt. The questions I wished to answer, then, were twofold: first, what sorts of political change do bloggers effect in Jordan; and second, why is the Jordanian blogosphere so tepid in comparison to many of its Arab peers?

Answering the first question proved to be quite difficult. While there have been a number of events in Jordan in which bloggers have had a clear-cut influence, it seems fair to say that, at the moment, the primary impact of Jordanian blogging has been on intangible processes that are intrinsically difficult to gauge. Lynch posits that blogs have the potential to “allow ordinary Arabs to re-engage with politics” and to “hone [Arabs’] analytical and argumentative skills.” Yet how does one measure the degree to which these processes have occurred, and to what extent blogs have been responsible? I discovered early on that, due to the dearth of statistics on blogging in general, and in the Arab world especially, anecdotal evidence would play an important role in my research.

As for the second question, I compared the Jordanian blogosphere to that of three Arab countries – Egypt, Bahrain, and Kuwait – in which bloggers have been widely deemed “successful” in terms of the political influence that they exert.

Blogging is increasingly used in Egypt as a tool to expose illegal practices and government corruption. Reuters reported on November 6 that two Egyptian policemen would be sentenced to three years in prison for sodomizing a man with a stick while in police custody. Covert cell phone videos of the incident were uploaded to several Egyptian blogs, which subsequently sparked public awareness, provoked an international outcry, and landed the officers in court.

Many Egyptian political blogs are used as means of dissent. A Christian Science Monitor article on blogging in Egypt states that activists use these blogs “to find out the time and place of future demonstrations, to learn who has been arrested and where they have been taken, and to debate the effectiveness of opposition strategies.” Alaa Fattah and two other bloggers, tired of the inefficacy of previous protests that had stuck to the same place, used their blogs to organize a demonstration in a working-class Cairo neighborhood, drawing 300 protesters. The protest was regarded as being very innovative with regard to its speeches, slogans, and choice of location.

The demonstrations organized by bloggers are not strictly anti-government: after a suicide bombing in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm al-Sheikh in July 2005, bloggers organized an antiterrorism candlelight vigil. However, the Egyptian government, frightened by the massive response to the planned vigil, prevented it from occurring.

And in the tiny island nation of Bahrain, bloggers continually demand the country adopt a new constitution with a greater separation of powers, as well as broader political freedoms. Over 60 Bahrainis were blogging about local politics by 2005; the number is surely higher now. Bahraini bloggers organized and publicized protests over the arrest of Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, a member of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights who had been imprisoned by the government.

Three Bahraini bloggers were arrested in 2005 for posting to the Internet a United Nations report critical of the way in which the Bahraini government has dealt with the country’s Shiite majority. Following their jailing, the government also mandated that all bloggers must register their sites with Bahraini authorities should they wish to continue to blog.

The arrests sparked a flurry of protest amongst Bahraini bloggers, who denounced on their websites the government’s harsh treatment of free speech. Major media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal picked up the story, and Human Rights Watch issued a statement on the Bahraini bloggers as well. The upshot was the bloggers’ release from prison, as well as the rescinding of the Ministry of Information’s blog registering requirement. Bahraini bloggers also wrote about what became known as “Bandar Gate,” a plot in which the regime planned to fix the country’s 2006 parliamentary elections. And Google Earth maps posted by sharp-eyed bloggers revealed that the royal family had appropriated large tracts of land.

Kuwaiti blogs were instrumental in exposing corruption in the Gulf nation’s 2006 parliamentary elections. Bloggers reported that Jamal Al ‘Umar, a parliamentary candidate, attempted to buy a woman’s vote by promising her a Chanel handbag. The story made it to the mainstream media and became a minor scandal. As a result, reformist candidates did surprisingly well in the elections.

As blogging has emerged as an influential voice in Arab countries such as Egypt, Bahrain, and Kuwait, governments have become increasingly repressive of this type of speech. Wael Abbas says that becoming a blogger “can be a life-changing decision attracting phone taps, official harassment or even arrest.” Several bloggers have been arrested in Egypt over the past year. Abdelkareem Nabil Soliman, a student at Cairo’s al-Azhar University, was sentenced to four years in jail for criticizing religious extremism, the rigid curriculum of his university, and the failure of the Egyptian government to safeguard the rights of women and minority groups. He was charged with “inciting religious hatred” and “defaming the president.” Shohdy Naguib Sorour was sentenced to one year in prison for posting a political poem written by his father to wadada.net. The court determined that he was guilty of violating public morality. And Abdel Monem Mahmoud, is a blogger and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a political party banned in Egypt. He was jailed in 2003, where he claimed to have been tortured. He was detained yet again in April 2007.

Although blogs have received scanty attention from the mainstream media in Jordan, they have begun to attract coverage in other Arab countries, most notably in Egypt and on the iconic Qatar television network Al Jazeera. Al Masry Al Youm and Al Dustour, both Egyptian papers, “routinely cite blogs as sources for their stories,” according to Lynch. In August 2007, it was announced that Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas was a recipient of the Knight International Journalism Award. And Al Jazeera journalist Mohammed Hasanayn Haykal, in a television segment on Arab blogging, went so far as to call himself “the greatest reader of blogs.” Al Jazeera’s website also offers links to Arab blog aggregators and blog posts by the paper’s correspondents.

Bahrain and Kuwait are both very small, oil-rich Gulf states with high rates of Internet access compared to the Arab world at large. Egypt, in comparison, has the biggest population of all Arab states and has a very low rate of Internet penetration. What, then, has enabled bloggers in these three nations to be influential, whereas in Jordan they remain, for the most part, on the sidelines?

In my findings, I first present a list of tangible political accomplishments achieved through the work of Jordanian bloggers. I then embark on an analysis as to why bloggers’ influence is at the level it is in Jordan, and how I expect this state of affairs to change in the coming years.

Literature/Theoretical Framework

Due to blogging’s nascence, relatively few essays (and even fewer books) have focused on blogging as a form of media, much less on blogging in the Middle East. Marc Lynch’s 2007 essay entitled “Blogging the New Arab Public” is perhaps the most exhaustive study on Arab blogging as it relates to politics. The author argues that, although “it is highly unlikely that blogging will induce wide political change in the Middle East,” it “would be wrong to conclude that blogging has no role in Arab politics.” Thanks to its uniqueness and relevance, Lynch’s essay is an oft-cited source in this paper.

To determine what role this is, it will first be necessary to specify what exactly one means by “political change.” Clearly, there are several ways in which political change can take place. Existing literature identifies several such types of change: by “framing” current events, by promoting political campaigns, by engaging in activism, by facilitating the free and open exchange of information, and by “creating mindsets” – a concept that will be explained below.

“Framing” has so far been the most studied phenomenon. The blogosphere’s role in framing current events first came to the forefront in 2002, when former Senate Majority leader Trent Lott (R-MS) made comments at a party for Senator Strom Thurmond that seemed to support his 1948 segregationist bid for the presidency. Bloggers quickly picked up the story, from which it “jumped” into the traditional media. Lott was soon forced to resign his position. Blogs were widely credited with “framing” the issue in a certain context; that is, their perspective became common wisdom. Daniel W. Drezner and Henry Farrell, in an essay titled “The Power and Politics of Blogs,” explain this phenomenon theoretically, stating that “when key weblogs focus on a new or neglected issue … blogs can socially construct an agenda or interpretive frame that acts as a focal point for mainstream media.” This initial framing of an issue can often shape or constrain future debate on the subject, thus giving the first framers real agency in shaping discourse. And because bloggers have the “comparative advantage of speedy publication” – blogs, after all, can be updated instantaneously – they are increasingly often the first framers of a given current event.

Less studied are blogs’ impacts on political campaigns. Drezner and Farrell state that “important research remains to be done … on the consequences of blogs for political mobilization, and for fundraising.” Yet, as stated above, it seems fairly obvious that blogs exerted significant influence on the 2006 American midterm elections, and, although electoral politics differ from country to country, there is no reason to rule out the possibility that blogs could affect electoral outcomes in other countries as well.

Third, the “linked” nature of blogging permits, indeed encourages, the creation of groups of activists who then use the technology to achieve a specific goal favorable to them. Activism entails public participation in politics, such as protests, demonstrations, and public-interest campaigns (activism does not, however, include electoral campaigns). A February 2007 article in The Nation entitled “Blogging Against Torture” describes this powerful function of blogs, mentioning an incident listed above, in which Egyptian bloggers publicized the torture of a detainee at a Cairo police station. Lynch argues that, once a critical mass of activist bloggers is attained in a given country, they can “tip the balance from a relatively passive and marginal blogosphere into much more active political engagement.”

Finally, by facilitating communication, discussion and debate between people from different backgrounds, blogs may aid in creating in its readers a mindset that is more analytical, more open to opposing points of view, and more willing to participate in the political arena. These aforementioned traits are vital to the success of any democratic state – nations, after all, are formed by its people, and if its people are not instilled with a certain mindset, democracy will wither. This type of political change, as intangible as it may be, seems particularly important in any study of blogging in the Middle East, as many Arab policy elites – particularly in Jordan – are struggling with precisely this problem of how to “create” a democratic citizenry in their countries.

Marci McCoy Roth, citing B. Barber’s Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age, gives credence to the idea that “simply the act of political conversation in a blog contributes to democracy by strengthening connections and producing better informed opinions.” And Lee Salter argues that the Internet “fosters rational communications and thus strengthens the lifeworld;” “lifeworld” being a Habermasian term defined as the “personal sphere in which participants engage in interpretative communications with each other.” Although the content posted on blogs may be far from rational, the fact remains that the medium enables such direct discussion.

Gordon Robison of the USC Annenberg School of Communication agrees that the Internet is an ideal Petri dish for such a forging of mindsets. He quotes Naguib Sawiris, the CEO of Egyptian cell-phone company Orascom, as saying that “this technology has really been a big pusher in this part of the world because it has provided access and communication to engage the so-called ‘free world’ and this part of the world” (emphasis added). It is ultimately the degree to which this engagement takes place that will determine whether or not democratic change will advance.

Hypothesis

I hypothesize that, due to the low rates of Internet access in Jordan, blogs do not currently exert a large influence on Jordanian politics. I hypothesize that, because Internet access is relatively low, usage of blogs will be concentrated primarily in the well-off, such as activists, policy elites, and politicians. I presume that the primary way in which blogs affect the political process in Jordan is through activism.

Methodology

Although blogs have been given disproportionate media attention in the West compared to other online media, it is vital to remember that blogs are only one subset of a larger trend towards the democratization of information.. Other subsets include discussion forums, online radio, uncensored online newspapers, social networking websites such as Facebook.com, and video-hosting services such as YouTube.com (or, in the Arab world, the newly-formed Ikbis.com). However, to study Internet media as a whole would be exhaustive and, in the end, impractical. For this reason I have chosen to focus solely on blogging, while keeping in mind that it is part of a larger phenomenon – that of instantaneous, interactive, democratized information.

I initially strove to carry out face-to-face interviews with three groups of people. First, and most importantly, were Jordanian bloggers themselves. As insiders who had extensive personal experience and close connections to many others involved in the blogosphere, Jordanian bloggers were my primary source of information regarding the medium. However, Arabic-language blogs were out of the scope of my study for two reasons: first, because I do not read the language well enough to analyze these blogs (ad because many Arabic-language bloggers do not speak English well), and second, because the readership of Arabic-language blogs is much lower than that of their English-language counterparts and thus, it can be assumed, they exert significantly less influence.

Using a discipline called social network analysis, Cameron Marlow of the MIT Media Laboratory found that the number of incoming links to a set of blogs followed a “power law” – that is, a few blogs received an enormous number of links to their site, while the vast majority of blogs received very few. This fact means that a small number of bloggers likely wield the most political influence. Thus it was these influential bloggers whom I sought out for interviews, as it was they that had the most connections and greatest clout in the Jordanian blogosphere, and would thus likely have more knowledge on the way blogging could effect political change.

In order to acquire a different perspective on blogging, I also spoke with several people who worked with Jordanian newspapers. Attention from the traditional media helps to publicize and legitimize blogs as a media source, and so I wanted to know what exactly, if any, was the relationship between their newspaper and the Jordanian blogosphere. Although the newspapermen were not involved in blogging, they were no less subjective sources than bloggers, in that some of them regarded blogs as a rival source of information to newspapers. I attempted to interview members of media watchdog groups in Jordan, but they were largely unknowledgeable about blogging, as they focused primarily on newspapers and television. Although I would have liked to speak with academics, because blogging is such a recent phenomenon, I found it difficult to identify Jordanian academics who were widely knowledgeable on the topic. However, I did interview one woman who had written a thesis on blogging.

I asked bloggers several questions. Why did they blog in English? What was their readership, in terms of both numbers and demographics? How “connected” were they to other bloggers – that is, did they link extensively to other Jordan-based blogs, and did they feel themselves to be part of a community of bloggers? Had they ever written a post that was cited by newspapers or television? If so, did they feel like they helped to “frame” the issue when it appeared in papers? How did they view the traditional media in Jordan – what were its benefits and deficiencies as compared to blogs? Did they feel as if government censorship hampered what they wrote about? Or did they self-censor themselves to protect themselves and their families from criticism?

I asked newspaper professionals in what way, if any, they were “connected” to blogs – to what extent the paper’s reporters monitor blogs for new stories or public sentiment, how they viewed blogging as a popular medium, and whether or not they supposed blogging might someday supplant, or at least diminish, newspapers and television as a news source. Not surprisingly, given their employment, they were notably less sanguine about the potential of blogs than were bloggers themselves.

To answer my first question – how have bloggers effected change in Jordan? – I couched my respondents’ answers in terms of the four types of influence mentioned above – issue framing, political campaigns, political activism, and the creating of mindsets.

To answer my second question concerning the reasons behind Jordanian blogs’ political influence, or lack thereof, I identified six main variables that I believed would determine the influence of blogs on a given region or country. I postulated that, if most of the six factors are fulfilled to some extent, blogs will have a significant presence in that society. I will analyze the extent to which these factors are fulfilled in Jordan, and draw conclusions based on this analysis. These variables were not arbitrarily chosen; rather, the factors utilized in this analysis are mentioned in the sources cited above as relevant factors to the amount of political influence exerted by a blogosphere.

The first variable is the degree of access, in terms of literacy and technology, available to a society. How many people in a society can read and write, and how many have access to the Internet? What is the quality of that access – do many people own personal computers? How fast, and how expensive, is Internet access? Lynch mentions access as an important limiting variable, as he contends that a low number of blog readers “suggests a built-in ceiling” for Arab blogs’ potential political impact. Increasing web access could also result in a legitimization of blogging as a media source: a study published in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly found that ”the more people go online, the more credible they rate the information they find.”

Second, how able and willing are society members to blog their opinions? To what extent does government censorship interfere with bloggers? Just as importantly, to what extent do people censor their own thoughts before posting them on the Internet, and what role do bloggers’ cultural backgrounds play in enforcing this self-censorship? Lynch states that “repression of high profile bloggers … could reinforce self-censorship and lead others to avoid political commentary.” Clearly, the degree to which law curtails freedom of speech is a direct factor in bloggers’ influence, as blog posts devoid of critical politics are unlikely to influence political discourse.

Third, what is the degree to which blogs are publicized and known in a society? A nation may have sky-high rates of Internet access and a politically open culture and government, but this means nothing if potential readers are not aware of their fellow citizen bloggers. Critical to this is the degree to which the “traditional media” – defined here as newspapers and television – cover events within the blogosphere. If the traditional media regularly covers stories that were first reported on blogs, the public will naturally become more aware of the existence of such websites. Governments play an important role through their own choice of technology – whether or not a given state adopts blogs as a device with which to communicate with its citizens can help to legitimize the idea of blogs amongst its inhabitants. Finally, though ironically, the degree to which blogs are censored and their writers repressed may have the unintended effect of increasing the publicity of blogs, thus boosting the readership of blogs at large.

Fourth, to what degree are bloggers connected with each other, and with society at large? One reason that blogging is such a powerful communication tool is that hyperlinks facilitate simple and almost instantaneous referencing to the ideas of other bloggers. In a network with few connections, a meme originating on one blog may “die out” instead of being linked to and referenced by other blogs. A network of bloggers with a high degree of connectivity, however, will virtually ensure that interesting ideas, stories, or framings of stories expressed on one blog will quickly ricochet throughout the network, taking on lives of their own, in what might be termed a “viral spiral.”

For example, one blog may originally post a story. A second blog may link to it and point out inconsistencies with the author’s description of it, framing it in a different manner instead. A third blog may link to the second blog, and tack on an update to the story. A fourth blog may link to the third blog and add his own commentary. As an idea makes its appearance on more and more blogs, the chances increase that this idea will “jump” off of the Internet and onto the printing press or television screen, where it will be communicated to a vastly greater number of people.

A University of Maryland – Baltimore County study formalized this phenomenon, stating that:

"When an interesting meme emerges on some site, a blogger may choose to share it with his audience. Other readers may comment on this post and thereby contribute to the conversation. Such an interactive process leads to the flow of information from one blogger to another."

Interestingly, the study cited strong correlations between spikes in blog mentions and the sales ranks of given books on Amazon.com, implying that what one reads on blogs does not necessarily “stay” on blogs – it may carry over to the economic realm and real-life transactions.

Furthermore, if big-name bloggers are also prominent figures in real life – whether they be journalists, policy experts, or parliamentarians – these connections will naturally further bloggers’ influence on political discourse.

Fifth is the issue of political relevancy. Do a country’s bloggers write about politics? If so, are they relatively informed about the subject, and do they write in a compelling fashion? Or do they primarily blog about what they ate for lunch that day? Although there are, and always will be, bloggers who fall into both categories, the blogosphere’s ability to effect political change will of course depend on a significant number of bloggers falling into the former category. The degree to which bloggers have connections to organized political action – such as parties and political movements - falls under this factor as well. An isolated political blogger is inherently less powerful than one who is actively involved in politics.

Finally, how politically open is the society in question? Does it have a history of democratic institutions? Are there opportunities for people to engage in politics outside the realm of the Internet? Lynch cites bloggers in Egypt and argues that, with no political openings to exploit, “it is unlikely that [activists] would have had the opportunity for their innovative political blogging. This variable is intertwined with several others – for example, if the society is politically open, it is more likely that there will be less censorship, both from the government and from one’s self.

Findings

In comparison to Arab neighbors such as Egypt, Kuwait, and Bahrain, Jordanian bloggers have had little success in creating political change. The reasons for this will be explained later. Although its influence has been relatively small, the Jordanian blogosphere has been the most successful in creating political change through its framing of issues. Bloggers have succeeded in framing at least three current events in the nation. In all three cases, such framing led to, or was a factor in, the implementation of tangible political changes.

Perhaps the most prominent case so far occurred last September. Earlier this year, a blogger writing under the name Who Sane (Husain) recounted an incident involving his father’s severe mistreatment at a public Jordanian hospital. After suffering a stroke and being brought to the hospital, the nurses failed to feed or otherwise care for his father for nine days, and did not contact his relatives to notify them of his whereabouts despite having the information at hand. At least 30 other bloggers and several online newspapers, mostly from Jordan or the Arab world, linked to Who Sane’s blog, ricocheting the story around the Jordanian blogosphere.

Eventually, Batir Wardam, author of blog Jordan Watch, wrote about the incident in his weekly column in Al-Dustour. His column gained significant amount of attention from other newspapers. Eventually, the Minister of Health fired the head of the hospital at which Who Sane’s father had stayed. In this incident, bloggers were able to frame the issue as one of pervasive incompetence and gross neglect – and indeed, this was exactly the case. Yet, had the traditional media first picked up the story, it is quite possible that their framing of the issue would be different – for example, they might have deemed the incident as an unfortunate tragedy, or as the failure of inept low-level hospital employees. As it turned out, however, the entire hospital was understaffed and mismanaged, and, since bloggers were the first to pick up the story, it was their framing that “stuck” when newspapers covered the incident.

Shortly after the publicity of that event, the assistant director of Jordan’s Press and Publication’s Department announced that it electronic newspapers as well as other websites (such as blogs) would now be under the supervision of his department. This change in policy would begin applying the same rules to blogs and online news sites as are currently applied to print journalism. Naseem Tarawnah, a journalist and author of blog The Black Iris of Jordan, believes that this announcement was a response to the propagation of the Who Sane story into the traditional media.

Whatever the reason, the Jordanian blogosphere again erupted in protest at what they perceived to be a blatant infringement on freedom of speech. Batir Wardam, Naseem Tarawnah, and the anonymous Khalaf (author of political blog What’s Up in Jordan) were among the bloggers who criticized the new rules. Khalaf wrote that “for a government that started its tenure promising to establish “freedom square,” it is pathetic to see how far back it slid towards authoritarianism.”

Two days after the Department’s announcement, HRH King Abdullah II assured Jordanians (and, for that matter, international observers) that “there is no censorship on online media.” Lina Ejeilat, a journalist and author of blog Into the Wind, says that she’s “pretty sure that if there weren’t this whole buzz about it on the blogosphere and online media, the king wouldn’t have said what he said.” Jordan’s sensitivity to international scrutiny of its freedoms certainly played a role in the King’s announcement. But such scrutiny might not have picked up on the story had Jordanian English-language bloggers not framed the issue as one of a hypocritical government trumpeting freedom while simultaneously cracking down on citizens exercising this freedom.

In September 2006, Jordan’s Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) blocked the popular web-phone service Skype.com. Although the TRC did not give a reason for its decision at the time, it later cited dangers to security. The blogosphere’s reaction was rapid and highly critical of the government’s reasoning for the ban. Ahmad Humeid, author of blog 360East, wrote that “we are paying them [Jordan’s Telecommunications Regulatory Commission] to serve us, not to sit in an ivory tower and hand down draconian ban orders.” He further noted that, during the ban, only Skype’s website was blocked; he was still able to access Skype’s services through his internet service provider Wanadoo. This implies that the TRC was not only “draconian” but rather inept as well. Other bloggers were equally vehement in their reactions.

Skype was unblocked less than a month after the government’s decision. Ejeilat strongly believes that “it’s fair to say that,” through their skepticism and criticism, “blogs had an impact on [Skype’s unblocking].” Mariam Abu Adas, a former blogger and author of a thesis on blogging in Jordan, cited an anonymous source involved in the Skype affair who claimed to have evidence that the ban “was brought about because of blogging.” However, due to the nature of her source, she could not share with me her evidence. Humeid was less sure about this interpretation, agreeing that while “blogs had an effect” on the matter, it was ultimately the pressure from foreign governments concerned about the perceived crackdown on freedom of speech that caused the Jordanian government to cave in.

Whether bloggers directly caused the government’s decision or not, and whether or not the Skype ban was taken as a security measure, what’s important is that the blogosphere managed to frame the issue as one of government facetiousness: claiming that Skype presented a security breach when in fact they merely wished to increase censorship. Bloggers’ framing of the Skype incident may or may not be accurate – what matters more, however, is the fact that their framing stuck (largely because the TRC remained silent about its reasons for the ban), and may have contributed to the ban’s abrogation.

Although the results have yet to be seen, one network of Jordanian bloggers set up an election monitoring campaign for Jordan’s November 20, 2007 parliamentary elections. 7iber, pronounced “Hiber” and meaning “ink” in English (online at 7iber.com), solicits original posts from Jordanian bloggers. 7iber’s editors formed an “Election Watchdog” campaign “in accordance with the upcoming Parliamentary elections and in the context of last summer’s Municipal elections and the corruption charges which plagued them.” The campaign encourages its readers to report instances of fraud, bribery, or other illegal acts carried out on election day, and promises to post these reports on their site. Such a campaign could potentially allow the framing of election-day incidents, as 7iber bloggers would be among the first to pick up on such stories.

Blogging remains an uncommon medium amongst Jordanian politicians, used neither as a means for publicity nor as a tool for fundraising. Although many candidates running in Jordan’s November 20 parliamentary elections have websites, many of these sites consist of, according to Ejeilat, “just their CVs and their platforms.” One exception is Aroub Soubh, a 38-year-old television personality running in Amman’s third district, who hosts her website on a blog platform and writes posts in colloquial Arabic about her campaign. Although Ejeilat does not believe that “blogging has an impact in the election process in any way,” Soubh’s targeted constituency are members of the younger generation who tend to be more active online.

Whereas fundraising for political campaigns has become a vital service provided by American political blogs, this concept does not yet exist in Jordan. Ejeilat states simply that “we don’t have this idea of raising funds for campaigns” in Jordan. Personal monetary donations are rare in Jordanian politics, let alone monetary donations through the Internet. True, some tribal leaders running for office receive monetary support from their fellow tribesmen. But the majority of people who run are businessmen, their campaign cash coming from personal funds.

Political activism, simply put, is nonexistent on Jordanian blogs. There have been a number of social campaigns: for example, 7iber published a post by Naseem Tarawnah on the Baqa’a refugee camp fires, which called on its readers to give donations to those who lost their homes. But there are no blogger-organized marches, protests, or anti-government demonstrations as is the case in Egypt. This is in part due to the fact that bloggers are not connected to political activist movements or political parties.

However, the growth of the Jordanian blogosphere is creating a new generation of writers. Many Jordanian bloggers have become journalists while continuing to write online. And, argues Humeid, given the fact that the country lacks well-developed democratic institutions, “any form of expression of public opinion … even if it doesn’t reach all the masses,” is an important tangible change.

Yet why does the Jordanian blogosphere lack the political prominence of its Egyptian, Bahraini, and Kuwaiti peers? There is no one answer, but it seems as if the most critical problems can be traced to three shortages: a lack of Internet access, a lack of attention from the mainstream media, and a lack of opportunities for public participation in Jordanian politics. I shall now analyze the degree to which the Jordanian blogosphere fulfills each of the six factors listed above.

Access

Any study of blogging’s influence on Jordanian society must first take into account accessibility factors. For blogs to be relevant, people must be able to read the language in which they are written, and they must be able to have inexpensive, convenient access to these blogs. Thus, we must ask: how high is the literacy rate in Jordan? How many people have access to the Internet? And how expensive is it to obtain this access?

The literacy rate in Jordan is quite high – 90% of those 15 years and older can read and write the Arabic language. This compares favorably with other countries in the region – for example, 79% of Saudis are literate, and just 71% of Egyptians. However, as will be later observed, many of the most widely-read Jordanian blogs are written in English. The percentage of Jordanians literate in English is surely much smaller.

Internet access rates in Jordan are low compared to those of Western nations, but around the median of those of Arab countries. OpenNet.net, a non-profit partnership that monitors Internet filtering and surveillance practices across the world, states that 11.2% of Jordanians are Internet users. This puts Jordan between its Syrian and Saudi neighbors, with rates of 5.8% and 6.6% respectively, and wealthier Gulf states such as Bahrain (21.3%) and the United Arab Emirates (31.1%). Just 5.8% of citizens of the Arab world’s most populous nation, Egypt, are Internet users.

Because just five in 100 Jordanians own a personal computer, and presumably even fewer have Internet access on these computers, a large number of Jordanians use the Internet in public places such as Internet cafes and community centers. According to OpenNet.net, although Jordan’s telecommunications infrastructure is advanced, it is also quite expensive as compared with other countries in the region. Two private companies, Wanadoo and Batelco, together control 83% of the Internet Service Provider (ISP) market in Jordan.

However, the cost of Internet access is plummeting, and the number of fast Internet connections is growing. Humeid states that the amount of Jordanians with high-speed ADSL broadband has increased by about 1,600% in the last four years. He cites Umniah’s new WiMax service, which offers easy-to-use wireless broadband, as another source of hope for increased Internet access in the future. The Jordanian government is attempting to expand access as well. Their “Knowledge Stations” campaign aims to bring the Internet to rural areas of Jordan by establishing computer centers with Web access and computer courses.

Although Internet access may be increasing, however, the fact remains that many of the most influential and widely-read Jordanian blogs are written in English, and thus inaccessible to a large majority of Jordanians. In comparison, television is accessible to all but the poorest, and newspapers to all but the illiterate. The mainstream media in Jordan derives much of its legitimacy solely from its ability to reach almost all Jordanians. Blogging, in comparison, is “really very exclusive … to a small group of upper-class people,” said Abu Adas.

Yet why should the blogs of an Arabic-speaking country be dominated by the English language? Part of the reason might be due to the nature of blogging’s early adopters in Jordan. Many of the first Jordanian bloggers wrote in English, and so, at least to Ejeilat, “it didn’t occur to me to start a blog in Arabic.” Ease of expression is another factor. Tarawnah describes English-language bloggers such as himself as “coming from a certain segment of society … they’ve been to private schools, they’ve probably lived outside the country, they’re Westernized.”

However, Arabic-language blogs in Jordan are rapidly increasing in number. As the cost of Internet access has dropped significantly in the past year and a half, less-affluent Jordanians have been able to start blogs of their own, the majority in the Arabic language. Although there are no hard numbers, Tarawnah estimates that the Arabic-language blogs in Jordan now slightly outnumber their English-language counterparts.

These two groups – those who write in English and those who favor Arabic – write about different topics, have different mindsets, and rarely interact with each other. English-language bloggers tend to be wealthy, Arabic-language bloggers poor. “The people who comment on my blog tend to be from my segment [of society],” says Tarawnah. He describes the two groups as living in “parallel dimensions.” Very few Jordanians blog in both languages, a notable exception being Jordan Watch author Batir Wardam.

Arabic-language bloggers in Jordan also tend to be anonymous. Tarawnah says this is because they “come from this other segment of society … they’re more scared to expose their names.” These bloggers tend to focus more on political issues, be more conservative, more critical of the government, and more cynical. In contrast, English-language bloggers tend to have a wider worldview and to be more pragmatic.

Ejeilat’s Into the Wind receives between 200 and 250 visitors per day, approximately 30 percent of these Jordanians. Ejeilat admits that, because of the “small segmented society” that reads English-language blogs, “to have an impact in Jordan, you can’t really do much with an English-language blog.” Judging by the comments on her blog posts, her readership primarily consists of other members of the blogosphere or dedicated blog readers, and tends to be highly educated and Westernized. That said, many people read blogs without commenting, so this methodology is not wholly accurate.

It can certainly not be said that blogs represent public opinion. But, as Lynch correctly states, they can “offer insights into the views of young, educated, well-off Arabs.” Ejeilat describes the elite nature of her readership as a “shortcoming,” but adds that “it’s a segment of society that can impact change.” Lynch takes the same point of view, arguing that while “the relatively small number of readers and participants might suggest a built-in ceiling for the political impact of Arab blogs,” he also believes that “relatively small groups of activists … could have a disproportionate impact even if [they] do not reach a mass base.” He describes blogs as creating a “counter-public” which can “slowly reshape the mainstream public from below.” And while English-language blogs may be accessible to only a small number of Jordanians, they are at the same time more accessible to Westerners, the importance of which will be explained further.

Ability/Willingness

Government censorship, self-censorship, and cultural attitudes can severely impede the ability and willingness of individuals to blog about political topics. Repressive government policies towards political bloggers is one of the most examined factors. Is there a dearth of incisive political blogging due to Jordan’s censorship laws? As previously mentioned, the Press and Publications Department announced in September 2007 that it would begin to apply to online media the rules that currently apply to print media (although the King seemed to rebut this new application shortly afterwards).

Despite the existence of the Press and Publications Law, however, in Jordan government oversight of the Internet is much lighter when compared to that of other Arab countries. There is only one website that has been consistently banned in Jordan – that of the Arab Times, which had published several articles accusing former Jordanian Prime Minister Ali Abu Ragheb of corruption. Other websites, such as Ammannet.net and Skype.com, have been blocked for a period of time, but not consistently.

Fear of loss of livelihood, however realistic such a fear, may hamper the willingness of bloggers to write critically about relevant political issues. Whereas many bloggers in Egypt are anonymous, most Jordanians use their real names. Ejeilat says that “people are more careful in Jordan. We don’t test the boundaries; we don’t push the envelope so much.” A source wishing to remain anonymous largely agreed, reiterating that Jordanians hesitate to “push the limits.” This is partially because, according to him, Jordan is “a country that’s happy for its security.” He mentioned what he termed an “unwritten rule” in Jordanian society – that while there’s tacit acceptance of criticism of the military, parliament, and some foreign policy issues, denigrating other aspects of Jordanian society – especially religion and the royal family – is strictly off-limits. For example, two years ago a few anonymous bloggers created a stir by criticizing the royal family. Although the Jordanian government asked the head of blog aggregator Jordan Planet who the individuals were, no action was taken against them. That said, the blogs were subsequently removed from Jordan Planet.

When compared to government censorship, however, self-censorship is a more salient issue in the Jordanian blogosphere. Interestingly, such self-censorship tends to be cultural rather than political in nature – it is done more to avoid embarrassing one’s family than to avoid possible legal ramifications. Humeid gives as the reason for this the fact that Jordan is “a closely-knit society still. Everybody knows everybody else.” And in Jordan, says Ejeilat, “people don’t just judge you based on your opinion … [they] connect things to your family.” As a result, she feels uncomfortable about writing about various social issues. Because Jordan is such a small country, there is a lesser degree of anonymity, and so many Jordanian bloggers are understandably hesitant to vent their views in full. Abu Adas traces this state of affairs to Jordan’s tribal origins; her view is that Jordan is “still a Bedouin society underneath it all.” As a result, families have a stronger hold over individuals, as compared to Egypt, where people tend to be more anonymous.

Many interviewees tended to describe politics as a rather private topic, rarely spoken about in public. Tarawnah disagreed somewhat, saying that “people are always outspoken about politics,” but concedes that Jordanians are private in the sense that, whereas they may discuss politics freely, they would “be hesitant to write what they said in the paper.” Perhaps the most accurate statement would be to say that, in Jordan, certain political issues are open to public discussion, while other issues may only be discussed behind closed doors.

In the existing literature on blogging, very little has been written about the effects of cultural norms and attitudes in relation to the topics about which bloggers write. Reading actual blog posts themselves illuminate this issue much better. Natasha Tynes, one of the first Jordanian bloggers, revealingly wrote on her blog Mental Mayhem in a September 29, 2005 post that:

"When growing up, we were never encouraged to speak up and express our opinions. Fear and self censorship will follow us wherever we go and whatever we do … expressing our unorthodox opinions without worrying about consequences still seems like a far-fetched notion to many."

In addition to self-censorship, cynicism and fatalism crimp the willingness of Jordanians to blog about politics. Ejeilat says that Jordanians “are used to thinking that nothing they do would really make a difference.” She mentions as an example the rising oil prices, which are a major source of anger among Jordanians. Despite the anger, she says, “[Jordanians] don’t do anything about it, they don’t march in the streets, they don’t boycott.” In a response to Tynes’ post above, Ejeilat argued on her blog that:

"our generation grew up in the aftermaths of earlier defeats, and to a culture of defeatism … [Arab leaders] taught us that talking about politics is just that: talking!! Venting, ranting … no outcome!!”

Interestingly, Abu Adas was somewhat pessimistic about blogs’ ability to alter this state of affairs. According to her, blogging “doesn’t liberate people … the reality is that it recreates their own culture on blogs.” While there may be some truth to this analysis – cultural norms are certainly persistent entities – on the other hand, the incredibly interactive nature of blogging could help to alter these norms over time.

Publicity

The amount of political influence exerted by bloggers depends to a great extent on their coverage by the print media. In Jordan, such publicity remains low, especially among Arabic-language daily newspapers. As mentioned earlier, last September blogger/journalist Batir Wardam wrote in Al Dustour about the Who Sane incident. Such blog-to-paper “jumps” were rare in Jordan – in fact, Tarawnah describes the story as the first case in Jordan of a story originating on the blogosphere receiving coverage from an Arabic-language traditional media source.

This lack of attention may be due to the fact that blogging is a very new phenomenon in Jordan. Reporters for major Jordanian newspapers simply do not read them, at least not systematically, according to former Al Ra’i editor George Hawatmeh.” The newspaper industry is certainly aware of their existence – Muhamed Alayyan, publisher and chairman of Jordanian daily Al Ghad, states that his paper was “the first among many papers to know their importance” – but, obviously, newspaper professionals are not as sanguine about this new medium as are bloggers themselves. “People still want to hear the opinions of professionals,” argued Alayyan, and for this reason “the hype surrounding the blog concept is fading.” He stated that, while blogs “give society a different dimension to freedom of speech,” they can also “be misused.”

Another reason for the low publicity could be that the connections between Jordanian bloggers and the country’s policy elite are limited. Clearly, if many bloggers are professionals or journalists, traditional media will pay more attention to them. Haitham Sabbah writes on his blog that “whereas in the USA … many bloggers are long established journalists, commentators, and political troublemakers, such personalities in the Arab world do not yet generally have blogs.” Already, however, the number of Jordanian journalists who blog is increasing. Al-Dustour columnist Batir Wardam authors two blogs, Jordan Watch and Arab Environment Monitor, one of the only environmental blogs in the Arab world. Yasir Abu Hilala, a columnist for Al Ghad, also keeps a blog. Several bloggers double as journalists as well, including Lina Ejeilat, Naseem Tarawnah, and Ramsey Tesdell.

Interestingly, a new Arabic-language weekly newspaper entitled Al Sijjil has published three stories about blogs in just its first two issues (the first issue appeared November 2007). Although this could be merely a fluke, it could also be an indication that newer newspapers are starting to pay more attention to blogs as a medium. Yet Jordan’s major daily papers still give scanty coverage to blogs.

In contrast to Jordan’s Arabic-language newspapers, the country’s English-language magazines frequently mention blogs. The “Superhighway Page” in JO discusses the Internet and, occasionally, blogging. Men’s magazine Nox sometimes quotes bloggers. And Pulp recently published a list of Jordan’s “most popular blogs” (Humeid’s 360East.com was at the top of the list). However, these publications might be seen as an extension of the blogosphere in terms of its readership – almost exclusively well-educated, westernized Jordanians.

The connection between Jordanian blogs and Western media may in fact be stronger than that between these same blogs and Jordanian media. Many Jordanian bloggers say that large portions of their audiences consist of Americans and other Westerners interested in current events in Jordan. According to Ejeilat, stories on Jordanian blogs get picked up more often by foreign media than by local media. One reason for this may be the fact that many of these blogs are written in English, and thus more accessible to foreign media. To Humeid, one of the most important functions of blogging is as a “bridge-building” tool, to use Lynch’s term. “It’s an important function for a country like Jordan to have this group of bloggers also represent the country on the Internet. We sort of translate what’s happening in Jordan to global audiences.” For example, after the Amman hotel bombings of 2005, a Jordanian photo-blogger managed to take pictures at the site of the attacks before anyone else. CNN reporters aired pictures from his blog in their live coverage of the attacks. Because Jordan is a country that is concerned about its international image, publicity of the country’s blogs in Western nations may comprise a disproportionate source of the Jordanian blogosphere’s political influence.

The government has begun to legitimize blogging somewhat by adopting it as a technology that it itself uses. On November 8, the Jordan Times announced that the Greater Amman Municipality would launch a blog discussing issues in the city. A comments box would allow citizens to communicate directly with Amman Mayor Omar Maani. However, Tarawnah was dubious as to its chances for success. “It’s not going to last long,” he predicts. If the comments are overwhelmingly negative, which Tarawnah thinks they might be, “then they’ll either shut down the comments, or they’ll shut down the blog.” That said, the very fact that the largest city in Jordan launched a blog could be indicative that blogging is becoming more mainstream.

Connectivity

As previously mentioned, blogs as a communication device derive much of their effectiveness from their connections to other blogs via hyperlinks. From anecdotal evidence, it would indeed appear that Jordanian bloggers are well-networked with each other. A brief glance at the blogrolls on popular Jordanian political blogs also demonstrates that there is a high degree of connectivity between them. The very fact that Who Sane’s aforementioned September 2, 2007 post was linked to by over 30 Jordanian blogs implies as much. However, a comprehensive analysis of blogrolls and hyperlinks in bloggers’ posts would need to be undertaken in order to discern the exact degree to which this connectivity exists.

Both Ejeilat and Tarawnah recount blogger “meet-ups” arranged through now-defunct blog aggregator Jordan Planet. These meet-ups allowed bloggers to meet their peers in real life. Needless to say, such events helped to forge personal bonds and create a community of bloggers. However, as the number of people with blogs on Jordan Planet grew, the number of attendants at the meet-ups increased accordingly. Ejeilat recounts going to these later meet-ups and knowing few of the newer bloggers. In addition to the growing number of bloggers, there emerged a community of Arabic-language bloggers, who had few connections to their English-language counterparts.

The degree of connectivity between bloggers may be strengthened by the fact that most political blogs in Jordan see themselves as neither pan-Arab nor local in nature, but as Jordanian. This fact can be gleaned by the very names of the blogs: Jordan Watch, What’s Up in Jordan?, Made in Jordan, and The Black Iris of Jordan, to name just a few. Many blog aggregators – both in Jordan and throughout the Arab world – list blogs on a national basis. The late Jordan Planet, and now, JordanBlogs, are among the Jordanian examples. However, there exist a few blog aggregators, such as iToot and Dwenn, that are more transnational.

Lynch writes that there “is less of an ‘Arab blogosphere’ than a series of national blogospheres loosely linked at key nodes in each.” This national focus bodes well for bloggers’ influence in Jordan – since Jordan is a small country, change can be much more easily effected at the Jordanian level than it could, say, at the pan-Arab level.

The aforementioned 7iber bills itself as offering “people-powered journalism.” Co-founded by bloggers Ramsey Tesdell, Lina Ejeilat, and Naseem Tarawnah, 7iber solicits original pieces by members of the Jordanian blogosphere and displays them on its website. The site averages about 200 hits per day. The idea behind 7iber has potential to forge a greater sense of community among Jordanian bloggers while providing a source of original journalism. However, Ejeilat says, “with no funding and no money to pay writers, it’s very hard to do what we [originally] had in mind.” And Tarawnah states that “we always have this problem of getting people to participate.”

Political Relevancy

Though a difficult factor to measure, the degree to which a region or nation’s blogs concern themselves with relevant political topics will either crimp or promote political debate. Without a significant number of intelligent, informed bloggers writing about political issues in a captivating manner, blogging will have little effect on a nation’s politics. Jordanian blog aggregators count about 300 blogs in the Hashemite Kingdom. However, many interviewees believed the real number is much higher – probably over 1,000 – as there are many blogs not listed on any aggregators. A much smaller number of these blogs concern themselves primarily with politics, however.

Lynch divides Arab political bloggers into three categories – activist bloggers, bridgebloggers, and public-sphere bloggers. Activist bloggers are those who not only write about politics but who actively engage in politics outside of the Internet as well – by organizing and participating in protests, for example. Bridgebloggers are bloggers who write in English and attempt to raise awareness and “explain” their country’s political situation to the West. Finally, public-sphere bloggers tend to be members of a nation’s policy elite. They may or may not be active in politics, but they are very knowledgeable about policy. Often times they are also journalists, academics, or former government officials.

All bloggers with whom I spoke affirmed that the number of political Jordanian blogs has increased rapidly over the past year. Many of the first bloggers in Jordan, according to Tarawnah, were “students … [they] didn’t have the same kind of access” as Jordanian bloggers today. Many of these students blogged about apolitical topics. As mentioned above, however, the number of public-sphere bloggers has greatly increased over the past year as more elites have started blogs.

Yet while the number of blogging elites has undoubtedly grown, there are next to no bloggers who are affiliated with political movements in Jordan, whether they be left-leaning, conservative, or Islamist. Jordanian bloggers may be well-connected with one another, but the fact that they have few connections within the political community greatly diminishes their potential influence on political discourse.

Political Culture

A sixth factor external to the world of blogging must also be taken into account when discussing the impact of Jordanian blogs – that of political culture. The modern nation-state of Jordan has been in existence for less than a century. At the time of the country’s founding in 1921, nomadic tribes comprised a majority of its population. There is little tradition of political institutions per se; tribal custom emphasized, and continues to emphasize, allegiance to people rather than to systems.

Today, Jordan is ruled by a monarch who, for most Jordanians, is beyond reproach. Media criticism of the royal family is unheard of. After a brief period of political liberalization in the 1950s, political parties were banned until 1992. Now there exists only one party of any import, the Islamic Action Front.

Compare this situation to Egypt, where the first newspaper in the Arab world was founded nearly 200 years ago. Egypt has traditionally been a center of literature and philosophy, and as a center of media production for the Arab world, there is a much more strongly developed culture of journalism in the country. Political parties have also had more clout in Egypt’s politics. In light of these facts, perhaps it is unsurprising that Egyptian bloggers are more activist in nature.

Small nations such as Bahrain and Kuwait have also had a longer tradition of democracy than does Jordan. Humeid states that Kuwait has been “practicing democracy since the 1960s.” Furthermore, the Kuwaiti press does not shy away from attacking members of the royal family. There are also a number of strong political families in Kuwait in addition to the royal family. This “multiplicity of centers of power,” according to Humeid, is a signal difference from the situation in Jordan, where power is concentrated in the hands of the king.

Lynch posits that Jordan “may simply lack the necessary political openings” for blogs to become hugely influential. He blames this state of affairs on Jordan’s “steady de-liberalizing” and the country’s few political parties. Abu Adas said much the same, namely that, for blogging to become influential in Jordanian politics, “there have to be opportunities in the real world … in Egypt there are real political parties, there is opportunity for people to be activists. In Jordan we’re not there yet.”

And due to the very stability of the Hashemite Kingdom, there may be a lesser sense of urgency in Jordan that political change needs to occur. A comment left on Tynes’ aforementioned post argued that the reason politics is discussed so often on Egyptian and Lebanese blogs, as compared to those in Jordan, is due to the fact that these countries “have more pressing internal conflicts.” Humeid argues that “problems of poverty and joblessness in Egypt are more severe.” So, while Jordan may offer more political freedoms to its bloggers, Egyptian bloggers likely feel a greater need for change and so are less hesitant to use their blogs as a launching pad for political activism.

Conclusions

What, then, do blogs accomplish in Jordan? They are read by a relatively small, segmented group of Jordanians, they have yet to become a valued source of information or news for the traditional media, and they play little to no role in political activism and the electoral process.

Yet it would be a mistake to assume that Jordanian blogs are irrelevant. The most salient effect of blogging in Jordan, it would seem, is the ability of bloggers to, as Tarawnah said, “vocalize and amplify … what’s been said on the street.” In Jordan, this function is critical should the country wish to reverse its recent backslide in political freedoms. In 1957, King Hussein banned political parties in his kingdom, citing their deleterious effects on the country’s stability. Party members were thrown into jail or otherwise intimidated. As a result, young people in Jordan today have parents who have transmitted to them their understandable aversion to political involvement. Blogs, perhaps, may facilitate a greater openness in Jordanian society – a greater willingness to engage in the political process.

Blogging may also help to revitalize journalism in Jordan. Journalism has never been a highly esteemed – nor taught – profession in Jordan. Alayyan states that, of the 22 universities in the Hashemite Kingdom, just two of them teach journalism. Where student journalism is possible, it is often weak: as a case in point, Ejeilat mentions the University of Jordan’s student newspaper, Saut al-Taliba (The Voice of the Students). Its circulation is fewer than 5,000 copies for the 35,000 or more students and the university. “Most people don’t even know it exists,” says Ejeilat. She describes the paper, which is supervised by the deanship of student affairs, as being “very official in its tone … very boring.” Perhaps blogs help to fill a space that did not previously exist in Jordanian society – a vibrant, albeit subjective, voice keyed into the heart of Jordanian society.

As we have seen, Jordanian blogs exert a small influence on political discourse, and are relatively “quiet” as compared with their Arab neighbors. Why is this the case? An analysis of the extent to which the aforementioned variables are extant in Jordan will provide us with a better understanding of the reasons.

On the one hand, Jordan is in the middle of the Arab pack in terms of Internet access, does not have strict censorship laws compared to states such as Egypt, and has a proportionally large number of political bloggers, many of whom are well-connected with one another.

Yet, although there may be a proportionally high number of such bloggers, a critical mass may need to be reached in order for the benefits of networking to come into full effect. When asked why the Egyptian blogosphere was so active, Tarawnah pointed out that there are “thousands and thousands of people” blogging there, whereas in Jordan this figure is less than 2,000. In the field of social network analysis, it’s a fact that the number of connections in a given network (in this case, the Jordanian blogosphere) rise at an increasing rate as the number of nodes (here, blogs) in the network increases. Thus, the addition of several hundred bloggers in Jordan – and the resulting connections between them – might make bloggers feel more secure in writing about sensitive political issues, as they would know that they have a substantial network of peers prepared to defend them.

But this critical mass has not yet been attained. More importantly, Jordanian blogs – due to sparse Internet access and low visibility – lack a critical mass of readers as well. Furthermore, the Jordanian traditional media rarely pays attention to blogs, decreasing their public visibility. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there are few political opportunities to be had in Jordan in the first place. The recent midterm elections represented one such prospect, but little came of it.

Is this state of affairs likely to change in the future? If so, what role will Jordanian bloggers play? The most salient constraint, that of the closed nature of Jordanian politics, is almost wholly external to the world of blogging. Whether or not such opportunities will blossom in the coming years is known to nobody, and is beyond the scope of this paper.

If current trends continue, more policy elites and professional journalists will blog, and more bloggers will become policy elites and journalists. This trend will help to diminish the distance between bloggers and traditional media, the latter of which will finally be forced to recognize blogs as a “legitimate” medium.

As for self-censorship, it is anyone’s guess as to when, indeed if, Jordanians will feel more comfortable about expressing their opinions on controversial subjects. However, I would postulate that as Jordan continues to modernize, and as Amman continues to grow into a metropolis, a greater sense of anonymity will begin to emerge in Jordanian society (for better or worse). I would also posit that the increasing number of political bloggers in Jordan may confer a greater sense of security to those who would write about contentious issues. Furthermore, Internet access is continuing to increase, and high-speed broadband access is gaining a foothold in Amman.

Clearly, it will take time and patience in order for a greater readership to materialize and for blogs to emerge as an important form of media alongside the traditional sources. Still, optimism is by no means misguided. Ahmad Humeid, in a quote redolent of Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams, said he was confident that “if a number of people keep blogging … the audience will come.”


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