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The term "Fifth Estate" has no fixed meaning, but is used to describe any class or group in society other than the clergy (First Estate), the nobility (Second Estate), the commoners (Third Estate), and the press (Fourth Estate). It has been used to describe civil society (including trade unions) and the poor or the proletariat. It can also be used to describe media outlets (including the blogosphere) that see themselves in opposition to mainstream media (the official Press). The term is entirely different in origin and meaning from "Fifth Column", which is used to describe subversive or insurgent elements in a society. The Fifth Estate was also a coffee house in the 1960s.
Nimmo and Combs assert that political pundits constitute a Fifth Estate. Media researcher Stephen D. Cooper argues that bloggers are the Fifth Estate. William Dutton has argued that the Fifth Estate is not simply the blogging community, nor an extension of the media, but 'networked individuals' enabled by the Internet in ways that can hold the other estates accountable.
Making reference to Montesquieu’s concept of "three estates of the realm" (executive, legislative and judicial) and to a more recently developed model of "four estates", which encompasses the media, Nayef Al-Rodhan introduces the weblogs (blogs) as a "fifth estate of the realm". Blogs have potential and real influence on contemporary policymaking, especially in the context of elections, reporting from conflict zones, and raising dissent over corporate or congressional policies. Based on these observations, Al-Rodhan suggests moving beyond traditional thinking that limits the “estates of the realm” to governmental action and proposes a broader perspective in which civilians or anyone with access to a computer and the Internet can contribute to the global political change and security.
Of all the blogs on the Internet, continues Al-Rodhan, only a few have a real power to influence the policy-making process, specifically political and current affairs blogs with large and involved audiences. These blogs can help organize the public to take a stance on an issue, be used in political campaigns, help cultivate grassroots movements, and assist in fundraising. Furthermore, blogs have several unique features that give them potential influence in policymaking: a lack of editorial supervision, low barriers to entry, difficulty for governments to censor or control content, and the ease of responding to events in real time. Blogs can affect policy-making by providing insider information, facilitating communication between experts, promoting grassroots efforts, discrediting political figures, and setting policy agendas. Blogs as "the fifth estate" are also influencing global security. They can contribute to terrorist plots by facilitating cross-border communication and by connecting people whose ideas are outside of the mainstream, by propagating hateful or violent messages, or by encouraging organized crime. Therefore, Al-Rodhan concludes, governments must increase surveillance of blogs and develop legal, administrative, and technological tools to dissuade bloggers from posting potentially harmful information, such as calls to incite terrorism. On a more positive note, blogs have also the potential to prevent governments from adopting hasty and misjudged decisions.