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The Fifth Estate is a modern extension of the three classical Estates of the Realm. The Fifth Estate is most strongly associated with bloggers, journalists, and media outlets that operate outside of the mainstream media (and often in opposition to the mainstream media). It may also include political groups and other groups outside of the mainstream in their views and functions in society (the term "Fourth Estate" emerged in reference to forces outside the established power structure, and is now most commonly used in reference to the independent press or media).
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 the medieval concept of "three estates of the realm" (Clergy, Nobility and Commons) 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. Advocates for social justice, like the Codepink movement argue that this is an unfair characterisation, since the Executive Branch wages actually-existing war at a significant human and material cost routinely without being charged with the same accusation. Despite of evidence of multiple war fronts appearing to support this claim in the early 21st century, 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.