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Secrets of Censorship: Is It So Bad in the US?

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WASHINGTON - February 4, 2019

Loosely covered lid: What you didn't know about the intricacies of Chinese censorship. And what do we really know about censorship? We often imagine it to be more rigid, more direct than it really is. Perhaps a different, Chinese version of the term is more tenacious and more accurate in description because it took into account the experience of totalitarian states of the 20th century: a complete lack of freedom leads to a riot, and a hint of freedom for the elite only strengthens power.

So, what is the difference between censorship in the US and China?

Last winter, the Chinese Communist Party announced the abolition of the presidential term. At the same time, Beijing temporarily blocks links in social networks to the works of George Orwell Animal Farm and 1984. The government was concerned that activists could use references to these works to accuse the state of extreme authoritarianism. However, censorship did not affect the sale of these books in ordinary and online stores -- in Shanghai they’re no more difficult to buy them than in London or France.

This is perhaps a vivid illustration of such a complex phenomenon as censorship in China. It's not as direct as we used to think. Its manifestations are much richer and more diverse.

Secrets of Censorship: Is It So Bad in the US?

Books that contain a positive or at least a neutral image of the Dalai Lama are censored. The publication of any Liu Xiaobo works, a Chinese human rights activist and an ardent critic of the Communist party is prohibited (by the way, since the victory over Nazism, he became the first Nobel Peace Prize winner to die in prison).

If a Chinese citizen searches for 1, 9, 8, 4, results will be blocked. However, you can buy easily the book online. The same happens with Brave New World--another great dystopia of the 20th century.

Why does censorship work this way and not the other? The answer is simple: The supervisory authorities are much more concerned with the behavior and preferences of the average person than a narrow circle of intellectual elites.

That is why internet forums and social networks are controlled more carefully than the sales of books of the last century. That is why domestic authors (Liu Xiaobo) are being watched more closely than foreign authors (George Orwell). And that is why the fictional world of authoritarianism (1984) is under less disgrace than the real demonstrations of post-war China (Dalai Lama works).

If the literary work crosses one line but doesn't cross the other, censorship puts aside the hammer and begins to wield a scalpel. This happened with Huxley's work The Return to the Brave New World, where the author argues that the world is moving with leaps and bounds to dystopia. In China, this book is on the free market -- it only removed all direct references to the Mao Zedong rules.

Secrets of Censorship: Is It So Bad in the US?

Such models of censorship may suggest a rather vague idea of the supervisory authorities about the abilities of their audience: Perhaps the censors sincerely believe that Chinese citizens are not able to draw a parallel between the political situation described by Orwell and the actions of their own government. At least until a helpful blogger tells them directly.

But, most likely, it is about the ideology of elitism: One is not that the Chinese citizen will not be able to understand the basic idea of 1984. And those citizens are too few. For the same reason, in US museums, sculptures of naked people are not marked with an appropriate rating, as happens in Instagram: The morality of a narrow circle of people who still visit museums, not very concerned about the chairmen of committees of all kinds.

For the elite, censorship restrictions in China work half-heartedly. The first translation of 1984 into Chinese simplified was released in 1979. At that time, the book could be obtained only in special library halls, inaccessible to most of the population. The general public gained access to the work only in 1985.

And today's Chinese undergrads can freely and openly discuss conflicting periods in the history of their native country -- much freer and more frank than college students, for example.

This difference in access to information is due to three factors:

  • By definition, the elites are closely associated with the ruling party.
  • The government is aware that it doesn't have effective tools to restrict access to information for the educated (partly because the educated can afford to travel abroad).
  • The government is aware also that the hint of freedom works better than no freedom at all.

Secrets of Censorship: Is It So Bad in the US?

The Western media often presents Chinese censorship as a more systemic phenomenon than it actually is. A common example is the Three Taboos -- Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen. In 2013, an article in the New York Review of Books claimed that any publication or book that mentioned one of these words was banned. In fact, everything is somewhat different. Any word from the Three Ts can easily be found in the search networks of China -- in the context of attractions or geographical areas descriptions.

It is forbidden to mention the massacres and executions that took place there (although in bookstores you can buy a translation of the biography of the Chinese reformer Deng Xiaoping, where there is a mention of the taboo theme).

In addition to the controversial texts in China, there are also controversial personalities. The Ma Jian books, Chinese writer-dissident, are prohibited on the territory of the country. Political cartoonist Jiang Yefei was sentenced to 6.5 years in prison for "disobeying the authorities and illegal border crossing."

But with writers like Chan Kunchang, everything is not so clear. China banned his most famous book The Fat Years, which, among other things, describes the collective selective amnesia associated with the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. However, in October 2018, he was invited to the BBC radio show in Beijing, where Roman Kunchang's references to Orwell and Huxley were openly discussed. Although the program was in English, its main audience was Chinese. Many Chinese citizens managed to read this book: They either managed to download the pirated version before the federal blocking or brought a copy from Taiwan or Hong Kong.

Chang Kunchang said: "I'm a writer. I don't join any groups or sign petitions. I only write books and nothing more."

Perhaps the most striking example of cultural figures living in China between a rock and a hard place is Yang Leanca. Coming from a poor North China village, he lives in Beijing, teaching at the prestigious Chinese People's University.

Secrets of Censorship: Is It So Bad in the US?

His most famous works are Serve the People!, a satire on the cultural revolution (containing six explicit sex scenes), and Dream of Ding Village, dedicated to the AIDS epidemic in the 1990s. Both works are banned in the country, although they can be obtained without much difficulty.

In general, the Chinese government rarely prohibits anything completely. Publishers can make relatively free decisions about the release of new books: For example, the Shanghai publishing house can release a book that Sichuan will not release. This is a consequence of the specific relationship between publishers and local supervisory authorities.

After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, the first thing that the natives of East Berlin did was rush to the famous shopping centers of West Berlin.

Perhaps the Chinese Communist party has been so tenacious in spite of many warnings about its imminent demise precisely because the government provides its population with access to many consumer goods, including cultural goods. China is trying not to close the lid too tightly -- otherwise one cannot avoid the deafening cotton of popular discontent.

If you control public communications, you control how people think and behave

To be more precise, the study by the American non-profit organization Freedom House, noted an even greater increase in the activity of "Big Brother" in the Chinese segment of the world wide web. Freedom House experts rated countries on a scale of one hundred points, focusing on identifying obstacles to access the network, content restrictions and infringement of users' rights.

China received the highest score with an 87, indicating the prevalence of online censorship. Against the background of Icelandic or Estonian six points, this figure looks frightening.

"Most of all, we are concerned one of the new legalized trends of China's digital security standard, according to which private technology companies bear a heavy burden to control their users," said William Ni, a Chinese researcher from Amnesty International.

Adopted in June 2017, the act obliged transnational corporations to store user data, which forced them to fork out for data centers creation in China. Apple was among the first who obediently started fulfilling the Chinese government’s requirements.

Secrets of Censorship: Is It So Bad in the US?

To fill the information vacuum after the total blocking of Western applications by the "Great Firewall," the Chinese IT sector "gave birth" to their own analogs, forming an ecosystem. But the strictest government oversight of the latter raises concerns among human rights lawyers.

"It creates the illusion that ordinary China people revel in Internet freedom," complained Maya Wong, who studies China in Human Rights Watch.

Secrets of Censorship: Is It So Bad in the US?

According to the Freedom House report, homegrown social platforms came under government pressure and were forced to form self-censorship systems. Neither Amnesty International representative William Nor regards the system of moderation from the most popular Chinese WeChat banned content as another step on the infringement of internet freedom to Chinese citizens.

"This year, the regulatory framework has been tightened. And the fact the Chinese authorities have given some citizens the right to control other citizens is a serious concern of the world community," he said. Freedom House pointed also to the regulations that prevent free communication on online forums because to authorize on such sites now you need to enter your name.

The last screws had in fact passed unnoticed and covered the remaining loopholes. The ban touched on seemingly trivial things, such as VPN and the entertainment industry," Maya Wong commented on the situation.

The ban on the VPN use, which previously allowed Chinese users to overcome the "Great Firewall," caused a storm of indignation on the eve of the 19th Congress of the CPC, held in October 2017. The Freedom House report also raised the issue of disabling mobile internet for members of religious and marginal groups in Tibet and the Western region of Xinjiang.

Fox News: freedom of speech "evaporates" in the US

It is becoming increasingly dangerous to express their opinion if it is at odds with the generally accepted in the US, says Fox News presenter Tucker Carlson.

Some time ago, Google employees discussed changing search results in order to undermine the White House immigration policy. Google at the time stated that it has never changed and will not change the results for political reasons.

Secrets of Censorship: Is It So Bad in the US?

What came out? That's right, absolutely nothing of what was announced.

According to the obtained internal Google emails, an employee discussed the edited search results in YouTube to hide video on the basis of their political content. Here's an example: In March, the Google engineer Dong Jiao sent an email stating that the company wants to "slip down less-reputable content is very controversial queries for the purpose of dealing with the fake news." And this is not hypothetical reasoning. According to him, the company has already successfully hidden unwanted videos -- for such requests as "Hillary" and... "Tucker". What kind of videos were hidden is unclear. Google is not recognized and will not tell anyone about it ever. But the email suggests that Alex Jones' InfoWars channel was an important target.

Google claims that its measures are not political in nature and are aimed at combating conspiracy theories. And by the way, what definition of conspiracy theory does Google give? They didn't tell us that either. As well as why it should be decided by a powerful global monopoly. They promised not to do so, and Congress made an exception for them (from Antimonopoly legislation). They promised to be a conduit for information, not a news site editing information. Maybe Congress will want to renegotiate that agreement.

It's no secret that freedom of speech is evaporating in the US. While the state still cannot punish you for your remarks, you're more likely than ever to be suspended from school, fired from your job, or banned from social media for your dissent and if your words disagree with conventional wisdom or just cause someone to have unpleasant feelings.

How does the Google system, social networks and other media giants work?

In order not to rant, here is a simple example from the "abuse team." This is the so-called team of several hundred people to monitor information in information and social networks. Such teams are in any more or less well-deserved companies like Google, Apple and Facebook.

Secrets of Censorship: Is It So Bad in the US?

It is known that there is an automatic information monitoring system to eliminate unwanted content. If the user in his / her opinion has been blocked or deleted "illegally," the abuse team is included in the work. They receive a signal from the user, but the system of social networks is designed so that no one realizes the problem. They receive a letter with a signal to block without any other data.

Automation sends a message that the lock was due to the use of the word "terrorism," but the abuse team doesn't see the original text of the message, which, for example, states that terrorism is bad.

That is, the system is designed so that people do not do anything manually, instead there is automation that has already done all its work.

Now give it a name. Censorship? Or a stupid restriction on freedom of speech and opinion?

Another example, already known throughout the world, is associated with Dave Portnoy. In some circles, he is better known as El Presidente, the founder and soul of Barstool Sports.

Barstool Sports is not a political website, but it has been repeatedly demanded to be censored.

In his interview, El Presidente admitted that the formation of stereotypes has spoiled the current social networks as a single organism of the Internet.

"Many of those who comment today actually have no idea who we are. They hear something, see Twitter links, see someone's comment on the article... and when I react, talk to them, start going into details, it turns out that they literally have no idea about our activities. We just see this circle, this vicious circle in social networks, which feeds itself. But they don't know our history, don't know me, don't know what we've been doing for 15 years," said the interviewer.

It's like a war against humor as such. It's like there's something about jokes that make people angry.

"Yes ... it's hard to say ... They're just complementary. Social networks ... in my opinion, this is largely due to the fact that social networks have given people a voice, the ability to put pressure on advertisers and so on. And if you said something and they didn't like it, or they think it's not funny, or take it literally... I've always explained it this way: for us it's as if a person came to a humorous show without a ticket and without knowing the comedian, walked into the room, heard the joke, and then went outside and said, "Hey! You won't believe what this guy is saying!." But they don't say anything about the context in which the joke was made or where they saw it. It often happens to people like us, and probably many in the comedy business," El Presidente concluded.

Censorship of the future, or who controls the present, controls the past

At first glance, the censorship of the 21st century is not so different from the previous one. States continue to try to control the means of disseminating information through technical, legal and purely bureaucratic measures, and people are looking for ways to circumvent them. This game of cat and mouse is in the world for many decades. The unrestricted freedom of the internet and the ease of sharing information on the web have proven to be an exception that can now be "corrected."

But something in the new century will change fundamentally: it's propaganda. Propaganda and censorship have long been two sides of the same coin: The authorities sought not only to limit forbidden information but also to disseminate approved information. There have been times in history when these two sides have come together. The internet allows you to reach new heights in this.

Secrets of Censorship: Is It So Bad in the US?

Red marks where YouTube is prohibited.

People are increasingly dependent on the network when searching for information. And no need to think that search engines and social networks are managed by people who have their own views and interests. Trust in the "traditional" media is falling, but no one doubts search engines. When a person needs to verify a fact, he uses a search engine, thereby trusting the commercial company to form his picture of the world.

As a result, each user risks being in a personal "information bubble." Smart social media feeds give out only those posts that they find interesting for you-or that they need. Search engines adjust the results based on the user's query history and location. As a result, everyone gets the information that the resource owner allows him to get. And if the authorities of large countries will take the network seriously, that censorship or propaganda may be added to commercial advertising through search engines.

The benchmark here again is China. The first step has already been taken there -- censorship of search results. If you enter unwanted requests into the main Chinese search engine Baidu, the result will be zero. You won't even find blocked or slow-running pages--the internet will deny that your request itself makes sense.

Of course, in the case of topical or widely discussed topics, such a rough way will not work. But if we are talking about a minor incident or long-standing events (such as the unrest in Tiananmen Square in 1989), the lack of information can make the user doubt their reality, even if he heard about them, for example, from his parents.

Secrets of Censorship: Is It So Bad in the US?

So far, China has settled on this, but it is easy to imagine the next step. With the participation of all the same search engines, the authorities will replace undesirable facts, giving the "correct" version of events on the first page of the search engine. Here is some progress and they will let you know. Many experts believe that soon AI will be able to write simple news notes, devoid of analytics or author's style, no worse than ordinary people, providing a lightning reaction to any news.

And if it doesn't work, the authorities’ services have a "troll army," or hired commentators. They can create an illusion of public opinion, overflow the network with posts on the desired topic, and messages with an objectionable point of view will be on the tenth, twentieth or hundredth page of the search. Forbidden resources don't even need to be deleted or blocked -- nobody will get to them. Propaganda and censorship, in this case, merge into a single institution of state control over information through the management of search engines.

This future is not guaranteed. Censorship has always been a manifestation of politics; it does not arise by itself. But now we see how states around the world are trying to strengthen control over the network. Yes, they are at different stages -- while in the US they argue whether it is possible to censor advertising on Facebook, in China objectionable social networks are blocked completely. But the general trend is not in doubt. And you should be prepared for the fact that the authorities will not always act as clumsily as in the fight against unwanted messengers.

Author: USA Really