Over the past decade, social media has left behind an increasingly prominent social and political imprint. In 2011, it manifested as a platform for free expression which sparked the Arab Spring, a series of popular protests and rebellions against authoritarian regimes throughout countries in Northern Africa and the Middle East. More recently, social media has been the primary medium of discourse for the Me Too movement, raising awareness towards the issue of sexual violence and bringing it to the forefront of public discourse in the United States.
Given the growing weight of social media’s influence on society, the key question is whether social media will become a sentinel against systematic oppression and injustice, effectively posing a serious challenge to authoritarian regimes. In the case of China, while social media may not have the power to cause a regime change, it will, in coming years, challenge the government’s ironclad authority and lack of accountability to its people. This clearly manifests in times of crisis, most recently, with the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak.
In recent years, China has confronted the challenge of social media head on. Rather than banning all forms of social media, China has embraced and even led innovations in social media technologies. In the early 2000s, China showed a willingness to embrace Western technology platforms, allowing Google and Facebook within its borders. In the past decade, however, universal technology services including Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, and Google were banned in China. From Baidu to WeChat, China instead created its own combination of apps that offer the same services—and more. Access to information across these platforms is regulated and access to international platforms is cut off by the Great Firewall, a virtual blockade against foreign websites and platforms, with the Chinese government as the ultimate judge and censor safeguarding the national interest.
The Wuhan coronavirus epidemic has tested the efficacy of China’s use of censorship to ensure political stability. Already, critics are condemning the Chinese government’s initial lack of transparency for worsening the situation. Of course, China’s impressive quarantine measures are praiseworthy, and no doubt contributed to the containment of the epidemic once the news was out. The lack of transparency, however, left room for a combination of speculation, misinformation, and criticism to spread online, after which the government immediately defaulted to censorship to contain news of the pandemic.
Censorship by government officials with the intention of preventing social unrest and rumor spreading often prevents real and important news from getting out. Consider, for example, the government’s persecution of health officials like the whistleblower doctor Wenliang Li, who created a video warning civilians about the coronavirus situation in Wuhan during the initial breakout. The government forced him to sign a document accusing him of spreading fake news and harming the public interest. Following the death of Dr. Li from the coronavirus, he was hailed as a national hero and martyr, and popular sentiment quickly turned against the government. Although the government in this case acted in their vision of the “public good,” hoping to prevent widespread panic, the censorship of health officials resulted in strong backlash against the regime and greater instability due to increased distrust in the government and the initial lack of communication about the evolving situation regarding COVID-19.
Automated censorship driven by cutting edge research in machine learning and artificial intelligence can be just as counterproductive. Contrary to popular opinion, Chinese surveillance is not the black-and-white image of evil, oppression, and ruthless efficiency suggested by George Orwell’s dystopian totalitarian state in his book, 1984. Human ingenuity in using allusions, abbreviations, and other linguistic devices has allowed criticisms of the government to get past censors: a simple example is “Wuhan,” a censored word on some platforms which replaced with an abbreviated form,“wh,” can no longer be detected. Just as veiled critiques of the government have filtered through censoring software, articles and videos spreading misinformation about the virus have utilized similar techniques in getting past censors. Thus the wreckage left behind by censorship procedures is a combination of frustration and mistrust.
Using censorship as a means of preventing the spread of misinformation and mitigating public unrest doesn’t work in the case of a severe crisis. Although the brute force approach of censorship in past situations of political unrest may have proven more or less effective for the Chinese government, it is not sustainable, no matter how advanced censorship technology becomes. Censorship is at best a temporary fix, and at worst only serves to magnify underlying tensions and resentment. Information exchange in the 21st century is constantly evolving with the development of technology, and it will be increasingly difficult for China to assert sovereignty over its seemingly impermeable, digitally drawn borders over information.