In the present information age, the internet has established itself as one of the most potent and dominant forces in the world, and it influences virtually every aspect of modern existence. The lives of millions, who depend on it for, work, play, and even health reasons, would be radically different without it, and in most cases, worse off. It covers a wide spectrum of diverse issues, ranging from mundane things like checking mail to national issues like toppling tyrants in the Middle East.
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Evidently, the internet, more so social media, has the potential to put a great deal of power in the hands of citizens, something certain governments are reluctant to allow. The Chinese government has been at the forefront of repressing social media, and it has banned several sites, including Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, and YouTube.
Because of this censorship, citizens are often ignorant of many important global issues and are denied their right to free speech. From my research, I concluded that the literature reviewed proves the Chinese government actively and aggressively prevents its citizens from accessing social media sites to limit their capacity for political activism.
My interest in this topic was triggered by a personal challenge after I found myself unable to communicate effectively because of censorship. I had been corresponding with a friend from China through Facebook for some time until the government banned it in 2009. I was concerned and tried to understand why I could access social media freely while the state dictates his options.
I started by looking for clues online, mostly in magazines and books published by Chinese dissidents, as well as current affairs stories concerning the censorship. With time, I managed to sort through numerous stories and identify a few articles that addressed the issue. While they do not provide a solution, they have helped me get some insight into the reasons behind the censorship of social media. However, I must admit that many of my thoughts were urged by the conversations I had with my Chinese friends, who were kind enough to express their sentiments.
“Facebook says China consumers want service.” Chicago Herald
The above article discusses the diplomatic antagonism between the Chinese government censors and Facebook’s representatives. The vice president of Facebook, Vaughan Smith, discusses how people often ask him when they can access Facebook in China, but he cannot provide a definite response (“Facebook Says China Consumers Want Service”).
According to the article, Lu Wei, China’s minister for Cyberspace Administration, says that Facebook should not expect to be allowed in China anytime soon. Apparently, other sites such as YouTube have also been banned on the basis that they provide information that could be “harmful” to the people of China. Although Facebook is making efforts to justify its presence in China, the government remains skeptical and reluctant to allow its operations.
The fact that the article is from the Herald, a reputable paper, and it mostly quotes the words of Facebook and the communist government’s representatives creates a sense of impartiality. Since much of the content is reported speech, it leaves the reader to draw conclusions based on the evidence they are presented with. The writer demonstrates a significant level of objectivity, and it is evident that before writing the article, he/she carried out exhaustive and concrete research. Although it does not account for all the factors in the debate, it at least considers the reasons given by both sides from a neutral point of view.
Andrew Brown. “Comment is free.” Guardian Weekly
According to Brown, the Chinese government feels that Facebook presents a threat rather than an opportunity for its citizens. The author explains that Chinese people on social media have the liberty to criticize their government and its policy, but when they try to use social media for activism, the content is deleted (Brown). For example, if there is a protest about something, one is allowed to write about the issue. However, they cannot discuss the protest since they risk influencing its course or inciting people.
The article compares China’s policy to an Orwellian style dystopian future, where people appear to have free speech but are silenced by covert threats. The Chinese government has, however, ensured it does not leave a lacuna by introducing its own social networks such as Weibo, WeChat, and Pengyou. Through these, it can limit access to democratic western online space, and more closely monitor its citizens.
Andrew Brown is a senior writer for the Guardian, and while that alone does not give him credibility, his article shows evidence of broad research. He cites two empirical studies carried out in China to demonstrate that the communist party controls social media through thousands of people planted for this purpose. His central claim is that people are allowed to express themselves, but not act on this expression.
From the article, it is apparent that he has considered the finer points of his arguments since many people assume anti-government sentiment is banned in China. He, however, takes the time to research and debunk this myth and by so doing, successfully and objectively defends his thesis. Of all the three articles, his is the most well structured and researched, especially in view of the self-evident maturity and journalistic ethics it engenders.
Abdi Rahman. “Instagram Blocked in China as Pro-Democracy Protests Continue in Hong Kong” The Hollywood Reporter
Abdi Rahman is attempting to draw a connection between the banning of Instagram and the protests in Hong Kong. His article specifically addresses the shutting down of Instagram in parts of China in the wake of these protests. He claims the downtime is designed to distract the attention of mainlanders from these events (Rahman). The writer argues that this is a typical occurrence, which reflects the communist party’s concern that Chinese citizens may access pictures of the demonstrations and start similar activism.
Rahman, in addition to being a reporter for the Hollywood news, is also a freelance correspondent with the South China magazine. From this, one can deduce that he has a degree of first-hand familiarity with Chinese affairs. In addition to this, his online portfolio shows he has written several stories on China’s media censorship. Considering the history of the communist party’s attitude towards social media and the fact that demonstrators in Hong Kong have been repulsed with excessive force, his arguments appear solid.
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The previous articles also support them, as it has emerged that the state has a high propensity for influencing social media to reduce the spread of anti-government protests. However, he has no actual evidence for his claims apart from the fact that he got them from The Wall Street Journal, as speculations rather than fact.
Therefore, in as much as he may be right, there is a high level of subjectivity and bias in his assumptions, especially given that the title announces his thesis as if it were true, although no hard evidence is tabled. While one cannot ignore the government’s tendency to shut down social media sites in the face of opposition, his argument is the least convincing of the three due to its reliance on speculation.
While all the three articles cover closely related themes, they have used different approaches to put across their points. Unlike the other two, the first one has minimized the use of opinion but instead focused on providing the reader with quotes of speeches by stakeholders on both sides of the debate. In the second article, Andrew Brown uses historical comparisons to Orwellian predictions and Elizabethan Tyranny alongside contemporary research to prove his thesis that: the state is restricting social media to promote repression.
Finally, Rahman comes off as the most subjective since he only appears to echo and string together what has been said, without any hard evidence or critical hypothesis. Ultimately, these articles have helped me confirm the premise I formed from the interactions with my Chinese friends and popular media opinion. China’s government is indeed using social media censorship to prevent its citizens from online, anti-government, or pro-democracy activism.
Brown, Andrew. “How the Chinese Regime Uses Web Censorship to Strengthen the State.” The Guardian., 2014. Web.
“Facebook Says China Consumers Want Service.” Chicago Daily Herald., 2014. Web.
Rahman, Abdi. “Instagram Blocked in China as Pro-Democracy Protests Continue in Hong Kong.” The hollywoodreporter., 2014. Web.