Tag Archives: censorship

 
 

Trading freedom for functionality: China’s app censorship

Dominic Harvey-Taylor

Society and culture

 

WeChat, China’s most popular messaging app is an integral part of Chinese contemporary culture. The app has over 800 million active users, 90% being Chinese, and is used to conduct virtually every sort of transaction imaginable in China.

The app is also highly censored and heavily monitored by the Chinese Central Government.

I first came across WeChat while researching what essential apps I needed to download before studying in Shanghai for a semester. Amongst useful dictionary apps and metro guides, the website China Highlights proclaims that WeChat is ‘the most popular messaging service in China’ and is a great way to keep in touch with people. The unwritten downside of the app being, that in using it, I would end up feeling like I was surrendering some form of privacy as well as self-censoring my speech.

Not really having any misgivings at the time, I downloaded WeChat and a few weeks later arrived in China. Almost immediately I realised the website had completely undersold the popularity and versatility of this app.

WeChat is an all-in-one platform for messaging, sharing photos, posting status updates and subscribing to newsfeeds. WeChat also functions as an e-wallet. You can use it to purchase movie tickets, transport, send money to your friends or even scan QR codes to pay vendors directly instead of using cash or card.

During my time in Shanghai, I used WeChat to split bills with friends, pay for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and to keep up to date with local and international news.

[related_article align="left" show_image="yes" index=1 text="Media control in China"]

I used the app to communicate with my friends and my teachers. It was also a great way for me to connect with Chinese and other foreign students who were more comfortable and confident communicating via a messaging app than in person.

Although I was in Shanghai to help improve my Mandarin, I found myself using the app’s translation function fairly regularly to help interpret various notices sent to me by the university.

While using the app, part of me was a bit disturbed by my heavy reliance on the service because of WeChat’s biggest drawback: it’s censorship.

It is no secret that the internet in China is heavily monitored and censored. Websites and apps such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are blocked – a big part of the reason why WeChat has grown to be so dominant in China.

Private WeChat messages containing controversial phrases, including ‘Free Tibet’, ‘1989 Tiananmen Square’ or ‘Falun Gong’, are intercepted and then blocked, with no notification to the user. This is especially the case in group chats, where the government monitors for any gathering on online turning into a protest on the streets.

Unlike Facebook, where users can add basically anyone as contacts, see mutual friends and create groups with thousands of members with relative ease, WeChat requires a person’s phone number, QR code or unique user ID to add them into your contacts. There is a 500-person cap on the number of participants in group chats.

These measures make life a whole lot more difficult if you’re an activist wanting to organise a million-person protest movement across the country.

Though I wasn’t particularly desperate to start a political movement, or motivated to promote discussion about controversial issues, I still couldn’t shake off the feeling of discomfort while using WeChat to message people. It’s disheartening to be in a university environment, communicating with people from China and across the globe, using a platform that is fundamentally restrictive about certain topics and ideas.

What’s more disconcerting, is that the censorship of WeChat messages isn’t exclusive to China. Anyone who initially sets up the app with a Chinese mobile number is susceptible to censorship overseas, a fact I only became aware of after returning home to Australia.

I still use WeChat to communicate with friends in China and elsewhere.. For many of my friends, it is the only social media platform they use. Regardless of the feelings one may have about using a censored service, the prevalence and usefulness of WeChat is such that it’s almost impossible to function without it.

Inevitably it seems people will always choose a highly restrictive, but highly effective social media platform over none at all.

3 minute read

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Facebook: A coercive political actor?

Marco D’Alessandro

Society and culture | South Asia

 

If Facebook could stack an election against the likes of Pauline Hanson or Donald Trump, would you want it to? Would you want it to quash the threat of global terror by employing algorithms to censor content which demonstrates partiality to flagged organisations or individuals?

Facebook may seem to be an innocuous and convenient communication platform, however it has become apparent that Facebook has the means to transform these questions into reality. In the majority of situations the only mechanism capable of constraining Facebook is corporate morality.

The website’s capacity to intervene in political activities last gained media attention earlier this year when it took a partisan and coercive approach to conflicts between Kashmiri separatists and Indian forces.

In early July, The Guardian sourced numerous reports claiming that videos, posts and accounts had been deleted for displaying content relating to the death of Burhan Wani. Wani lead the Hizbul Mujahedeen, an organisation seeking Kashmiri independence, viewed by many in India as a terrorist group but as freedom fighter by Kashmiris and Pakistanis.

The deletion of content was extensive. In one instance a journalist’s account was deleted under Facebook’s no tolerance policy for support or praise of terrorist organisations, due to the inclusion of a photo depicting the funeral of Wani.

Many argued that this and other examples of censorship, such as a week-long block imposed on an account for providing a link to a blog mentioning Wani, were political in nature. Facebook’s policy caused deep frustration in Kashmir, depriving people of a forum many had used in the past to voice opinions about regional politics and tension.

[caption id="attachment_4429" align="aligncenter" width="482"] Image taken under a creative commons license from Flickr[/caption]

From the nature of censorship incidents uncovered by The Guardian it’s easy to see why many Pakistanis and Kashmiris believe that Facebook took a pro-India stance and actively participated in political suppression, extending beyond its duty under its own policy to shield users from extremist content.

Facebook’s actions in Kashmir provide a complete contrast to the defined status of political neutrality the website has adopted in the United States.

Evidence emerged in 2012 that Facebook had conducted an experiment aimed at discovering whether the site could be used to affect voter turnout in that year’s Federal election. An academic paper published on the study found that Facebook’s “I voted” initiative could have raised participation by as much as 0.6%.

Earlier this year speculative articles were published contemplating the website’s capacity to rig an election. The site has approximately 1.59 billion users worldwide and the tweaking of algorithms to alter what users see therefore has strong potential to influence thought globally. After Zuckerberg publically made anti-Trump comments the question was raised by employees as to whether the company should attempt to stack the election against him.

This issue was suggested as a discussion point in regular Q&A sessions between employees and Zuckerberg, although it did not receive adequate votes to be the topic for that week. However, a statement made by Sheryl Sandberg, a high level company employee, suggests that there is no intention of doing this: “Facebook would never try to control elections.”

Facebook’s 2012 experiment appears not to have favoured any one party. Despite this, if Facebook wished to do so, the only significant constraint would be their own morality. Facebook is protected by the First Amendment in the same way a media outlet is, unconstrained by the law in the censoring of content.

According to Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor, the only time in which a legal constraint would apply is if Facebook were to collude with a candidate.

“If Facebook was actively coordinating with the Sanders or Clinton campaign, and suppressing Donald Trump news, it would turn an independent expenditure (protected by the First Amendment) into a campaign contribution because it would be coordinated—and that could be restricted.”

Despite Facebook presenting a stance of neutrality this does not seem to extend beyond the borders of the United States or perhaps other western nations, as evidenced by Kashmir. The role the website will take outside of this somewhat protected bubble is uncertain. Facebook’s neutrality is already undermined by existing algorithms which filter content to display posts based on your ‘likes’ and interests, meaning most users are deprived of exposure to conflicting views.

The capacity of Facebook to influence a wide range of political matters has become evident in the last few years, however the implications of this remain unclear, its potential remaining in its infancy. Despite choosing to make a public commitment to relative neutrality in the US the site’s involvement in the quashing of Kashmiri political discourse is worrying.

Facebook’s capacity to yield influence and its recent actions surrounding tensions in Kashmir demonstrate that it has now become a coercive political actor, almost devoid of legal constraint. The question of how or if it should exercise its considerable influence is one for each individual and begs another important question; how is Facebook influencing you?

5 minute read

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