The information war that rages on the Chinese internet

August 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

There’s an intensifying struggle in China over information and at the heart of it is the internet. As we all know, controlling the internet is virtually impossible. But that doesn’t stop the Chinese government, backed with a very sophisticated system of censorship, from trying.

In a new development, the country’s popular Sina Weibo micro-blogging platform has informed its users that they risk having their accounts suspended if they spread rumours that provoke social unrest.

You may already be aware that Sina Weibo is China’s equivalent of Twitter. It has grown rapidly in a few years to have 200 million users, many of whom rely on it as a way to stay connected to their online communities and also as an alternative source of news and information.  Here’s the China Digital Times story.

This threat of suspension has angered many of Weibo users, many of whom are suspicious that the kinds of rumours that the government refers to could be anything that runs counter to the state’s spin on news and events. There’s a feeling that government pressure is being applied to Weibo to reassert some control over the unruly world of the Chinese social net.

This is the latest turn in a battle over information and expression that is being waged on the Chinese side of the Great Firewall (GFW). The government has been shaken up by some recent scandals that have gone viral among Chinese netizens. As one experienced China watcher observed, one of the most recent cases even felt like a tipping point, as you can read in an earlier post here.

The Chinese state media fosters and promulgates news and the types of stories that are by and large ideologically supportive of the China’s ruling communist party. But increasingly, the Chinese online public is in turn becoming more sophisticated and increasingly sceptical in its interpretation of pro-government rhetoric and spin.

With a thriving independent commercial media scene, social media, soaring numbers of internet users and meteoric numbers of smart phones, Chinese netizens now have unparalleled access to alternative sources of news and information. This mercurial flow of independent information that has not been sanctioned by the government is inflicting a deepening credibility crisis on the authorities and the dutiful state media organisations.

Take this recent embarrassing episode. A hoaxer planted a fake government media release in the state media system and it was reported as fact. This fiasco, claimed many Chinese netizens, was a perfect demonstration of how one of the biggest disseminators of falsehoods was the state itself.

So the battle lines are drawn. On one side is the state which is selling its vision of a China that is making rapid advancements in improving people’s livelihoods and restoring China to its rightful place in the world.

On the other side is the mob – the rapidly growing numbers of connected Chinese who use the internet to share and organise. Among them are activists, dissidents and ordinary people with a grudge against the state. They have the tools to collaborate online to create physical world protests and publicise them before government censors can react, like in this recent protest in the city of Dalian.

From the government’s view, these kinds of incidents threaten to derail its vision for China. China’s leaders biggest fears are social chaos and overthrow. Hence the emphasis on the GFW and the system of net censorship which they argue are necessary to maintain social harmony, protect China’s territorial integrity and promote Communist Party rule.

This is why information in China often vanishes. Here’s a wonderfully illustrative China Geeks post which observes “news has a habit of disappearing; from state media, traditional media, personal blogs, microblogs and Internet forums alike”.

“After an important incident, citizens have roughly a day to opine before the government apparatus catches up. It is then that directives are issued to media outlets, outlining what can and cannot be reported; it is then that posts you swore you wrote vanish; it is then that new “sensitive keywords” are entered into a blackout database.”

For those of us outside China, perhaps the single biggest manifestation of net censorship in China is the GFW. Platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Google+ are blocked in China (but interestingly, LinkedIn is not).

To get around the GFW, many foreigners in China use virtual proxy networks. A Singaporean friend living in Beijing says it is easy to buy a VPN service by paying with a credit card. “Most people find out which service to use through word of mouth. It’s not openly discussed because the services have specifically told us not to write about anything they do in a public forum. The government has recently been clamping down on the VPNs and any extra information that we give them just allows them to shut the services more easily.”

A Shanghai-based New Zealander says censorship policies and directives change all the time. “The internet is just a bit goddamned slow here anyway, due to all the filtering, so sometimes it’ll take a few days before people realise that a site has been added to a blocked list.  An interesting case is with Google+. This wasn’t blocked, but foreign media reported that it was.  But now it is.”

Another New Zealander confirmed Google+ was blocked and that it “also happened to be the platform (the Chinese dissident artist) Ai Wei Wei first contacted netizens through, several weeks after being released from prison”.

But there are thousands of Chinese netizens already using Google+ and they say there are many other techniques for jumping the GFW. According to them, these techniques are not difficult and cost nothing. They include Secure Shell or SSH, Telex, GoAgent and hosts file modification. Here’s an informative video of how to modify the hosts file on a computer to disguise IP addresses. There’s also this useful guide on the myriad ways to access a blocked website.

It seems getting across the GFW is easy, once you know how. China has 485 million internet users and some of them joke that the internet in China is really one big intranet. But for many of China’s internet users, the GFW is not an insurmountable barrier to access that which is banned on the mainland.

The minority of Chinese netizens who cross the GFW on a daily basis are a microcosmic representative of China’s vibrant and restless internet scene. The staggering number of online citizens, exponentially growing quantities of user generated content, evolving mobile technology, improving communications infrastructure and a host of other factors all point in one direction.  The inescapable conclusion is that the booming Chinese internet is increasingly difficult to control and censorship will continue to be subverted because the expectations of millions of Chinese people – many of them young and tech savvy – are changing.

Malaysian activists turn on Protest 2.0 strategy

July 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

Scenes of a large protest march on the streets of Kuala Lumpur and the ensuing police crackdown have been astonishing for outsiders and Malaysians alike. It’s a rare thing for Malaysians to take such direct action in defiance of their government.

Demonstrations are not tolerated by the authorities and are not a characteristic of the country’s multi-ethnic, politically passive society – at least until recently.

What also helped to amplify the noise of the July 9 protest was the considerable ownership the organisers gave to participants in order to incorporate mobile and web elements.  This strategy, together with the hard line taken by Malaysian authorities against the demonstrators, has helped project the Bersih 2.0 movement beyond simply a march for political reform.

A deepening mood of anger and unhappiness with the Malaysia’s government and political system has been measureable on the internet for many years now and frustration with government corruption and cronyism is now being translated into the kind of direct protest action witnessed on the streets of the capital on Saturday.

Organised under the Bersih 2.0 banner by over 60 non-governmental organisations, the protesters had gone head to head with a government ban on the protest and the ensuing clashes turned the streets of Kuala Lumpur into scenes more akin to Bangkok or Vancouver as riot police fired tear gas and arrested over 1600 marchers.

Bersih means clean in the Malay language and is a reference to the movement’s call for cleaner government and political reforms. Some observers say the Bersih movement gets its inspiration from the Arab Spring pro-democracy movements. Although Malaysia has regular elections, the country has been ruled by the UMNO party since independence in 1957 and there’s frustration that Prime Minister Najib Razak is not implementing a reform agenda.

Assessing the size of Saturday’s crowd, as an important indicator of the movement’s support, has been problematic. Independent journalists say the march numbered over 10,000, the police claim there were about 5000-6000 demonstrators and the organisers say over 50,000 people participated.

But it becomes difficult for the pro-government news media to assert low numbers when images like these are being shared on the social web by the demonstrators.

Many citizen photographers like Melissa Sasidaran also shared their live images in running photostreams.

While the organisers can also claim the threat of a government crackdown kept many people at home, they can point to the large volume of mentions on Twitter, Facebook as evidence that the protest had a much larger footprint than just what occurred on the ground.

The alternative Malaysiakini news website posted minute by minute updates of events in Kuala Lumpur. Demand on the day was so high, it had to post this message on its homepage:

The extremely heavy traffic to Malaysiakini today has made the website almost inaccessible. We are providing this stripped-down version for the benefit of our readers.

This video posted by Malaysiakini on YouTube shows police firing tear gas at demonstrators.

Bersih organisers also promised simultaneous rallies in Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, France, Switzerland, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Here’s the New Zealand Bersih 2.0 Facebook page and this is the New Zealand Herald’s coverage of the Bersih rally in Auckland.

Here’s a tweet from the equivalent event in Melbourne:

Other Malaysian Twitter users tweeted:

Singapore’s The Online Citizen offered its support on its Facebook page with photos of the Bersih rally in Singapore.

The march was also streamed live on WWITV, as another alternative for Malaysian netizens to see an event that the state media might aim to minimise.

Politweet, a service that observes “the Malaysian twitterverse” aggregated Bersih tweets as a raw record of how things unfolded.

Watching the social media feeds and user generated content on July 9 allowed many Malaysians watching in Malaysia and elsewhere a real sense of what happened that day and offered them ways to get involved. The 2.0 suffix emphasised the movement was as much a digital one as a street protest.

While both sides, the government and the Bersih 2.0 movement, will try and claim success for what happened on the streets of KL on July 9, there appears to be only one winner on the social web.

If you are reading this in Malaysia, let us know if you also saw it this way.

Guardian calls in the crowd to uncover the next Sarah Palin scandal

June 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Guardian newspaper wants your help. It’s crowdsourcing contributions from the amateur web to help sort over 24,000 pages of emails sent and received by United States presidential hopeful Sarah Palin when she was governor of Alaska in 2007 and 2008.

In a daring move to enable the voluntary involvement of the social web, the Guardian has established an online process that enables each of us to contribute if we want to by helping sift through this massive collection of documents.

The emails, which may or may not prove a treasure trove of gripping insights and shocking revelations about the maverick American politician, were released as hard copy documents. That’s why dozens of journalists have been in the Alaskan capital Juneau to make digital copies for their respective news rooms to pore over.

The Guardian, a Manchester based media organisation, tells us that two of its US correspondents have been scanning the papers from their Alaskan hotel room but because of the huge number, the job is simply too big for the professionals. So it is co-opting its readership to help find the interesting stuff.

“We reckon the collective eyes of thousands of you will find the juicy bits more quickly, so we’ll be publishing the raw mails on our website as quickly as we can and asking you to tell us which ones are interesting and why,” The Guardian said on June 10, the day the emails were released.

“They’ll be pretty rough and ready – no headlines or details of what they’re about – but we hope you’ll help us by using our simple system to tag them according to what subjects they cover, and how interesting they are.”

Here’s how to take part. Click on the button that says ‘Show me an unseen email’ and you’re in the investigative journalism game. Who would have thought journalism could be this social and so much fun? The page also includes progress updates (when I checked while writing this post, nearly 11000 pages had been read and tagged) and you can also tweet @gdnpalin to let the Guardian team know that you have turned up a  journalistic gold nugget or not, as the case may be.

The Guardian was one of the news organisations canvassed by the American Society of Newspaper Editors for its recent 10 Best Practices for Social Media report. In the study, the UK newspaper listed eight best practice points for its journalists blogging or responding to comments on its website, including this gem: Encourage readers to contribute perspectives, additional knowledge and expertise. Acknowledge their additions.

It will be interesting to see if the Guardian’s collegial social media policy becomes increasingly practised by other media organisations. But let’s go back to the other story.

The Palin emails saga began three years ago when Sarah Palin shot to prominence as a possible running mate for Republican presidential candidate John McCain. At the time, a political journalist for Mother Jones magazine, David Corn (@DavidCornDC on Twitter), noticed the state of Alaska had an open records law that had been successfully used by a citizen activist.

Corn’s request for Palin’s emails under that law three years ago has now paid a big dividend. His story on how it all came about is a riveting read. It is also encouraging for all of us who have high expectations of freedom of information and transparency in government. It is also an inspiring example of granular and patient journalism carried out by a dogged and resourceful reporter.

But there are several caveats to the way the state governor’s office has acceded to the request for the emails – which was followed by other requests from a number of other media organisations as Palin’s political profile soared.

The first is that the process took three years because of what David Corn called evident foot dragging. The second is that over 2000 pages have been withheld and many of those released will contain redactions. Also, Corn says, the right to withhold a portion of the emails can be justified under “executive” or “deliberative process” privileges that protected correspondence between Palin and her aides about policy matters. The other issue is that Palin also used at least two personal email accounts to correspond with aides which the state governor’s office said was beyond its access to provide.

The released emails may well harbour a smoking gun to harm Palin’s probable run for the Republican candidacy in the 2012 presidential race. But given the documents withheld or redacted by the Alaskan government, the emails are unlikely to really hurt her chances and her supporters will continue to rally around her. As yet, nothing terribly damaging has been uncovered.

While Sarah Palin’s emails are Little League in comparison with something like the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon, there’s a lot to admire in a news story that was made possible by old school journalism with help from the social web.

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