If you are looking for Chinese microblogging platform Weibo for “Shanghai lockdown” (“上海封城”), you will find many videos of deserted streets and emergency workers delivering food. There are fewer signs of the collective outrage, anger and desperation that gripped the city’s 26 million residents, who have since been chained to their homes. April 5 and are struggling to get food and medicine. You probably won’t find, for example, a shocking video pandemic workers slaughtering a pet Corgi to death after its owners were quarantined, although there are references to an infamous incident that has come to symbolize the harsh conditions of the lockdown.
The situation became desperate, food supplies ran out days after the introduction of quarantine, and some people denied access to medical care. In response, residents have shied away from China’s notorious online censorship system to document their experiences and express their anger on sites that include the equivalent of Twitter. Weibothe ubiquitous messaging app WeChatand the Chinese version of TikTok, Dowin.
China has one of the most advanced in the world internet filtering and censorship devices, known as Great Firewall. Back in 2013, the state media talked about 2 million people used to track content posted on the Internet, and Yaqiu Wang, senior China fellow at Human Rights Watch, says censorship has become more stringent since then. But the Shanghai lockdown demonstrates the cat-and-mouse dynamic that plays a central role in social media censorship, even in a country that dedicates vast resources to cleaning up dissent from the Internet.
“No censorship apparatus is hermetic,” says Gobin Yang, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies modern China. “The censorship of social media in China still relies heavily on human labor. It is possible that not all censors were motivated to do their job at full speed.”
One video that went viral on Chinese social media despite attempts by censors to stop it was captioned “Voices of Apriland was originally posted by a user calling himself Strawberry Fields Forever. The video combines aerial footage of Shanghai with audio recordings said to have been made by distressed residents. The man begs to be allowed to take his ailing father to the hospital; children in quarantine centers cry after being separated from their parents; residents scream from their homes for the government to provide them with supplies.
“It became so viral that the censors had trouble censoring it,” says the co-founder of Great Fire, an organization that monitors censored posts on Chinese social media, who asked to use the pseudonym Charlie Smith. He suggests that a video that was filmed and uploaded multiple times by different users could have been viewed millions of times. “The Chinese understand that there is a limit to freedom of speech,” Smith says, especially when it comes to politics. But he believes the lockdown in Shanghai goes beyond the usual political debate because so many people are personally affected. This means that people are ready to push the limits of free speech, which they usually accept, he adds.
After the Voice of April video was blocked, users re-uploaded it in a way that avoided detection by censors. The video was posted upside down, its audio paired with different images, and people posted fake movie posters that included a QR code leading to the clip.
Hundreds also shared the video through the Interplanetary File System, a distributed peer-to-peer Internet protocol. authorities. Files stored using IPFS are broken up and used by many different machines, and communication is encrypted, making it much more difficult for authorities to remove or block content.
Although sometimes overwhelmed, censors have not given up on trying to contain heartbreaking stories of blocking and anger directed at politicians or China’s anti-coronavirus policy. While the Chinese government is hiring its own censors, the country’s social media companies also have moderator teams that remove content that the Chinese Communist Party considers illegal. Companies like Weibo have a financial incentive to get it right. In December, Weibo was fined 3 million yuan ($470,000) for allowing unidentified illegal content to leak through their network.
The most offensive posts, such as those about people committing suicide, have been removed by the country’s internet censors, the Shanghai-based investor said. He accuses Shanghai government officials of mishandling the situation and believes that several people in his area have starved to death, though this has not been reported anywhere. “I’m surprised to learn how big the information asymmetry is,” he says. “Even friends in other cities in China didn’t know the real situation in Shanghai,” he says.
Police have also contacted people who post critical content on international social media, according to Ming Gao, who works in public relations and lives in Shanghai’s central Jing’an district. When Gao saw several photos circulating on Chinese social media that criticized the Covid strategy in his city, he said he wanted more people to see them. So, on April 18, he reposted pictures on twitter. They display banners hanging in the green areas of Shanghai. One describes people who have died as a result of the government’s lockdown policy. Another read simply: “People die.” Another showed the text of a page that Chinese social media users see when they stumble upon a page that has been removed by censors: “This content cannot be viewed because it violates the rules.”
The next day, Gao said he received two calls from the local police station asking him to remove the post. He refused and says he hasn’t heard anything since.
In the past month, more Chinese citizens have tried to access information outside the Great Firewall. Zachary Steinert-Trelkeld, an assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who leads a project that tracks people who access Twitter from China. Users typically access Twitter, which has been banned in China since 2009, by using a virtual private network that routes internet traffic through an encrypted link to a computer outside of China. In April 2022, the number of visits to Twitter from Shanghai that bypassed Internet controls increased by 41%, or just over 23,000 people, he said. “They are starting to follow pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and they are also starting to follow foreign news in Chinese. The Wall Street Journal China, BBC NEWS China, New York Times Asia”, says Steinert-Trelkeld of those seeking to circumvent the restrictions.
Even without technical workarounds, users can outsmart or frustrate censors by masking criticism with code words or ambiguous references. Some users reacted to sarcastic comments about how big China is. Promoted Weibo Hashtag about America’s human rights deficit. Others have written about the film La La Land in a playful reference to the statements of one official about the happiness of life in China.
“It’s always a game of cat and mouse,” he says. Yaqiu Wang, Senior Research Fellow for China at Human Rights Watch, who has been monitoring the Chinese Internet for more than a decade. She adds that Chinese social media users are finding ways to circumvent censorship, a phenomenon not new. “Censors try to keep up with people’s creativity; people are trying to circumvent censorship by inventing other words for blocking.”
The Shanghai lockdown is not the first time outrage on Chinese social media has challenged censors. At the beginning of the pandemic, censors also struggled to erase discussion of Dr. Li Wenliang, who tried to warn the country about the first cases of Covid but was arrested for spreading “rumors”. After the 34-year-old doctor died of Covid, two hashtags began to appear on Weibo: “The Wuhan government should apologize” and “We want freedom of speech.” Both attracted tens of thousands of views before they were removed.
These outbursts of anger are not only related to the pandemic. In January 2022, anger erupted on social media after short clip A frame of a woman chained around her neck in a small village in Xuzhou appeared on TikTok’s Chinese equivalent, Douyin. Douyin closed the account of the person who originally posted the video, and Weibo censored the related hashtags. But the outrage turned into a nationwide conversation about human trafficking, with people sharing stories of their female relatives or classmates having been kidnapped or disappeared.
“The woman in chains really resonated with so many people, and even when a separate article or [post] is censored, often other people continue to transmit information, ”says Dali Janprofessor of political science at the University of Chicago.
But Yang doesn’t see these online outbursts as signs of cracks in China’s online censorship system. “In recent years, the authorities have made very strenuous efforts to ‘clean up the atmosphere’ on the Internet,” he says. At the same time, Yang says the small group on social media has become more sophisticated in using euphemisms and acronyms to keep censors’ AI tools from detecting their discussion of controversial topics.
Censorship is tightening as people make more and more efforts to bypass online restrictions, he said. “Essentially what we have here is a process of mutual adaptation.”
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