The Chinese Government employs upwards of 2 million people to “police” the internet, manpower which outweighs that of the mighty Imperial Army by over half a million workers. One major focus of the censors is social media website Weibo, which is vastly popular in Hong Kong heavily outnumbering Twitter users. However, whilst Freedom of Speech is protected by the Basic Law, it is clear that too many people in Hong Kong readily give up that right by using the site and do not truly understand the significance of what social media is capable of achieving.
To illustrate how much censorship occurs within Weibo, we need only look at a few examples. Searches for dissident artist Ai Wei Wei were “blanket banned” after his release from political imprisonment in 2011 and the Umbrella Revolution, when inquiries for any information on Weibo would not just turn up no responses, but a list of carefully selected posts which were anti-democracy, anti-occupy and pro-Beijing. This therefore, is not even an issue of censorship but one of indoctrination. There is a huge moral issue with blocking people from accessing information online. Moreover it is significantly worse when the Government deliberately attempts to “uneducate” people by presenting only one side of the story. Colloquially, this is what we would call brainwashing and is implemented purely to block the public from reaching information, which could inspire them to think outside the government-granted remit.
The monitoring of Weibo is essentially both limitless and continuous. HKU Platform Weiboscope keeps a live-stream of censored posts, and even at times when there is no news output, it can still update hourly. The system is designed so that alarms are raised when the quantity of certain words being used across the site reach a certain threshold. Also, postings by so called “serial offenders” are deleted far faster than most, likewise for those in influential positions such as academia or journalism. This suggests that individuals are carefully monitored so as not to cause too many problems. Fifty years ago this would have been considered an Orwellian nightmare rather than a commonly accepted fact. During the recent Myanmar democratic elections Sun Liping, a Sociology Professor at Tsinghua University voiced his discontent with the current Chinese system when he said “Actually, democracy is a normal way for a normal society to behave… Just because the grown-ups told the kids in the past not to talk and eat at the same time, doesn’t mean that talking and eating are incompatible.” His post disappeared within a few hours along with thousands of similar posts, “retweets” and comments. The fact that such deletions can occur without even a semblance of hysteria shows quite how numb people have become to the fact their opinions can only be expressed with the stamp of approval of the Government. Is the value of freedom of speech so low that we simply accept such limitations as being part of daily life?
We need only look at modern social media trends to understand quite how vital it is to the current generation. The Ice Bucket Challenge raised $115 Million USD for ALS, #BlackLivesMatter has united protesters and forced politicians into discussing the once feared topic of institutionalised racism. Furthermore the Gezi Park protests in Turkey and Tahir Park uprising in Egypt found key support and coverage through social media platforms when traditional platforms failed to react. This is what makes social media freedom so important; it connects us to people we would not otherwise reach, exposes us to concepts that we could not imagine ourselves and draws our attention to the suffering of others enabling a wider community to begin thinking outside the box. The increased accountability and innovative discussion is what censors fear. Especially as it becomes ever clearer that the education of the masses weakens the iron grip of authoritarian governments, hence why we should not be so apathetic to such oppression. Ultimately, we no longer live in a world where press freedom is the be all and end all of censorship. We superficially dismiss social media censorship as just being a part of life when in reality it is time to wake up to one of the major diseases infecting our society.