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Digital Curtain

by Chang Che



Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation

Andrew Marantz, Vintage Books, 2019


We Have Been Harmonised: Life in China’s Surveillance State

Kai Strittmatter, Old Street, 2019


In March 1946, a year after Hitler’s death, Winston Churchill gave a speech at Westminster College in the quaint town of Fulton, Missouri. ‘This is a wonderful school in my home state’, wrote then-U.S. president Harry S. Truman in a laconic invitation, ‘If you come, I will introduce you.’ In the college’s stuffy gymnasium, Churchill spoke, metaphorically, of an ‘iron curtain’ descending upon Eastern Europe as the Soviet Union advanced westward. Historians later cited the speech as the start of the Cold War.


Three decades later, the war had fizzled out. In the 1980s, the economy of the Soviet Union collapsed. Throughout the next decade, Eastern European countries renounced their allegiance to communism in droves, opening themselves up to democratic reform and the global market. At the same time, Communist China began its first experimentations with market reforms, suggesting that they, too, would soon democratise. Most assumed that nascent digital technologies would be the nail in the Communist coffin. ‘Now there’s no question China has been trying to crack down on the internet’, Clinton said dismissively, in 1992, ‘Good luck. That’s sort of like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.’


A sober reality soon settled in. The Chinese market reforms, far from democratising the country, transformed a nation once riven by colonial powers into the greatest threat to the West since the Soviet Union. Leninist political ideals – once redolent of a bygone experiment – now survive through China’s one-party system, under the preferred term ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. By the new millennium, the hope that, somehow, Western liberalism had triumphed over its competitors had been proven false. Far from any meaningful resolution, the conflict simply plateaued – then jumped into cyberspace.


*


If the old-school way of settling ideological disputes is by military combat, then the modern way is by internet policy. On one side is the Western approach, what CNN journalist James Griffith calls ‘cyber-libertarianism’, in which an unregulated and unrestrained internet spans the globe, powered by a particularly expansive view of free speech. On the other side is the China model of ‘cyber-sovereignty’, in which each nation exerts total control over their domain of the internet, with free reign to police any speech. This is the iron curtain dressed in digital garb.


This time, however, the West is unprepared. There is no strategy of ‘containment’, no ‘Marshall Plan 2.0’, no ‘Trumpian Truman Doctrine’ to defend liberal values from the onslaught of Orwellian tactics in post-reform China. On the contrary, the current occupant of the Oval Office seems enticed by the autocrat’s handbook. In the meantime, the new methods of digital authoritarian power not only work brilliantly in China; they’ve already been exported to similarly autocratic countries like Russia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, and Cambodia.


Perhaps that's why democracy is under bad weather right now. The once commonplace intuition that the internet would bolster democracy has been thoroughly debunked. We now have a more nuanced picture: if the Arab Spring, Edward Snowden, and #MeToo stories indicate the internet’s democratising veneer, then the decline of journalism, the rapid spread of disinformation, and the inclination toward violence and parochialism reveal its authoritarian underbelly. Andrew Marantz was, for several years, a staff writer at The New Yorker, and his illuminating Anti-social is an eye-opening and unsettling look into the belly of the digital beast. With a mix of wry humour and cutting narration, he demonstrates how a small, but vocal, faction of misfits ‘hijacked’ the American conversation, catapulting a man, with a dubious allegiance to democratic norms, into the highest office in the land.


Marantz’s argument begins with a now commonplace observation: the old media ‘gatekeepers’, the elite literati of New York, D.C., and London, lost their privileged status as the arbiters of information sometime in the early 2000s. ‘I’m afraid we felt a bit superior to those without the same access to information’, wrote Alan Rusbridger, former Editor of The Guardian, in his recent book Breaking News, ‘and when the floodgates opened – and billions of people also gained access to information and could publish themselves – journalism struggled to adjust.’ Reporting, fact-checking, analysis – all the traditional norms of journalism were upended by snappy Buzzfeed headlines. At one point, an upstart media entrepreneur explains to Marantz how to reform The New Yorker: ‘Way more images. That’s number one. Who has ever looked at a big long block of text and gone, “Ooh, exciting?”’ (The entrepreneur’s company, Spartz, recently raised $8 million of venture-capital funding).


On the dark corners of the web, out of site from traditional gatekeepers, a motley crew of misanthropes seized an opportunity. They were what Marantz called the ‘gate-crashers’ – the nationalists, white supremacists, masculinists, internet trolls, and ‘edgelords’ who, by dint of simply being themselves (high-energy, scrappy, rebellious, and loathsome of the status quo) attracted enormous controversy and mainstream attention. No journalist worth their salt would have given them a writing job. But, by the 2010’s, they didn’t need one. Journalists were outmoded in the age of social media, overwhelmed by a new attention economy, the rules of which they did not understand.


An excerpt from a speech by Mike Cernovich, a vitriolic host of Alex Jones’ Info Wars, describes the new status quo:


We’re the new media. The dinosaur fake-news media – their days are numbered … they used to be able to control the narrative. Well, fuck you, motherfuckers. The barbarians are at the gate. Everyone has a voice now.

For those at the fringe of the political discourse, hatred of mainstream journalists became inseparable from a kind of reverence for new platforms. ‘Twitter is my drug’, Cernovich tweeted in 2014. It was, after all, the waspy liberals – those of Marantz and Rusbridger’s ilk – who had been responsible for their public exile. Social media promised to change the dynamic once and for all. To his credit, Marantz pauses to reflect on the validity of the dark web’s contempt for journalists. ‘I never deluded myself into believing that the norms of traditional journalism were infallible, or worthy of exaltation, or intrinsically cool’, he admits.


But Marantz quickly dispenses of the idea that the solution is to upend the system: ‘It turns out, it’s possible for a thing to be uncool and also necessary’, he quips. On this, he has a companion in Churchill, who famously remarked that democracy is the worst system, except for all the others. Indeed, the newly empowered right, organised less by what they have in common than by what they’re staunchly against – liberals, mainstream conservatives, and Hilary Clinton – seemed to prove Churchill’s point: very few had any shared policy proposals. If the revolution truly came to pass, what would they replace it with? Luckily, their numbers were not high enough for their future to come to fruition. But in the era of social media, their fixation with lies and controversy afforded them privileged access to popular opinion: ‘Any one of them, taken alone, might have seemed negligible’, Marantz writes, ‘but together they had a decisive impact on the 2016 campaign, and on public opinion more broadly.’


The rise in Western politics of racists, masculinists, and neo-Nazis, as abhorrent as they are, provides two important lessons from the perspective of the new Cold War. The first is historical. Many, in hindsight, now view the rise of the cultural Left in the 1990s as a poor strategic choice, despite its moral necessity. The Western globalists, in forging the new economic order, had miscalculated just how much of China’s double-digit growth would come at the expense of those living in their own backyards. As Richard Rorty prophetically put it in 1998, in shifting from issues of economics to identity, the Left lost the ability to ‘channel the mounting rage of the newly dispossessed’ or speak directly to the ‘consequences of globalisation’. This liberal myopia fanned the rage of right-wing populists from Pat Buchanan to Donald Trump. According to this view, the current right-wing backlash, and their inimical attitude to old institutions, has a much longer history than the rise of any social media company.


And yet, if there’s any lesson from the 21st century, it’s that technology changes politics. And the Western model of ‘cyber-libertarianism’ has pushed those with the wrong dispositions into the political spotlight. In the past, editors held the keys to the gate, keeping away those at the radical fringe who sought to threaten the very foundations of American democracy. ‘There have always been those on the fringes of our society who have sought to escape their own responsibility by finding a simple solution, an appealing slogan, or a convenient scapegoat’, John F. Kennedy said in 1961. ‘But in time the basic good sense and stability of the great American consensus has always prevailed.’ Can anyone be so optimistic today?


*


The West’s digital troubles are political fodder for China’s sixty-six-year-old leader President Xi Jinping. As liberal democracy totters, Xi has positioned China, with its newly fortified grip on digital media, as the more viable alternative. ‘Enlightened Chinese democracy puts the West in the shade’, wrote The China Daily, a state-controlled media outlet, in 2017. The article cites a number of Western ailments such as the overrepresentation of ‘special interests’, ‘endless political backbiting’, ‘policy reversals’, and ‘retarded economic and social progress’ as evidence that liberal democracy’s ‘cracks are beginning to show’.

While a laissez-faire approach to digital communications has heightened political tensions in the West, Xi has built his digital apparatus specifically to ‘harmonise’ conflict, promoting a homogenous country through the power of digital surveillance and artificial intelligence. In his new book We Have Been Harmonized, Kai Strittmatter, a Beijing correspondent for the German national broadsheet Süddeutsche Zeitung, tells the remarkable tale of how the techno-authoritarian surveillance state came out ahead in the long-running war of ideas.


Strittmatter begins where many Western pundits left off: a broken promise. In 2009, the app Sina Weibo emerged as a viable alternative to Twitter, which is censored in China. The new site brought with it the optimism of political reform reminiscent of the early days of the internet. ‘For the first time since the People’s Republic was founded in 1949’ wrote Strittmatter, ‘there was a public space that belonged to citizens, where their language was spoken. The germ of civil society began to grow.’ But the mirage of democratisation was short-lived. Since taking power, in 2012, Xi has doubled down on online censorship, going so far as to declare the internet an ‘ideological battlefield’. It appears that Western observers had made a costly error when they celebrated the liberating effects of digital technologies. While it was true that technology could free us, they could also enslave us if placed into the wrong hands. Like all early social media, Weibo was symbol of reform; but in the 21st century, autocrats could reform symbols.


The internet crackdown came in multiple stages. First, influential bloggers had their accounts deleted for speaking against the state. Next, any ‘opinion-leader’ on China’s social media was asked to meet with party leaders in a Beijing hotel. Dissenters were shamed and displayed on national television. The final blow came in 2014, when the Chinese Supreme Court declared that any ‘rumour’ that ‘upset social order’ – and which had been shared more than 500 times or received more than 5,000 clicks – could be punishable by up to three years in prison. Microforms of censorship are also ubiquitous. This summer, living in Shanghai, I asked my American girlfriend to create a WeChat account, the only web-messaging app allowed in China. She was immediately blocked by the censors: ‘Suspicious activity was detected on this account’. No further explanation was offered.


Lately, China’s approach to the internet has evolved yet again. In the past, the internet was still a toxin to be kept at arm’s length; now it was a tool to be harnessed. When Hong Kong descended into chaos this past June over a proposed extradition bill, China launched a global social-media campaign to discredit the protesters. State-owned media sites paid for ads on Facebook and Twitter that portrayed the protesters as ‘terrorists’. Thousands of fake accounts associated with the Communist Party were removed from the two company platforms. Not only does Xi think that speech can be successfully controlled, he now sees social media as a political opportunity. ‘Social media could provide new channels through which to gauge the mood of the nation’, a government media consultant told Strittmatter. To control it, ‘the aim is not only to block information’ but to let the party ‘provide its own counter narrative’.


Censorship is anathema to Western sensibilities. But the state’s surveillance tactics add a whole new layer of worry. Cameras installed on every street corner now employ facial recognition to identify criminals. A toilet paper dispenser at The Temple of Heaven in Beijing is activated through facial recognition to prevent freeloading. Universities use the technology to check student attendance. Eventually, though, the goal is more ambitious. The surveillance tactics plan to be employed in ‘the social credit system’, which is meant to debut nationally in 2020. Data is already captured for every resident of Shanghai, and passed along to a third-party service provider, which uses algorithms to evaluate residents’ behaviours. ‘It will allow us to answer the question: are you a trustworthy person?’ Shao Zhiqing, a controller of the social credit apparatus told Strittmatter. ‘Ultimately, what’s at stake here is the ability to maintain order in society’.


From the West’s right-wing backlash to China’s new tactics of authoritarian control, digital technologies have played an expansive influence on the lives of people across the globe. Perhaps, in this way, US-China internet policy is more consequential than the trade war. While the latter remains a battle of economies, the former is the perennial battle of ideologies: between individual freedom and political stability, pluralism and collectivism, liberal democracy and authoritarianism. Between them, Marantz and Strittmatter tell the story of how the West got onto the losing side of this battle; and, conversely, how a fledgling nation seized the technological moment to challenge the liberal order – with remarkable success.


While it is uncertain whether the West can get out of the quagmire, the first step is to recognise it. Many in the United States have yet to recognise that social media policy has far greater international consequences than the fleeting victories of the domestic culture wars. Next comes the difficult task: reworking technology to serve democratic ends. Any viable solution must break from the conventional framework, offering a ‘third’ path between autocratic control and libertarian freedom. The stakes could not be higher: ‘If we fail to come up with a third model – one that empowers users and increases democracy and transparency online, and reduces the powers both of big tech and government security services – then more and more countries will tilt towards the Chinese model’, explains James Griffith. Perhaps the question is not whether the third model can be done, but whether it’s already too late.


In The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin argued that the species that survived was not the most intelligent nor the strongest, but the one that could adapt to changing environments. Ironically, democracies were, in the eyes of philosophers, best geared to adaptation in times of struggle. Thus philosopher Amartya Sen made the case that democracies have never had famines. When push comes to shove, we make good decisions by making good use of new information, and voting accordingly. Following this line of reasoning, what sets democracies apart from regimes like China is their fluidity – their knack for getting themselves out of sticky situations when ideology conflicts with pragmatism. Today, our central political ideals of freedom remain obstinate in the face of new technological realities. If the distinctive trait of Chinese politics is its allegiance to ideas over its people, then perhaps we’re no different. That’s a harrowing thought.


CHANG CHE reads an MPhil in Political Theory at New College.


Art by Abigail Hodges