May 9, 2006

"Let the Winds of a Civilized Internet Blow."

That's the name of a Chinese government scheme that uses students to monitor on-line discussions and participate in the conversations to guide them in the politically correct direction.
Ms. Hu beams with pride over her contribution toward building a "harmonious society."

"We don't control things, but we really don't want bad or wrong things to appear on the Web sites," she said. "According to our social and educational systems, we should judge what is right and wrong. And as I'm a student cadre, I need to play a pioneer role among other students, to express my opinion, to make stronger my belief in Communism."...

"Five hundred members sounds unbelievable," said a male undergraduate who, fearing official reprisals, asked that he be identified only as Zhu. "It feels very weird to think there are 500 people out there anonymously trying to guide you."

As they try to steer discussion on bulletin boards, the monitors pose as ordinary undergraduates, in a bid for greater persuasive power....

The monitors do not see themselves as engaging in censorship or exercising control over the speech of others. In interviews with five of the monitors, each initially rejected the idea that they were controlling expression, and occasionally even spoke of the importance of free speech.

I can't help but feel that I do something like this as I participate in my own comment threads. I'm trying to build a "harmonious society," express myself, and sharpen my beliefs. But I only do these things on my site, and you come here to hang out with me. I wonder if some of our commenters have been sent by some government or organization. How would you know? Don't start thinking of the most disruptive commenters, the narcissistic characters who try to draw attention to themselves. The analogs of Ms. Hu will seem eminently reasonable, modest, and sensible.

52 comments:

L. Ron Halfelven said...

Is this the explanation for the weird symbol we've been seeing used lately in lieu of a name? It's the ideogram for "You, as a law professor, ought to...."

Bissage said...

Paranoia will destroy ya'.

Or so they want me to believe.

Akiva said...

The scary thing is not such an attempt, which is perfectly in line with what one would expect of a control society that has actually started to learn a bit of finesse.

The scary thing is the adoption and redefinition of Western terminology. Free Speech is now letting people speak their mind but secretly directing the conversation to meet the State defined goal.

Some might argue that it's no so different from the political spinmesiter and pervasive advertising with which we're currently afflicted in the U.S. But at least it's not hidden and secret (hi, I'm here to manipulate your opinion, ready, set, go...).

HaloJonesFan said...

The difference is that when you ban quxxo, he can go start his own blog and say whatever he likes.

The Chinese equivalent would be if blogger.com administrators started going around and deleting posts that they didn't like.

On the other hand, it is amusing to see that the sock puppet is now becoming an official government activity.

Also, this, and this (scroll down to "Begin Message".

MadisonMan said...

But at least it's not hidden and secret (hi, I'm here to manipulate your opinion, ready, set, go...).

So you're saying you knew about, say, the government paying a commentator to promote NCLB? Of the Dept of HHS News Releases on the new Medicare bill that were little more than propaganda? (What was that reporter's name -- I'm blanking on it, and google hasn't helped!)

It seems like the Chinese were paying attention.

yetanotherjohn said...

Is this where I am supposed to confess my membership in the vast right wing conspiracy?

Jacques Cuze said...

"Let the Winds of a Civilized Internet Blow."

&

I'm trying to build a "harmonious society," express myself, and sharpen my beliefs.

=

Hot Air.

Danny said...

This doesn't seem much different from the recent tactics we've seen at home, both in government and in buzz marketing. Just a variant of what the Dept. of Agriculture has been up to. However it is a sign of distress from the Chinese government that they've been reduced to paying 500 students to reduce dissent online. I wonder if you'd get fired if people recognized it and started calling you out?

Jacques Cuze said...

The critical difference of course, is that to the extent this is your blog (and neither bloggers nor UofM) you are a private entity and can do what you want, and are not a government agency.

The similarities are in the outcomes and some of the tactics. The outcome in each is a safe boring echo-chamber. You guys like to think you are the moderates but 69% of America begs to differ and consider you the last throes of the deadenders. So your safe conversation is nice and cuddly but seems to be keeping you away from facts, diverse opinions, and common sense.

The tactics are similar in how you choose to silently delete me at some times. I am not really blaming you for this, again, like our ability to change our display names, there is nothing wrong with you using the features of blogger's software as you see fit.

People don't laugh at you for deleting comments that are out of line, people laugh at you for engaging in newspeak and doublethink.

Your similarities to the Chinese government lay not in how you moderate your blog, but in how you speak on your blog.

"I am a moderate" and "I am the conservative blog-diva"

"Learn some law before spouting off" and "You would have to pay me to look at that"

and basically all your fact-free smearing....

Balfegor said...

The scary thing is the adoption and redefinition of Western terminology. Free Speech is now letting people speak their mind but secretly directing the conversation to meet the State defined goal.

I don't find it scary at all. For one thing, they don't seem to be exercising super-mod powers over the internet, but are engaged in a deeper, more insidious, and more democratic enterprise -- they're trying to guide the terms of public debate by seeding persuasive ground-level supporters. This is not propaganda as we have known it before. There are connections with the older tactic of seeding clappers in the audience, and echoes of the old system of informants, but I think this is much more sophisticated, and much more positive, in its way. Suasion, rather than the stick. If it turns out to work, it will be the propaganda equivalent of a viral marketing campaign.

Ricardo said...

"...monitor ... discussions and participate in the conversations to guide them in the ... correct direction."

What's the problem? Don't parents do this all the time with their children? Don't teachers do this all the time with their students? Isn't this kinder and gentler approach actually the right way to go? Why would it be censorship, if someone is just guiding a conversation in certain directions?

Every time we turn on a radio, or a television, or the internet, or open a newspaper or a magazine, someone is guiding our minds in certain directions. I can feel Pepsi trying to guide me into drinking their product, McD into eating their burgers, Ambien into downing their pills. My mind is mush, I am a robot. What's a few more "guides" to throw into this mess?

If you think you really have free will, guess again!

Balfegor said...

Hmm.

Actually, now that I think on it more carefully, this is not new at all. This is exactly what the Soviets did to us, during the Cold War, when they fed arguments to personalities here in the US to promote Soviet style ideals and undermine American/capitalist ideals. On the other hand, this is being applied to the domestic population, which is different.

Viewing it longer term, I wonder whether one effect of this effort might be to prepare Chinese civilians for exposure to the superficially reasonable and inviting arguments (e.g. for democracy, human rights, etc.) posed by Westerners, and equip them with the arguments and the confidence not to give in.

Boris Johnson, I think it was, wrote a column not long ago in which he explained his recent revelation that capitalist development has not, in fact, led to enthusiasm for democracy, thus far. At least as far as he could tell, after talking with a number of Chinese students, and finding all Western civilisation's best lines about liberty, equality, fraternity, and such falling flat.

Jacques Cuze said...

That's the name of a Chinese government scheme that uses students to monitor on-line discussions and participate in the conversations to guide them in the politically correct direction.
Ms. Hu beams with pride over her contribution toward building a "harmonious society."


Scenes From the Cultural Revolution

The Left has taken over academe. We want it back.

Mike Rosen, Rocky Mountain News columnist
CU is Worth Fighting For
March 4, 2005

In this great Cultural Revolution, the phenomenon of our schools being dominated by bourgeois intellectuals must be completely changed.

Central Committee of the
Communist Party of China
Resolutions of the Eleventh Plenum
August 1966

_____________________________

I have undertaken the task of organizing conservative students myself and urging them to protest a situation that has become intolerable.

David Horowitz
The Campus Blacklist
April 18, 2003
...

Jacques Cuze said...

The analogs of Ms. Hu will seem eminently reasonable, modest, and sensible.

I have long written here that Sloany is a bot.

Goesh said...

- when their 3 Gorge Dam is completed, it will have 9x the electrical output of Hoover Dam. It's all going to industrial production. Your grandkids are gonna' have slanted eyes - neener neener - they're gonna have slanted eyes - nyah! nyah!

Brando said...

You guys like to think you are the moderates but 69% of America begs to differ and consider you the last throes of the deadenders. So your safe conversation is nice and cuddly but seems to be keeping you away from facts, diverse opinions, and common sense.

Hear, hear, Number 6. This blog is the right-wing loser zone with the the likes of "I don't make cogent argments" Althouse at the helm.

tiggeril said...

Yeah, Ann! You suck! Suckity suck suck suck! And I'm going to come here on a daily basis to reiterate how much you suck! And you have Internet Cooties, too!

See you tomorrow! :)


What the hell is with you people?

Palladian said...

"What the hell is with you people?"

They haven't had sex since the Carter administration?

Their mother is forcing them to move out of the basement?

They prefer playing with guns rather than Mousetrap?

SippicanCottage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Veeshir said...

People are always trying to steer you where they want you to go.

I don't know if the China thing scares me. I actually think I like it. That means they're trying something other than outright censorship, they're putting their ideas out and letting people debate them.
I just prefer an attempt at reasoning to sending in the secret police or the tanks.

Who knows? Maybe some of the 500 will be turned as they find their arguments defeated?

Jennifer said...

Ann, while you clearly suckity suck suck - thanks to whatever-his-name-is-today for clueing me in on that - I think you try to steer discussions to further debate. Didn't a commenter recently joke that coming here was too much like a test some days?

That's a far cry from steering discussions to squelch debate.

Jennifer said...

BWT, I love "Let the Winds of a Civilized Internet Blow" as a government project name.

Engrish.com (while more focused on Japanese to English language oddity) is hilarious.

altoids1306 said...

Is this bad? I don't see anything more insidious that good old-fashioned persuasion. Certainly preferable to internet censorship.

If they were paid agents of the State, I would prefer that they honestly identify themselves on internet forums, but these are just zealous volunteers.

In Confucian thought, government has always been conceived as a moral enterprise, so I doubt you'll find much alarm from the average Chinese than the government is trying to moderate moral virtue.

Jennifer said...

Altoids: Chinese authorities say that more than two million supposedly "unhealthy" images have already been deleted under this campaign, and more than 600 supposedly "unhealthy" Internet forums shut down.

They _are_ participating in Internet censorship.

I think the difference between this campaign and a straight censorship campaign, is that this goes a step farther.

They not only report and delete political criticism and dissent, they attempt to influence the beliefs of others and frame public debate with ringers.

Balfegor said...

Your grandkids are gonna' have slanted eyes - neener neener - they're gonna have slanted eyes - nyah! nyah!

I already have! Victory!! My side wins the war of civilisations!

Haha.

Re: Jennifer:

They _are_ participating in Internet censorship.

If you read more closely, I think you see that the 500 volunteers seeding state propaganda in internet fora are under the same umbrella "Civilised Internet" initiative, but are distinct from the 50,000 internet police that police the Chinese internet, and also from "voluntary" taking down of objectionable material by patriotic corporations.

Balfegor said...

On the other hand, if Jennifer isn't talking about this Shanghai Normal University effort in particular, but about Chinese censorship efforts in general, as this:

They not only report and delete political criticism and dissent, they attempt to influence the beliefs of others and frame public debate with ringers.

seems to suggest, then of course, she is correct, and I agree.

altoids1306 said...

Hi Jennifer:

It's not clear to me from the article that the students can explicitly censor material, although they probably can report it to the higher-ups who do have the power.

Anyways, this is besides the point - the Communist government has been censoring for years, but this article focuses on the new twist - the stealthy persuasion of their peers by young Party lackeys. (Hence the implied "big brother"/"little sister" juxtaposition.)

My contention is that this is welcome development - it's not very different than political partisans here fighting it out in the Western blogosphere.

Strip the story of it's foreboding intones and what you get is this - students organizing to influence popular opinion. The only differences between this and a Berkeley rally is that, one, the students support the government, and two, they aren't holding signs, they're posting on the internet.

Far from suppressing speech, they're trying to engage it. (How well they can defend their corrupt government is different question)

Palladian said...

Sounds like nationalized Bzz agents. Except with the implicit threat of incarceration.

Ann Althouse said...

yetanotherjohn said..."Is this where I am supposed to confess my membership in the vast right wing conspiracy?"

I'm finally understanding why conservatives have been so nice to me and my little blog.

Eli Blake said...

Ann:

I don't know if there is a conspiracy of conservatives to influence your blog, but you know it couldn't be us liberals because getting liberals organized enough to work together on anything would be a major undertaking in itself.

Eli Blake said...

Oh...

Dear, gentle reader: Ignore this post. It is here purely for subliminal messaging.

Falun Gong is a dangerous cult... No one was killed in Tianenmen square.... Taiwan is a province of China...

OK, the subliminal stuff is over. You can start paying attention again with the next comment.

Jennifer said...

Anything they deem offensive, she says, they report to the school's Web master for deletion.

You guys are right that these monitors don't do the deleting themselves. But the quote above makes it clear they are the censorship tools.

Perhaps you're right, Altoids. But to me this seems less an exercise in engaging speech than an attempt to influence. I think most of us in the partisan Western blogosphere argue and debate because we enjoy it rather than with a specific purpose in mind.

tcd said...

I don't think this program is harmless at all. Those of you who are so eager to applaud the Chicoms (I'm speaking to you, altoids and Balfegor) are really naive or maybe shills for the Chinese Communists? These students are nothing more than internet snitches for the Chinese government. I still remember the days of cautious whispers and secrecy and not being able to trust your neighbors not to turn you in to the local communist party leaders before my family's escape in the middle of the night from communist Vietnam after the fall of Saigon.

And altoids wrote: "Far from suppressing speech, they're trying to engage it." Really? I wonder how imprisoned Chinese political dissidents feel about their current engagements?

Balfegor said...

These students are nothing more than internet snitches for the Chinese government.

You are missing the crucial point. Sure, they snitch. That's nothing new though. The new and interesting feature here is that they actively enter into the discussion, to prod the flow of conversation to the benefit of the government.

I still remember the days of cautious whispers and secrecy and not being able to trust your neighbors not to turn you in to the local communist party leaders before my family's escape in the middle of the night from communist Vietnam after the fall of Saigon.

I rather suspect the Chinese were doing that anyhow -- that wouldn't be at all novel in the Chinese context. They are a totalitarian state, after all, even if the yoke now rests rather lighter on most than it has in the past. And I'm pretty sure they were taking civilian referrals and snooping on peoples' private internet communications before anyhow.

This particular program is appealing to me (a) because it is new -- I haven't seen this kind of state-organised effort before, and (b) because it is suasive, not punitive. I am not, unlike Jennifer, particularly concerned about the fact that the volunteers here are not particularly interested in dialogue for themselves, if only because, contra Jennifer, it's not as though internet commenters in a free society are significantly different. Hugh Hewitt or the people at DailyKos are not particularly interested in being persuaded -- they are interested only in persuading others (or, in some cases, intimidating people into submission). Or perhaps just equipping their own side with arguments (this is perhaps more accurate, since neither Hewitt nor anyone on Kos has any credibility to speak of beyond their immediate fanbase, as far as I can see).

Now, there are likely punitive elements connected with it, and certainly the overall "civilised internet" campaign features punitive elements quite prominently. All those net police. But we knew all that before. The tactic of seeding supporters in internet fora is novel, interesting, and positive, I think.

Possibly I may think this not because I am a commie plant. Graah! But in all honesty, it is because I am a China-booster. The consequences of renewed political disorder in China would be catastrophic not just for the Chinese, but for my kinsmen in the immediate area, and probably (though in a more indirect sense) for our material well-being here in the US. Consequently, I hope for stability -- in this case, stability under the nominally Communist Party. If the Chinese central government can find means to suppress dissent which are nonviolent and only mildly repressive -- like seeding friendly commenters through the internet to chide people offering up dissident thoughts and naughty pictures -- that seems like a promising development. Such an approach strikes me as unlikely to provoke armed rebellion, where the old way -- e.g. smashing presses, mass executions, etc. -- would have done.

From a libertarian perspective, I suppose, this new tactic is insidious and specially dangerous precisely because it seems more likely to succeed, as a long-term solution, than brute oppressive force, and thus more likely to stick China with a totalitarian system for ages to come. But frankly, that is not my perspective.

altoids1306 said...

Balfagor pretty much summed up what I was going to say quite nicely.

1. I'm not defending the actions of the Chinese government, I'm only stating my limited opinion on one issue - students seeking to change public opinion in an organized way. With respect to Chinese censorship, this represents incremental improvement, imho.

2. I think some feel threatened by this program because it probably will work, and prop up the government.

3. From my perspective, a stable Chinese government/populace is of greater immediate importance than increased freedom and rights. My entire immediate family and most of my friends live in Taiwan, we are directly in the crosshairs. It is quite important to me that nationalist sentiment does not get out of hand, and the government is not compelled to act (on the Taiwan question) based on popular anger.

altoids1306 said...

Quoting Althouse:I'm finally understanding why conservatives have been so nice to me and my little blog.

Positive reinforcement works on both small fuzzy animals and law professors.

This topic has been addressed before, but here it is again - I think that most center-left people have their needs served by the MSM, which means that blogs are populated by the partisians of both sides, and the center-right. The participation of the center-right leads to a preponderance of conservative readership in moderate/neutral blogs.

Maxine Weiss said...

"the narcissistic characters who try to draw attention to themselves."

Jacques Cuze said...

the narcissistic characters...

Exhibit A: Law professor blogger who acknowledges a goal of becoming one of the top known bloggers, and admits how her blog has gotten her Radio and TV interviews and Newspaper Op-Eds. She is interviewed on subjects of constitutional law, as well as subjects outside her domain, for example, the comedy of Stephen Colbert. She sells ads on her blog.

Exhibit B: An anonymous commenter with a blog with only one post on it, a blog formed at the insistence of the above blogger and her readers. This anonymous commenter does not sell ads on that blog, has never been known to include any sort of spam or money making link of any sort, and no one knows who this anonymous commenter is.

Your challenge: order the narcissistic characters.

Kirk Parker said...

"The analogs of Ms. Hu will seem eminently reasonable, modest, and sensible."

Well, who could better meet those qualifications than our hostess herself??? :-)

HaloJonesFan said...

Number 6: Don't forget your vast number of attempts to establish yourself as a "regular" on several blogs whose readers hate you.

Jacques Cuze said...

Hmm, please enumerate those, because I have no idea what you are talking about.

SippicanCottage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
tcd said...

Balfegor says:
"This particular program is appealing to me (a) because it is new -- I haven't seen this kind of state-organised effort before, and (b) because it is suasive, not punitive."

How do you know that the program is not punitive? What will happen to the dissidents that these students snitch on? It seems to me that, given the communists' record of violence against their opponents, the information collected by these students will be yet another tool for the communists to ferret out political opponents and thus to destroy them via imprisonment, torture, execution, etc.
Balfegor and altoids,
In your rush to praise the Chinese communists, you are too quick to forget the atrocities that they have committed and continue to commit against their political opponents. In a totalitarian state, there are two roles that you can choose: dissident or collaborator. I see you both have made your choice.

Balfegor said...

How do you know that the program is not punitive? What will happen to the dissidents that these students snitch on?

You still seem to be oblivious to the point here.

Let me walk you through --

Do you not understand the distinction between "intervening to guide conversations" and "snitching on conversations"?

"Intervening in conversations" is like what I am doing now -- I enter the conversation and I talk to you, and respond to what you say, and try to guide the conversation in a particular way.

"Snitching" would be I complain about you (on what grounds I do not know, but one can always trump something up) to the good professor and ask that your posts be removed, and maybe ask Blogger to disgorge your IP address so I can run a WHOIS, ID your service provider, call your service provider to ID you in real life, and then ask the police (for whatever reason) to knock on your door in the middle of the night and take you away never to be seen again.

These are two quite distinct activities. Indeed, I should have thought it was difficult to confuse them.

What I am pleased with is the "intervene" element. Not the "snitch" element. Do you understand that far?

The "snitch" element is old hat -- unpleasant at best, and wrong if it leads to punishment. But they've been doing it for years anyhow. It's not new.

The "snitch" element of what they do is distinguishable from the "intervene" element, which is what altoids and I have been pointing to. Your response is entirely about the "snitch" element which is pretty much irrelevant to what altoids and I are saying.

That's called a straw man.

Do you see what we are saying now?

--

Re: collaboration, yes, I'm pretty much guilty as charged. I don't want the Communist government to collapse. The likely human cost of such an outcome seems to me absolutely horrific, at this stage, as I expect they are quite willing to slaughter millions of their countrymen to stay in power, unlike the Soviets. And as I said, there are people close to me who would probably end up bearing or being a part of that immense human cost, and I'd rather not lose them.

tcd said...

Balfegor,
Cut the condescension, would you? I know exactly what your argument is and I don't agree with it. I just cannot suspend disbelief as easily as you seem to with regards to communists and their scruples (if they have any).

Balfegor said...

I will cut the condescension when you quit reading bizarre interpretations into what I have written.

I just cannot suspend disbelief as easily as you

I don't see where I'm disbelieving. I do think their internet campaign involves repression. Duh. Have I denied it? But I am comparing:

Past:
Bad: Repression
Good: NOTHING

Present
Bad: Repression
Good: Suasion!

And I am seeing this change as positive. I suppose you may be disbelieving that government-affiliated volunteers are entering into chatrooms to bolster the government's side, and thinking that I am gullibly falling for Ms. Hu's false claim that she is entering chatrooms and BBS's and bolstering the government's side. If this is your argument, then I am guilty as charged. I know this is the NY Times, but I actually do find their scenario entirely plausible.

altoids1306 said...

Quote tcd:Balfegor and altoids,
In your rush to praise the Chinese communists, you are too quick to forget the atrocities that they have committed and continue to commit against their political opponents.


Quote Altoids:I'm not defending the actions of the Chinese government, I'm only stating my limited opinion on one issue

Maxine Weiss said...

Number 6: Nobody's making any money. Ads, no adds, popularity, no polarity. Ain't no money being generated around here...

....so what difference does it make?

When blogs have their IPO, and bloggers start cashing in their stock options and making millions.....wake me when that happens.

Peace, Maxine

Jacques Cuze said...

Number 6: Nobody's making any money. Ads, no adds, popularity, no polarity. Ain't no money being generated around here...

....so what difference does it make?


Many bloggers are actually making six figures due to their ads. Ms. Althouse is selling some ads, but she is also leveraging her blog to become a well known commenter on TV, Radio, and in the newspapers. That is all commercial activities.

And in as much as UofM is okay with her activities, I am fine with it too, but I do think that as a lawyer and as professor she has a greater moral and ethical responsibility to her readers than the average partisan talking head.

But the point was who was narcissistic. She would like to claim that I am. Fine. I think that next to narcissism in the dictionary is: blogger/podcaster/talkinghead. I mean, all of that screams attention whore.

altoids1306 said...

Wow, quxxo (er, I mean Number 6). You're going to call Althouse a wh-re on her own blog. Wow.

Ann Althouse said...

No, he's going to call me a mhore.

tcd said...

Balfegor and altoids,

Your comments are not explicitly defending the Chinese communists and I never said that you guys were defending them. What I got from your glib comments was a sense that you don't think the Chinese communists are all that bad and that they deserve the benefit of the doubt. You glob on to this one possible positive thing and forget everything else the communists have done. It's akin to saying "Yes, Saddam Hussein is a sadistic mass murderer but he was a good father to his two sons so maybe he isn't so bad." Do you two seriously beleive that any information collected by these 500 students about possible dissidents will not be acted upon by the Chinese government?

I happen to be more skeptical of the Chinese communists than the two of you because I think communism is inherently evil and nothing good can come out of it. And it's not like their track record doesn't support my bad opinion of them either.