Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Send in the Trolls? The Internet and the Fall of Chen Liangyu

Am I the only one who caught a whiff of troll in those prescient anti-Chen Liangyu sentiments reported by China Digital Times in Shanghai Earthquake, Media Rumblings (Part 2) ?

… The transfer of the PAP's Hong Liangkai to Shanghai from Shaanxi, where he received plaudits from acting governor Yuan Chunqing - a key Hu protégé, incidentally - was a strong signal that a big bust was in the offing… But before the fact, anonymous commentators drooled with anticipation on catching the report on Sohu.com:

Sept. 20 (Commentator #1): "Shanghai officials better be careful. A storm is approaching."
Sept. 20 (Commentator #2): "It's a big wave alright, I wonder whom it will drown."
Sept 23: "Let the storm come in! The fiercer, the better!"

Yes, the postings are as lame in Chinese as they are in English.

CDT thinks it’s a matter of sardonic literary styling.

Besides their sheer excitement, note that they phrase their punditry in lyrical innuendo aping party speak ("storm", as in an anti-corruption "storm").

Or maybe not.

There’s also this, from Letters from China via Asia Pundit:

The Web And The Fall Of Shanghai Gang

Shanghai's Party Chief Chen Liangyu was fired. What is the role of the Chinese Internet?

Hong Kong's broadsheet Ming Pao:
(In translation)

Sources said a few hours before Xinhua announced the removal of Chen Liangyu, the Chinese Internet authority suddenly ordered portal sites to open their online forums and not to limit netizens' speech. The order indicated that the authority expected the news of Chen's removal would certainly gain people's approval. Sina had recorded some 50,000 posts a few hours after the announcement. 99% of which were praise for the decision.

* * *
99%. Groovy. Those are banana republic numbers. I guess Chen didn’t get around to organizing his MySpace buddies to freep the poll.

And this, from the same post:

Oriental Daily, Hong Kong's biggest selling newspaper:

(In translation)

Sources said Messrs Hu and Wen treasured the views expressed online; they therefore had known perfectly well about Chen Liangyu's discipline violation and Shanghai people's indignation.


And one more, again courtesy of Letters from China (gosh, I’m citing that guy a lot) , this time via China Digital Times:

Chinese Search Engines Ban "Huang Ju"

Search "黄菊" (Huang Ju) with Baidu or Google.cn and you will probably see either an error message or a blank page. It appears that Chinese search engines are ordered to ban "Huang Ju" again.

"Huang Ju" had been banned earlier this year and it was subsequently confirmed that he was hospitalised. Now what's up with the number six of the Politburo Standing Committee?

Huang Ju is widely seen as a member of the Shanghai Gang and a close political ally of Jiang Zemin.

So let’s recap.

The Chinese government manipulated Internet policy to encourage a display of popular indignation against Chen Liangyu. And maybe now they want to bring the experiment to a close now instead risking an uncontrolled extension to the next Jiang Zemin-affiliated domino, Huang Ju.

Re Chen Liangyu, the only question is:

“How much of this Internet outpouring was that righteous anger against profiteering bureaucrats that burns in every Chinese citizen’s breast—and was only given an outlet by the government—and how much of it was government manure cynically shoveled on Chen’s political grave in an organized simulation of public sentiment to make sure the dangerous miscreant remained dead and buried?”

Inquiring minds want to know.

Because undoubtedly the government is continually looking for ways to compromise the Internet as an arena of political dissent and organization of anti-government opinion and action.

There’s more to it than than simply strongarming providers of equipment and web services to filter, impede, and censor, or monitoring the international gateways to block access to forbidden and dangerous material, as the Open Net Initiative has exhaustively documented.

The Orwellian Big Brother model of proactive repression is certainly being applied: thousands of spooks reviewing material kicked out automatically by the surveillance software and cruising websites and chat rooms to identify purveyors of anti-government sentiment, who get visited by the cops and get a lesson in the hazards of mouthing off against the current regime.

According to a report posted on China Digital Times purportedly from an insider involved in the procurement of a “billion yuan” system for the Ministry of Public Security that will end Internet privacy as we know it inside the Great Firewall:

As soon as the system is put into service, all behaviors of Chinese Internet users will be recorded in the huge storage. Your online account, password, and conversation records will be under tight surveillance. And your online behavior can be traced back up to a year. A few days ago, after the PhD from the Ministry of Public Security stopped by our company and asked for the technical solution of the immense-capacity, immense-capability system, our boss told us privately that in the future, there will be no online privacy anymore. Don't use the Internet, he said. At that time we all thought he was only joking.

This looks like a Chinese approach to the (much, much grander) “Total Information Awareness” data aggregation and mining program that is a dream of the Bush administration. If the MPS is able to bring this baby in at a billion yuan, they’ll be sweeping the annual awards at the Secret Policeman’s ball. Given the exponential growth of web sites, pages, and links, hacks, and cheats, I smell boondoggle.

To a totalitarian regime, the government monitoring and enforcement model is probably irresistible. It’s got that whole top-down command economy vibe that is perhaps second nature to the CCP.

But it is also expensive, time-consuming, labor-intensive, and riles up foreign activists, media, and bloggers. It is also an exercise of political expression that tramples on the people’s yearning to express themselves and frustrates grassroots efforts to correct some horrific abuses in such an overt and unapologetic way that it is a pretty risky expenditure of government prestige.

There is a more aggressive and efficient way to hinder and delegitimize Internet-based popular expression. And that’s by degrading and discrediting the Internet itself as a source of genuine opinions and accurate information through the use of disinformation and proxies.

Perhaps China, as befits its schizophrenic character, has not only poured its resources into old-fashioned badness.

Maybe it has also adopted the best/worst practices in 21st century high-tech Free World Internet opinion management: astroturfing (creating the illusion of grassroots support or enthusiasm for a cause) and “trolling” (overtly confrontational and disruptive posting), in its myriad incarnations such as “concern trolling” (adopting a false air of sympathy and anxiety to point out purported problems of a site, candidate, or opinion); and the cardinal sin of “sock puppetry” (in which an opponent deliberately fabricates a false identity to provide the illusion of neutrality and sabotage the effectiveness of a website or cause).

When one considers how intensively governments, business, and causes around the world engage with the Internet, both overtly (through a direct presence) and covertly (through relatively benign proxies who derive their credibility from their supposed neutrality and malign proxies who seek only to disrupt), it seems to me a question not of if but when will the Chinese government adopt these tools—if it hasn’t already.

Wonder what a Chinese sock puppet could accomplish with the resources of the entire government at his or her back.

Maybe the government-encouraged expression of outrage against Chen Liangyu was, in part, a trial run.

So, we should perhaps paraphrase Stephen Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns:

But where are the trolls?

Quick, send in the trolls.

Don't bother, they're here.

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