An animal farm of disinformation
Today China is the digital world leader. Here we find the most Internet users and here the most advanced techniques concerning Internet censorship are being tested. How is it possible that China within ten years has managed to transform the Internet into a complex “disinformation farm”? And how can the Chinese people protest this system when they are oblivious to what they do not know? In his essay, Isaac Mao, one of China’s most well known bloggers, asks these very questions. “This farm is more advanced than anything in Orwell’s 1984,” he writes.
Today the world has learned of Xinjiang’s “training camps,” which the Chinese Communist Party built to suppress the province’s ethnic minorities. But this revelation hides a larger truth, that the entire country is confined to one big “disinformation farm” which doesn’t just imprison the Uighurs, but all of China’s citizenry.
While this farm does not have physical pens and stockades, it resembles livestock production which churns out pork, beef, and poultry at an industrial scale. Like the intensive animal farming of the past century, it came about through no grand plan, but developed step by step into a tyrannical and inhumane system, which raises animals for the slaughter with ever greater efficiency, and pours the profits right back into technological upgrades.
The disinformation farm in China materialized some ten years ago, before turning into one of the most complicated (but ultimately brittle) systems in history. It is a marvel of technical sophistication and penetration, being fully managed, secured, and monitored. To a tourist it might even look beautiful, with animals living happily inside, being shuttled back and forth on high-speed bullet trains. Everything is grandiose, like the opening shots of Jurassic Park. Outsiders are amazed by the modernization, but nonetheless wonder, “How could China build an Internet-powered society in a decade?” Their secret was exploiting open-source technologies. This is why GitHub has never been fully blocked in China. There has been a ten-fold growth in the tech industry during this time, which can be attributed to the openness of the global tech community and their easily accessible source code. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Linus Torvald’s portrait should replace the man who is embalmed at Tiananmen Square.
Using these forked technologies, the animals are fed vast quantities of information every second, but through channels with “Chinese characteristics,” and from devices that are fine-tuned by censors, tech giants, and propaganda machines. WeChat is the most invasive tool of all, which serves those swiping fingers endless threads to reinforce the idea that “We are all happy,” without giving it a second thought. But just in case you do have second thoughts, WeChat knows you better than you do, let alone your local police station, which is wired in to your conversations with school friends or family “Qun” (groups).
The farm doesn’t stop at the border. When an overseas Chinese student wakes up in the West, their first screen is not the New York Times, nor Facebook, but WeChat with its many feeds, like one called “College Daily”. They chat about burgers or detox juice, and when they watch a story titled “I Showed My Syrian Friend a Video of Fireworks from Lunar New Year’s Eve. He Broke Into Tears,” they too burst into tears, because feelings don’t care about facts. Actually who cares about truth, f*k off journalists!
So, don’t go oink. Aren’t you happy about this? Let’s sing “our farm and slaughterhouse are the greatest in world history”. Hey you, why you aren’t you singing? Are you not proud to see our National Day parade? We monitored you on CCTV (Closed-circuit television) with breakthrough facial recognition and emotion detection, so you should come to CCTV (China Central Television) to confess. We have the best film studio to broadcast your most sincere apology. Political theories are all out of date. This farm is more advanced than anything in Orwell’s 1984, so we’ll leave his works uncensored since the animals won’t ever read into his cynicism.
A paradigm shift. Before this, Internet users in China had a bottom line in the defense of freedom, but now they have few reasons to resist. Abundant feeds always arrive in your palm just in time, with constant censorship and self-censorship, and a lot of ways to make money online. It’s so easy to pay and get paid, what else do you need? Did you see that even the popular writer Harari agreed to self-censor his book here, although he smartly called this “Censorship 2.0”? Snowden complained when his book was published with some cuts made? You have to let it go. Even the NBA can either kowtow or exit China’s 1.4 billion-strong consumer market. It’s their loss. No, that’s not enough. Force them to apologize, one by one. The narrative evolved, from “It hurts the feelings of Chinese people”, to “How dare you to challenge the almighty China?”
Growing a disinformation farm from the inside is not enough. Even a million overseas “Little Pink” keyboard warriors will not suffice to show the power of the burgeoning state. It has to instead “reach every corner of the world across the Great Wall”. Who said we should “hide and bide”, what’s his name? Look, the case of Xinjiang is quite successful since everyone (even Muslim countries) was willing to stay silent. The next frontier? Hong Kong looks like a good testbed as the authorities there did well after the Umbrella Revolution. Good timing to start gene-editing the city!
When Hong Kong blew up this year, an information war was launched as well. Near the anniversary of 9/11, Xinhua announced on Twitter that terrorism would strike Hong Kong. But it didn’t happen. Then Global Times claimed there would be a terrorist attack on National Day in Hong Kong. It didn’t happen? Well, then let Wumao “50 Centers" spread the rumor that any Hong Kong protester would be paid a 20 million dollar bounty if they killed a police officer. Nobody on the farm cares if any police officers really get hurt or if anyone really gets paid. Just fake it and forget it. Why don’t those “foreign-backed rioters” bend to our mighty homeland? They must be less educated, they must not be Chinese, they must be treasonous, they must be killed like cockroaches. It’s time to use our Wumao warriors to get off the farm and attack protesters online. Don’t they need a VPN? No worries, there are state-backed ones to help.
Naturally, the farming model should be tested in Taiwan as well, since they look similar to Chinese (“blood is thicker than water”), and there are so many people there who do think like Chinese. Africa, the United States, Australia, or Europe, please wait in line, you can be next. They are all new frontiers (which “Xin Jiang” means) in this day and age.
But wait, why didn’t it work so well in Hong Kong? Why did pro-democracy candidates win the district council elections in a landslide? Disinformation ran roughshod over Hong Kong, but it also hit a wall. The limited creativity of Chinese media outlets lost its edge on the international stage, simply because their constant outrages and fake news reports are so boring and repetitive. In contrast, Hongkongers cast off their traditional “stiff” image and filled the void with a fountain of clever memes. Their bilingual and even multilingual messages were too much for the Chinese media or even the public to process, let alone attack. The information farm had started to show its cracks. Hong Kong is tiny, but the people there made history with professionalism, creativity, and Sharism.
Please bear in mind my theory of “the Dog Chasing its Tail”. The principle still works here: if you mention GD in Wechat, it doesn’t just mean Gang Du (“Hong Kong Independence”), but also Gong Dang (short for “Communist Party”). The taboo swallows itself. It’s the same for TG (Tear Gas, Telegram, or Tu Gong Communist Bandit). Language is neutral at the atomic scale: if you block these terms, your block your own causes as well.
Furthermore, all disinformation has a debt to pay because of the ouroboros effect. In Chinese wisdom, it’s called Wu Ji Bi Fan (“when things reach extremes, they must swing back”), but who still learns philosophy in the age of information farming? You can expand the frontier, but things catch up with you. The teenage girl who disguised her message of support for the Uighur people in a “make-up” video on TikTok creatively exploited the Achilles' heel of the censorship regime. You can censor the news about swine flu, but swine flu itself doesn’t care about your censorship. It literally spreads like a virus. Other disasters (like the Henan AIDS scandal, SARS, the RYB kindergarten incident, the Tianjin explosions, Huawei framing its own employee, etc.) all found fertile ground, then ignited. If the Peoples’ Republic of Amnesia continues like this, it will suffer from dementia.
The people of Hong Kong are crystal clear about the difficulties of winning this war, as it’s beyond a simple ideological conflict or information supremacy. But they demonstrated that disinformation is just as much a violation of freedom and civil rights as the physical brutality of the police. They revealed how a totalitarian regime can suppress our fundamental humanity. Their rhetoric worked, and they didn’t just benefit themselves politically, but may have saved the whole world (or at least Taiwan for the time being).
Nonetheless, China’s information farm will have a viable future as long as the animals don’t know what they don’t know. It’s both dystopian and desperate. There was a glimmer of hope when those force-fed animals’ jaws dropped at the sight of several librarians burning censored books in Gansu province. It boggled their minds, and they struggled to understand what was happening. They already forgot, “Where they delete blog posts, they will in the end burn books. Where they burn books, they will too in the end burn you.”