Net Turns Cold and Spooky for Fatigued Netizens

At Tea Leaf Nation, Natalie Thomas points to signs that netizens are growing disillusioned with social media as a force for social and political change, as apparent victories turn out to be hollow and numbness sets in.

While [Sina] Weibo can on occasion help incite real change, even on the streets, the sheer number of injustices that flash almost daily across Chinese Web users’ respective feeds means that citizens, armed with social media alone, simply do not have the power to combat even a small portion of them. As a result, some measure of ennui and resignation has begun to set in. In late October, online personality Zuoye Ben (@作业本), a pseudonymous Weibo user known for original and often critical views, gave voice to a growing feeling of fatigue among social media users. In a post commemorating three years of using the Weibo service, Zuoye Ben concluded that “Weibo has not changed China, it has just changed you and me: I have gradually got used to being cold and indifferent, just like you have slowly got tired of Weibo.” These words have been re-posted over [30,000] times and have garnered over [10,000] comments.

[…] Taken alone, Weibo is inadequate as a tool for delivering social justice because the service is not an open forum for comment — the Chinese government maintains firm control over how wide this window of free discussion is allowed to open. When debate grows too ferocious, authorities have the power to choke it off, banning keyword terms and strategically disabling functions to tamp down discussion. […]

As a result the service finds itself in a position similar to that of the country’s legal system. In theory, Weibo is a platform for citizens to give feedback and raise complaints, but ultimately the Party has the final say on whether anyone can open their mouth or not. When authorities do on occasion respond to pressure online, they do so unilaterally after the fact; web users never gain the satisfying sense they have engaged in a true dialogue with their government, or have enjoyed the benefit of due process.

Underlining the point, TLN notes elsewhere that during the 18th Party Congress that concluded this week, Zuoyeben’s posting was limited to pictures of food.

Online communications can be not only ineffective but actively harmful. In July, police warned that various criminals had exploited location data optionally broadcast by Tencent’s popular Weixin messaging service, known in English as WeChat and increasingly seen as a key rival to Sina Weibo. In other cases, security forces are the ones turning service against user. At the South China Morning Post, John Kennedy discussed activist Hu Jia’s suspicions about Weixin’s use as a surveillance tool:

Citing things he was told after being sentenced to prison for “inciting subversion of state power” in 2008 as well as numerous experiences resembling the ones above, Hu has come to the conclusion that:

The Guobao [Domestic Security Department] have become more efficient in their jobs by eliminating the need for cooperation from China Mobile or Tencent in many surveillance tasks. What they have now is direct backdoor access to China Mobile and Tencent systems. The Guobao are now able, in real-time, to both eavesdrop on or block your SMSs or WeChat from their technical investigation department offices.

[…] One QQ.com department head based in Beijing who was willing to speak off the record would only say:

As far as I understand, there is no full backdoor surveillance access given to the PSB. When QQ [was still Tencent's flagship product], there was a department set up in Tencent’s office in Shenzhen tasked with dealing with PSB inquiries and providing assistance with cases. With regard to surveillance of dissidents, if the PSB provided an administrative order Tencent would provide the requested information…Each separate case required [that the PSB provide] a new order.

See more on corporate cooperation in online controls via CDT.