Dilemma of Freedom of Speech in Digitally Constructed China and the U.S.

Carol Xie

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As we move further into the 21st Century, the acceleration of digital technology innovation asserts its impact not only on mass media, but also on politics internationally. The widespread use of mobile phones and well-established global information exchange platforms prelude to a new era of international politics. Instead of passively waiting for the latest news from newspaper or television, people receive instant notifications from  online news outlets and create instant feedbacks to the information. This creates a new dilemma for different political systems: how should a nation control the digital media and how freely can the public publish their opinions and feedbacks? In this blog, we will analyze the media system in the United States of America and China, two nations with strikingly different political ideologies, and understand how the media regulation shape different online politics.

Not long ago, the sole media outlet in China was government-controlled television channels and newspaper. To control the public ideology, the Chinese Communist Party could easily publicize propaganda through these media. However, the recent internet evolution changes this arena. Online platforms like Wechat and Weibo become people’s main information outlet, and these channels enable ordinary citizens and private corporates to spread their opinions quickly to an enormous geographic span. Still, these platforms are censored by the Chinese Communist Party, and foreign platforms like Google and Facebook that refuse the censorship are banned in mainland China. To be an internet user, one has to register with government ID and all their activities will be held personally accountable. It is reported that sensitive phrases like “Down with CPC” are moved in the chat (Sonnad), and the articles are under selective censorship. While the censorship sounds surreal and crazy to people living in democratized countries, the Chinese society, however, is adaptive to the restrictions due to its cultural and social norms from history. Before we dive deeper to understand the role of government-censored media and Chinese politics, let’s take a look at the American online media.

Free speech has been the concern of the nation since the creation of the Constitution. No matter in the printing era or internet era, freedom of speech is listed as a central component of United States’ democracy. While traditional media like the L.A. Times and New York Times gradually migrate to the online platform, new means of communication like Facebook start a new pattern of information distribution. Unlike the traditional news outlets, which have strict regulations within the industry, Facebook greatly embraces free speech for an internet era, hence individuals or private corporates can voice their opinions freely. While this creates positive impact like the call to democracy in Egypt in 2011, fake news and extremist or hate speech also prevail. In the 2016 presidential election, internet users around the globe created sites of fake news about the two candidates that unjustly impacted voters’ decisions. Because of Facebook’s algorithm of pushing the most popular notifications, the absurd and exaggerating information always catches people’s attention the most and circulates through the online platform like a virus. The virtual platform makes it easy for perpetrators to establish the credibility of a site and trick a flow of people into the site to profit from the advertisement. These fake news writers reported making $10,000 a month during the election season (Ohlheiser). Once these fake news circulate into the platform, the ideology of freedom of speech forbids platforms like Facebook to unanimously take out the misleading information. The effect of the fake news not only correlates to the density of support for Republican candidate Donald Trump, but also affects senators like Al Frankon who lost his seat largely because of media influence. The coin of freedom of speech has two sides, and it is a dilemma for these online platforms to decide their media regulation, which will be a political move.

The level of freedom of speech and censorship varies in online media of China and America and creates a profound implication. While censorship is a constant element for the rule of Chinese Communist Party, the main media outlet channels are privatizing. Wechat and Weibo allow a certain degree of freedom in which most speeches won’t be monitored. The private companies are also more mindful of the user experience, so that they tend to be slow and careful in deleting the sensitive information. This means that the extremist information is automatically filtered out, and fake news won’t prevail because of the close monitoring and the public acceptance of media censorship. The politically sensitive articles can sometimes go freely in the internet for hours to days till they reach a certain number of readers and the platform can no longer ignore their sensitive content. This also implies a gradual convergence of the Chinese media to the Western media, for that it gives more voice to the people than in the printing era. The contagious fake news during 2016 Presidential Election and the political hate speech will not happen under such censorship. But consider, if American media platforms are moving towards this standard, they will subtly converge with the Chinese media regulations.

Mobile devices are everywhere in our lives, connect us to the world, and shape our understanding of it. By analyzing different forms of governmental regulations on distributing digital information, we will have a comparative viewpoint of the advantages and drawbacks of each system. The examples analyzed in this blog are just the edge of the iceberg of politics in media internationally, but it gives an insight of future policies and a digitally flatten world. How will governments with different political ideologies adjust to the similar human needs of communicating and voicing their opinions? What will be the “commonsense” of online free speech 50 years later? The story is so to be told.

Citations:

Doshi, Rush, “Xi Jingping Just Made it Clear Where China’s Foreign Policy is Headed”, Washington Post,

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/10/25/xi-jinping-just-made-it-clear-where-chinas-foreign-policy-is-headed/?utm_term=.51cd8bac6e9b

Ming, Cheang, “China has launched another crackdown on the internet — but it's different this time”, CNBC,

https://www.cnbc.com/2017/10/26/china-internet-censorship-new-crackdowns-and-rules-are-here-to-stay.html

Ohlheiser, Abby, “This is how Facebook’s fake-news writers make money”, Washington Post,

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2016/11/18/this-is-how-the-internets-fake-news-writers-make-money/?utm_term=.cbe94ea7c5d9

Sonnad, Nikhil, “What happens when you try to send politically sensitive messages on WeChat”, Quartz,

https://qz.com/960948/what-happens-when-you-try-to-send-politically-sensitive-messages-on-wechat/

Su, Xiao and Wang, Chen, “Analysis on Wechat Public Accounts Associated with Military”

http://www.81.cn/jsjz/2017-08/24/content_7729093.htm

Zi, Yang, “The Ideology Behind China’s Fast-Changing Military”, The Diplomat,

https://thediplomat.com/2018/01/the-ideology-behind-chinas-fast-changing-military/