Towards an ironic history of George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, a book about pervasive surveillance and censorship under totalitarianism.
“An Egyptian college student carrying a copy of George Orwell’s novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ was arrested in Cairo, raising questions about free speech under the country’s government with President Abdel Fattah Sisi.”
“Thailand has suppressed the film of Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell’s classic novel of dictatorship and surveillance, in the latest effort to quash dissent after last month’s military coup. Members of a film club in the northern city of Chiang Mai cancelled a screening of the film in an art gallery after police intimidated organisers with suggestions that it violated the law. Nineteen Eighty-Four has become a symbol of peaceful opposition to General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who seized power from Thailand’s elected government last month after months of violent street demonstrations.”
“Police in Thailand yesterday arrested eight people for demonstrating against the nation's increasingly repressive military junta, including a man dragged away by undercover officers for reading a copy of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.”
“In George Orwell’s ‘1984,’ government censors erase all traces of news articles embarrassing to Big Brother by sending them down an incineration chute called the ‘memory hole.’ On Friday, it was 1984 and another Orwell book, Animal Farm, that were dropped down the memory hole — by Amazon.com. In a move that angered customers and generated waves of online pique, Amazon remotely deleted some digital editions of the books from the Kindle devices of readers who had bought them.”
“The [CIA] also changed the ending of the movie version of ‘1984,’ disregarding Orwell’s specific instructions that the story not be altered. In the book, the protagonist, Winston Smith, is entirely defeated by the nightmarish totalitarian regime. In the very last line, Orwell writes of Winston, ‘He loved Big Brother.’ In the movie, Winston and his lover, Julia, are gunned down after Winston defiantly shouts: ‘Down with Big Brother!’”
“It was banned and burned in the U.S.S.R. under Stalin’s rule for its’ negative attitude toward communism, and reading it could’ve resulted in your arrest. It has also been banned and challenged in many U.S. schools. During the Cold War, a teacher in Wrenshall, Minnesota was fired for refusing to remove 1984 from his reading list. In 1981, it was challenged in Jackson County, Florida (for being pro-communism!).”
Researchers at Harvard scraped Chinese social media sites to produce this fascinating analysis of censorship patterns: criticism of the Government and its leaders are actually OK, but grievances that spread virally or suggestions of collective action are removed within 24 hours.
The abstract follows (my emphasis added):
“We offer the first large scale, multiple source analysis of the outcome of what may be the most extensive effort to selectively censor human expression ever implemented. To do this, we have devised a system to locate, download, and analyze the content of millions of social media posts originating from nearly 1,400 different social media services all over China before the Chinese government is able to find, evaluate, and censor (i.e., remove from the Internet) the large subset they deem objectionable.
Using modern computer-assisted text analytic methods that we adapt and validate in the Chinese language, we compare the substantive content of posts censored to those not censored over time in each of 95 issue areas. Contrary to previous understandings, posts with negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored. Instead, we show that the censorship program is aimed at curtailing collection action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content. Censorship is oriented toward attempting to forestall collective activities that are occurring now or may occur in the future — and, as such, seem to clearly expose government intent, such as examples we offer where sharp increases in censorship presage government action outside the Internet.”
You can download the full paper here.
Always interesting are the clever ways Chinese bloggers route around automated keyword filters using images, puns, and “homographs” — characters with different meanings that have similar shapes. This results in some massive “community management” mechanics: much censorship is largely manual labor on the part of hundreds of thousands of Internet police and “50 cent party members.”
I also find echoes of the Chinese censorship pattern resonate in the U.S. media landscape (including the design literature) though not as explicit censorship, per se. While criticism, dissent and rebellion are celebrated, commodified and institutionalized here (“Maverick for President!”), grievances that have potential to mobilize or stories about political organizing or collective action potential are harder to come by.
“Don’t you have dentists in Myanmar?” he asks. “Oh, yes, we do, doctor,” says Par Par Lay. “But in Myanmar, we are not allowed to open our mouths.” [source]
“For 30 years the three comedians have charmed their audiences and irritated the authorities with their mixture of traditional Burmese clowning and topical satire. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese democracy leader, is one of their fans. Like her, two of the Moustache Brothers have already served long prison sentences.” [source]
“The two characters ‘e’ meaning evil and ‘gao’ meaning ‘work’ combine to describe a subculture that is characterized by humour, revelry, subversion, grass-root spontaneity, defiance of authority, mass participation and multi-media high-tech.… For the time being, intelligent satire remains an increasingly popular method of critiquing [Chinese] politics and society right under the nose of the censorship committee.” [source] [more]
“[Popular TV show] ‘The Ministry,’ sends up the nepotism, payoffs and sheer incompetence that are commonplace in the Afghan government.… While frequently compared to the British hit ‘The Office,’ the show has more in common with political satire — more ‘Monty Python meets Afghanistan.’…
The young Afghan writers have all wrestled with ministries at one time or another, and several of the actors work in ministries or in government-owned industries, since acting here is a part-time profession.” [source]
I wrote the essay below for the Design Issues column in the May/June 2004 issue of Communication Arts. I profile a couple of folks using graphic design for advocacy. I didn’t call it out explicitly in the text, but it’s of some relevance that the projects here are generally not pro-bono projects “for charity,” but are organizations started by designers generally working with broader communities. Check it out.
Walking the streets of New York City in February 2003, one couldn’t help but notice all these little blue stickers. Stuck to walls, phone booths, bus stops, scaffolding, mail boxes — they popped up everywhere to announce the February 15 march against President Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
The blue stickers were just one of the many anti-war graphics circulating at the time. Around the Web, activists were posting free, easy-to-print designs using a variety of techniques: clever slogans, typographic play, dramatic photos and the ironic use of vintage propaganda imagery.
But the February 15 stickers on the streets of New York were different — simple and bold, a little blue banner announcing the time and place of the march. They did not make an emotional appeal with pictures of scarred and armless Iraqi children or U.S. soldiers, nor was there any argument about why the war was wrong.
The February 15 posters were not intended to change people’s minds in a direct way, but to notify the public about the upcoming protest — and to make dissent visible. The mainstream media had entirely avoided covering the anti-war movement prior to February 15. In the face of this de facto censorship and police obstruction over the route of the march, the stickers acted as thousands of little acts of civil disobedience. And with the urban landscape as a medium, the stickers set the stage for even larger acts of defiance.
“How an Atheist Helps Protect Islamists in Turkey,” The New York Times, November 26, 2002:
“In 1995, [Turkish publisher Sanar] Yurdatapan’s activism took the turn that came to define it: It began when Yasar Kemal, one of Turkey’s most famous writers, was charged under antiterrorism laws for writing an article against the war in Kurdish areas.
In protest, 1,080 well-known people signed their names [as co-publishers] in a book that republished Mr. Kemal’s article and nine other banned articles. They then demanded that they all be prosecuted because it was also a crime to reprint banned articles.
Mr. Yurdatapan’s orchestration of the book put the Turkish state in an awkward position, having to suspend sentences or change the laws to avoid arresting everyone. In 1999, however, he received a two-month sentence....
With little money and a tenuous legal status — his group, Initiative for Freedom of Expression, exists only on the law’s margins — Mr. Yurdatapan keeps up his work: 4 books and over 40 pamphlets have been published.
In 2000, he took up the case of Islamic activists, including the nation’s only Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, who has been banned from political life since the army’s ouster of his government in 1997 and whose party was victorious in the recent elections.”
The February 3, 2000 Kurdish Observer reports that Sanar, a civilian, was sentenced by a military court to two months in prison for “making publication to lose people’s enthusiasm for the military service.”
Sanar became well-known as a composer, songwriter, and advocate for free expression in the 1970’s. From Human Rights Watch:
“Sanar Yurdatapan was stripped of his citizenship by the military junta that seized power in Turkey in 1980. He lived in exile from 1980 until 1992. The military handed back power to a civilian government in 1984, but they have kept public discussion of certain issues off limits, particularly criticism of state institutions (especially the military) and the role of ethnicity or religion in politics.”
He has also worked on prison conditions, the right to conscientious objection to military service, and exposed the Turkish military’s massacre of Kurds. The Times again:
“[In the summer of 2002], as part of its bid to join the European Union, Turkey passed several laws easing freedom of expression. Mr. Yurdatapan says the atmosphere is improving, though not enough for him to end his work.”
More publishing than design, the 1995 action is such an elegant act of civil disobedience, a grand mockery of Turkish censorship law.
Since 1954, the Comics Magazine Association of America has issued a Comics Code Authority Seal to comics submitted by publishers which meet the standards of the Comics Code. In practice, the Code was used as a tool of censorship, since it was nearly impossible to sell unapproved comics to newstands and mass merchandisers. With the rise of specialty comic book stores in the mid-80’s, most publishers have opted out of the Comics Code.
The code was updated in 1971 and again in 1989. The 1989 version adds:
“In general, recognizable national, social, political, cultural, ethnic and racial groups, religious institutions, law enforcement authorities will be portrayed in a positive light. These include the government on the national, state, and municiple levels, including all of its numerous departments, agencies and services; law enforcement agencies such as the FBI, the Secret Service, the CIA, etc.; the military, both United States and foreign; known religious organizations; ethnic advancement agencies; foreign leaders and representatives of other governments and national groups; and social groups identifiable by lifestyle, such as homosexuals, the economically disadvantaged, the economically privileged, the homeless, senior citizens, minors, etc.”
CPB notes, “DC Comics and Archie are the publishers who still abide by the Code to portray the CIA, ethnic advancement agencies and the economically privileged in a positive light.”