By Hassanal Noor Rashid
THE POWER OF PERCEPTION
Since the advent of the modern media, propaganda, and disinformation have been part of the tools used in the eternal contest of public perception.
As the adage goes, history is written by the victors. The victors determine what is the truth through the manipulation of perception, their version of history, and this in turn shapes how everyone sees reality.
Unlike traditional military power, the ones who carry the fight in this battle of perceptions are not armed soldiers, or technologically impressive killing machines .instead, the politicians, the scholars, media personnel , and ultimately the layman and everyday people, are the ones who propagate much of what goes into the discourse..
The casualties are not measured in blood, but in the death of truth, integrity and trust.
Buried under an avalanche of misinformation and unreliable sourcing, purposefully and ignorantly propagated, the lies could not be forever buried, however. As the greater public came to realize the enormity of the deception, they have begun to distrust traditional sources of content, some of which rightly so. Much of what we understood formerly as truths, have been transformed into questions. But this has not stopped the misinformation. If anything, the crumbling integrity of traditional sources, has caused many to search for information in other corners of the discourse landscape, which give opportunities for those who can manipulate and navigate this frontier, the chance to seize this power for themselves.
A lie told a thousand times, can become the truth by sheer weight of numbers, regardless of the qualification of said “truths”. Now there is more of a chance than ever for everyone to propagate their version of truths.
What this means ultimately, is that truth now matters very little in the reality of how things work, because perception of reality is the only thing that matters. And this is where the elite and powerful claim dominance and wreak some of their most devastating effects on society and future generations.
With social media, and the many echo chambers that have appeared within these new spheres of communication and engagement, the effect has arguably increased dramatically and, for those who continue to take note and observe, the battles are much fiercer than ever before.
This Arena of Perception used to be dominated by western powers at the turn of the industrial age. The Soviet Union had tried to contest in its own way, but ultimately failed partly because of its collapse. The media engine of the west, especially that of the United States, was not only more powerful, but had appealed to a bigger segment of those within the communist bloc with ideas and dreams of lives, that were seemingly better than what was possible under communist governance. What the Soviet Union did not have to contend with though, was the recent 21st Century innovation of social media, with its impact upon the lives of the ordinary people.
Now China, which has seen massive economic and technological strides in a few short years, enters into this arena, as it begins to open itself up to the world on a larger scale. But is China as state and society ready to contest in this arena? Or will this battle be a stumbling block to its growth and adversely affect it?
CHINA: NAVIGATING THE SOCIAL ONLINE LANDSCAPE
China’s meteoric rise is not something to be understated. It has seen an unprecedented growth in its development and its economy, lifting many of its people out of poverty into a new era of prosperity. It has also reached out sharing its innovations with other countries across the world, in an effort to connect countries economically, through its ambitious One Belt, One Road project (一带一路). This project is not purely borne out of benevolence of course. This strategic placement of China at the heart of a potentially global spanning trade and logistics network will allow China to become an integral force to the world order for ages to come, despite its lack of military might. It is a way for China to continue its ambitious plan to fulfill the idea of the Chinese destiny.
Regardless, of accusations that the project is part of a subversive Chinese Hegemonic strategy, building ports, rails and trade networks is indeed vastly preferable to military bases any time.
Where China has yet to succeed however, is navigating the socio-political landscape that is the world wide web, and its media presence here is unlike its rapid economic growth and progress. In fact one could argue it is within this area, that China and its people not only lack presence, but are considerably on the backfoot.
China has a long history of secrecy and subversion of political and social dissent. This much we can ascertain as being true. China’s reputation for doing such things has also made everyone suspicious of any claims in its own state media, and to an extent, made it difficult for it to lay claim on certain issues, especially when the state persists on holding rigidly to its Cold-War operating procedures.
This need to control information and discourse, arguably does not stem from a desire to lie and deceive. It stems from the desire to maintain stability and social cohesion among the people of China. Can one blame them for this? As mentioned before, powers that have long held dominance over the wider global social media discourse have constantly manipulated information for their advantage, antagonizing and leading revolts against democratically elected governments, especially those that do not toe the proverbial line.
It only makes sense for China to want to ensure that such things do not escalate out of control.
In a country with over 1.3 billion people, and its long historical familiarity with calamity and chaos throughout the many dynasties it has gone through, such disruptions to social cohesion could spell the death knell to China as a country and as a civilization.
This is the main driving force for China’s strict and rigid control over information, and why it has taken an innovatively defensive posture when it comes to dealing with wider social discourse, especially for the sake of social stability.
This strategy comes in two folds, the first being the most direct, with the state controlling internet traffic, blocking internet traffic to restricted websites and features deemed unsuitable by the larger Chinese government. This control of information, dubbed the ‘Great Firewall of China’, has proven to be one of the biggest factors in China’s state media control for many years, with many television and radio broadcast companies, having to go through the government authorizing bodies in order to attain approvals for broadcast, and revenue support.
While effective perhaps at the time, the social media age brought with it, new challenges to China’s control over information accessibility. Information technology innovations from companies such as Google, YouTube and Facebook are giants when it comes to Social Media dominance given the immensity of users subscribing to their platforms at various levels. However, as China has no direct control over policies and decision making in these conglomerates, it has taken a stance to limit accessibility to the services offered by these companies, which in its own way led to some geo-political contention between these companies and China. Furthermore, partly due to these social media innovations, the nature of entertainment has also evolved together with their interactions with participating audiences, and this has become a sort of a lure for many in China to seek something else other than what China internally can offer.
China has attempted to not only counter this but, provide an alternative platform which can stand in contest against its counterparts. For Google, there is Baidu. For YouTube there is Bili Bili. For Netflix, there is IQYI.
Instead of participating in mainstream popular social media and mainstream media, the Chinese have placed significant investments and effort to exercise their technological innovations and have created what can only be described as the world’s largest and sophisticated social media bubble. Some online have termed it cynically as well as the ‘Great Echo Chamber’.
However as evidenced in recent times, the Great Firewall and the multitude of alternative online services it has created, has not stopped those who wish to explore beyond the ‘Great Firewall’.
Those who observe trends on the internet, especially popular culture and contemporary trends, one can find that the Chinese are in many sections, especially in areas that should not be accessible to them in the first place.
How are they having access?
It is an open secret that many in China who access content outside of what is permitted by the Great Firewall, do so utilizing something called a Virtual Private Network (VPN). In simple terms, VPNs essentially create a private network, bypassing by “tunneling” the firewall allowing for access to outside content and networks. Bouncing across various servers across the globe, the services offer those who utilize it, for a fee, anonymity and some level of security when browsing.
What this means is that as far as China is concerned with controlling the flow of information consumption, the Great Firewall is arguably a temporary measure against an inevitable phenomenon. Its own people will crave engagement with the outside world and those who venture forth regardless of laws and government directive, do so carrying with them a representation and glimpse of Chinese society and identity.
Some of these outcomes from this phenomenon do not shed a positive light on the Chinese state admittedly.
One example is an incident in late September 2020. Two relatively popular personalities on YouTube, had featured on one of their channels, a breakdown of their viewer-ships by countries. A controversy erupted when the number of viewer-ships from Taiwan was discussed and the Taiwanese flag was displayed in the background, merely commemorating this particular bit of information. What perhaps was innocently unbeknownst to these two YouTubers, was that a significant portion of their audience were actual Chinese Mainlanders, and that the recognition of Taiwan, and the displaying of the flag, were considered as an insult to China and the sentiments of the Chinese viewers.
What happened next was a barrage of insults and threats, among other provocative actions by the Chinese viewers towards the two YouTubers. The situation was so bad that it warranted the YouTubers to be handed three weeks suspension, while their host company attempted to strategize how to handle this unexpected kerfuffle.
The reactions from the Chinese viewers caused friction among fans of the channel who went out of their way to also provoke the Chinese viewers with mockery and taunts. The numbers involved in these heated exchange could easily be in the tens of thousands, given the size of the fan base.
There is mounting evidence to show how some of the Chinese viewers were even planning on more strategies on how to further hurt these two You Tubers’ standing, but at the end of the day none of these would have had any real significant effect at the present time and would have been forgotten in the chaotic tides of the Internet’s ebb and flow.
The effects have been felt in some areas, but not covered in the mainstream media, who at this stage, are more concerned with state level issues and shallow wider “real world” societal matters. But to ignore the trends and happenings online, especially considering the levels of societal participation involved, would be naïve for they may well have ramifications in the future if not addressed properly.
This however, is one of many events that have occurred in the online realm, and it feeds into various perceptions of what many subscribe to about the Chinese as a people and as an identity. It asserts to the view that the Chinese are bullies, caring little to none for the sentiments and feelings of others, especially in pursuit of their own interests and agendas. It feeds to the perception, that should something offend the feelings of the Chinese people, they are less willing to communicate in civil discussion, and instead take up what can be called infantile rhetoric and reactions, utilizing ham-fisted approaches, and school yard bullying tactics.
The actions of these people, unaccounted for by the larger Chinese society and state mechanisms, leads to one conjecture. For all the marvelous advancements that China has made, economically and technologically, at a societal level, at a sophisticated moral level, and perhaps even at a global communication level, the country is still undeveloped and if left unchecked and unaddressed, it may in fact hamper and undermine a lot of attempts at bridge-building and good-will enhancement China has made throughout the years. It may only bring disgrace to the Chinese identity and feed into widening the trust deficit that the world and its people have towards China.
THE NEED TO ENHANCE THE SOCIAL-MORAL PARADIGM
Compared to those who have engaged with the Internet, social media and other such channels early on— since the days of dial-up modems —- the Chinese are seen as newcomers who have not grasped the complexities of the new media.
One of the reasons which can explain why the Chinese are still so socially awkward when it comes to navigating the world of social media and the wider online landscape, is perhaps the lack of experience dealing with outsiders. This is partly due to the need for China to control information consumption, fearing its ramifications for social cohesion should it be left unchecked.
Some may argue that this is not true, and that there are many examples out there of Chinese being courteous and showing behavior in direct contrast to what has been exemplified and discussed here.
But that is also the point made in this article. . Another old saying is “people will remember the bad things you did, and always forget the good things you’ve done.”
In the arena of public discourse, as alluded to previously, the truth is that perception is more powerful than truth. And the truth determines policy attitudes and in a way, it shapes reality.
If China is determined to achieve its role as a global superpower, it is probably as worthy as any other investment, to focus in nurturing its society into something that no material wealth and extravagance can give it. It has to imbue the people with a set of principles and ideals that holds justice strongly at its heart, and to understand the value of being considerate and understanding others. It also has to learn to enhance its ability to engage in discussion and discourse, while also learning to not fall into the trappings of nationalistic narcissism. These are attitudinal changes that must be demonstrated and actively practiced in a genuine fashion.
Will this ever be fully realized? Perhaps not in this generation, or even the next. It all depends on whether China and its people learn how to navigate the waters of socio-political discourse.
For too long the Chinese have held attitudes, understandably born of its insularity, and only once it is free from these shackles of distrust, will it perhaps achieve the destiny it has always sought.
Hassanal Noor Rashid
18 Novemeber 2020