HOW TO BYPASS CENSORS AND GET AROUND THE OPERATORS OF COVER-UPS
Efforts by censors to scrub the internet of Dr. Ai’s account of
a Coronavirus cover-up have sparked an outpouring of creativity among
China’s internet users and artists. Many set about crafting ever
more eye-popping variations of the interview to fool both human
monitors and the software that Chinese social-media sites use to zap
sensitive content before it spreads widely. Crowd-sourced public
forensics teams have millions of ways to bypass dirty politicians
working on cover-ups of political corruption.
One Beijing-based artist said he had posted or reposted around 100 versions of the interview with Dr. Ai, only to see 80% of them deleted. On Wednesday, the 46-year old, who wanted to be identified only by his surname Wang, came up with a version that sandwiched a partial English-language translation between bar codes. Embedded in the image: a plea for China to introduce laws protecting whistle-blowers.
“This is probably the most important thing for the public to pursue,” Mr. Wang said, referring to rules that would open the door to freer speech.
Censorship algorithms deployed by Chinese social-media operators are trained to flag sensitive images and text alike. A screenshot of a banned article typically doesn’t fool the algorithms. As a result, those looking to evade censors are forced to constantly innovate.
One user rendered the interview in a jaunty handwriting style of late Chinese leader Mao Zedong. It has also been turned into a song and a comicbook strip.
Others got tricky with technology. A public account on China’s popular, do-everything app WeChat required readers to access the interview by sending the words “this essay” in a personal message to administrators. The sender would then receive a link to a blank page with the word “Whistle” at the top. A click in the center of the page would bring up the text of the interview.
Translation has been one of the most popular workarounds. China’s content filters struggle with non-Chinese content, so internet users have busied themselves creating foreign-language versions that others can then copy and put through translation software to convert it back to Chinese.
Aside from conventional spoken languages like Italian and Hebrew, users have posted versions written in Braille, Morse code, emojis and one in sign language. One version claimed to be written in a mixture of Elvish from the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien and Klingon from the TV show “Star Trek.”
Another featured computer code allowing users to download and convert a lightly encrypted version of the interview using a combination of Microsoft Word and Excel.
In recent days, the censorship dodgers have begun describing themselves as taking the baton from the “whistle deliverer.” The term refers to the title of the magazine interview, which was taken from Dr. Ai’s description of her role in warning about the virus.
Though she wasn’t one of the original whistle-blowers, she said, “I’m the one who sent out the whistle.”
Social-media users have applauded efforts to keep the article online.
“I first laughed and then cried when seeing these,” one user posted on WeChat.
The burst of creativity is “a dark comedy caused by an article,” Liao Xinzhong, a Taiwan-based writer, wrote on WeChat. He added he hopes new generations “can freely use the Chinese language without any concerns.”
Pushing beyond text, some users inserted the interview into the openings of Hollywood sci-fi films, including the “Matrix” and “Star Wars.”
The cat-and-mouse game between China’s censors and internet users has intensified in recent years as technology has advanced, media researchers say.
The coronavirus has struck a nerve in China because it has affected almost everyone in the country in some way, said King-wa Fu, a censorship expert at the University of Hong Kong. That has inspired a huge surge of protest online.
“This time it’s the whole nation,” he said. “In scale, it’s the largest that I have seen.”