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Parodic Self-Censorship in Singaporean Online Discussion Fora

The final presenter in this session at ANZCA 2010 is Michael Galvin, whose focus is on Singaporean politics - and he begins by pointing to Manuel Castells's discussion of power and counterpower in the network society during his 2006 ICA keynote. Castells's proposition is that the development of interactive horizontal communication has contributed to the rise of 'mass self-communication', shifting the public sphere from the institutional realm to the new communications space.

Michael's study applies this thesis to the online site for citizen journalism of the Straits Times newspaper in Singapore, STOMP. While the Times is essentially an organ of the Singaporean government, which has long openly promoted self-censorship in the media, this site for horizontal interactive communication - according to Castells - should provide a space for the operation of counterpower; for Castells, this is a given and indeed a result of a 'natural law' of society.

Achieving Change

We're now about to start the second day at ANZCA 2010, in a still very chilly Canberra. First up is the second conference keynote, by Robyn Archer. She begins with the question of what drives change - such as individual aims and ambitions; collective needs gathered in democratic processes or popular revolutions. Conservative powers will resist such change - and the mechanisms of mass communication will provide a stage for such struggles to be conducted. The matter of change still depends on how we act on the information we receive, and the technology at our disposal. This is as true for arts and culture as it is for politics.

The Strength and Folly of Democracy

After yesterday's CCI Symposium, I've made the trip down to frosty Canberra for this year's ANZCA conference. We start this morning with the first conference keynote, by John Durham Peters, who begins by considering democracy as a political category - for a very long time, it has been seen as an impossible and preposterous, so for it to be seen as a sine qua non is remarkable.

There are various obstacles to democracy, of course: chiefly, scale and human nature. For the ancient Greeks, democracy had to be small - even Athens was seen as too large, and democracy was thought to be able to be workable only if all participants were able to get to know one another personally. For Plato, the ideal number of citizens for a functioning democracy was precisely 5040, in fact. At the same time, small size was also seen as making democracy unsustainable. So, democracy was seen as most workable where citizens could meet one another in political assemblies.

Publication Update: Three New Chapters

With the Internet Turning 40 and International Communication Association conferences completed, I'm briefly back in Brisbane, before setting off for the Australia/New Zealand Communication Association (ANZCA) conference in Canberra next week (hopefully with a recharged audio recorder!).

In the meantime, here's a quick update on some new publications I've been involved in - a number of my recent book chapters on a range of topics have now been published:

First, with a chapter on "News Blogs and Citizen Journalism" in e-Journalism: New Media and News Media I'm introducing my work on gatewatching and citizen journalism to an Indian readership - the book was edited by Kiran Prasad, who was my office mate at the University of Leeds while I was there in 2007 to do some research for the produsage book, and was published by B.R. Publishing in Delhi. I don't think the publisher actually has a Website - but there's a good overview of the collection at Cyberjournalist, and it also includes contact details for BR Publishing.

The Orchestrated Moralist Slippage towards a Low Tolerance Society

The final speaker in this ICA 2010 closing plenary is Josephine Ho, who suggests that there is a developing new social sensibility, a low tolerance sensibility, that aims to create a morally induced responsiveness towards devious content. This goes beyond religious use, but generally turns censorship into a justfied and desired action.

Online, anonymity can release hostility and repression, Josephine suggests, and the ease of photo and video sharing makes a greater range of images shareable. The split between private and public behaviour has been blurred, and more and more private moments are being shared; these originate from private desired and distinctive tastes and tap into the immense diversity of feelings and values that lie beyond state-sanctioned content.

Hard and Soft Censorship Regimes in China and Hong Kong

The next speaker in this closing plenary at ICA 2010 is Joseph Chan, who focusses on the China and Hong Kong perspective. He notes that freedom of speech, press freedom, and freedom of assembly are guaranteed by many national constitutions around the world - but they are often only partically practiced; especially so in China and Hong Kong. China censors traditional media as well as new media: it persists and remain very effective.

For new media, the censorship system is based on that for traditional media, and orchestrated through state directives as well as direct intervention (mainly through phone calls to avoid leaving a paper trail). China has a government department for social stability which oversees these efforts, addressing any potentially damaging accusations against the central government; local governments make their own efforts as well. Online, there is more room for deviance or dissent, and this is significant.

Censorship Threats for the Internet

And we're in the closing plenary of ICA 2010, which (appropriately for a conference in Singapore, perhaps) deals with the impact of new media on censorship. Censorship approaches and technologies in the Asia-Pacific region vary widely, of course, as plenary chair Cherian George notes (from brute force to sophisticated social sanctioning).

Ang Peng Hwa is the first of the plenary speakers, and he begins by stating that the rise of Internet censorship in Asia was inevitable. Contrary to previous claims, the Internet can be censored - for example, by blocking particular IP addresses; further, the control of authoritative root services online is in the hands of ICANN, and ICANN itself is far from independent from government influence, but instead is subject to substantial US government control. As one example, Peng Hwa notes the arrest of the then holders of the .iq country-code top-level domain in December 2002, some months before the US operation Iraqi Freedom, leading to a change of control over .iq - hence, there is an urgent need to look more closely at Internet governance.

The Collective Individualism of Activist Bloggers in Singapore

We're moving rapidly towards the conclusion of this ICA 2010 conference. The next session I'm attending starts with a paper by Carol Soon, whose interest is in activist bloggers. She notes the rise of net-activisim and transnational social movements. While the genesis of blogging lies in personal gratification, blogs also have a transformative power and can lead to greater civic engagement, by disseminating information and facilitating information exchange.

Previous studies have examined both bloggers' uses and gratifications as well as the hyperlinking and network structure of blogs and blogging; Carol's study adds to this by exploring the collective identity of Singapore activist bloggers and its role in engendering social action. Is there a tension betwen the individual and the collective?

Hong Kong Protest Movements and the Internet

Hong Kong.
Finally, we move on to Francis Lee as the last speaker on this second day of The Internet Turning 40. He notes that a few weeks ago, some 150,000 people commemorated the Tian An Men massacre in Hong Kong, and other public rallies are now also becoming commonplace - more and more people are now prepared to participate in such demonstrations. Mainstream media, interpersonal connections, and online media are combining to enable such activities; Hong Kong is becoming 'a proper society'.

What role does the Internet play in this, then? The Internet is used as a means of coordination and mobilisation, as a means of facilitating the formation of movement networks, as a platform for collective or individualised protest actions, and as a channel for persuasive messages and information. For social movements in the online information environment, the Net can be considered as an alternative medium, enabling them to bypass the mass media and transmit oppositional views; also, compared to conventional media, people are less likely to be exposed to discordant views and messages, and a form of self-reinforcing groupthink can develop, particularly with the move towards Web 2.0. This facilitates a heightened audience selectivity.

The Victory of Chinese Netizens over the Green Dam Filter

Hong Kong.
We move on to Hu Yong as the next speaker at The Internet Turning 40, who highlights the anti-Green Dam movement in China which opposes Internet censorship. In June 2009, the Chinese government introduced regulation that from 1 July that year, it required each new computer to have the 'Green Dam Youth Escort' filtering software pre-installed, which would filter specific 'unhealthy' - pornographic - Websites and information (previously it had been thought that this software was only required for school computers).


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