Thursday, March 27, 2014

Pro-China ‘Opinion monitors’ at work in Taiwan crisis?

In the war for the public opinion over the Sunflower Movement, the pro-government side has resorted to techniques that are all-too familiar across the Taiwan Strait

Pan-blue and pro-China media have been at work since day one of the Sunflower Movement’s occupation of the legislature, seeking to discredit the organizers while providing strictly pro-government propaganda about a controversial trade pact with China that sparked the whole mess. Those outlets redoubled their efforts following the bloody police crackdown on occupiers of the Executive Yuan on Sunday.

Some religiously echoed the government’s version of events, such as that provided by Premier Jiang Yi-huah, who obviously cannot tell the difference between a gentle tap on the shoulder and being hit in the ribs by a nightstick, gave airtime to “pundits” like the ludicrous Chiu Yi (who can’t tell the difference between sunflowers and bananas). Others meanwhile fabricated stories about the “violent” protesters and their alleged connections to a certain political party.

Those media outlets are well known for their lack of professionalism, and their performance at this important juncture in the nation’s history, though deplorable, is not unexpected. (That is not to say that pan-green media have been blameless in this, as they too have occasionally engaged in ethically questionable pursuits, mostly of the hyperbolic type.)

Less known are behind-the-scenes efforts, for which there is mounting evidence, to counter, if not outright delete, information about and footage of the instances of disproportionate response by riot police during the incident at the EY. Interestingly, this development occurs just as the Chinese government confirms the existence of a training program, launched in 2006, for about 2 million “opinion monitors.”

Soon after the streets in front of the EY had been cleared by the several hundreds of police officers deployed that night, witnesses of the night’s events began posting videos on Internet platforms such as YouTube. One such video showed riot police swinging their truncheons ad hitting unarmed protesters, an event that I and another foreign reporter witnessed firsthand on Beiping Rd behind the EY. A few moments later, the videos were no longer available (thankfully those were stored elsewhere and are now circulating on the Internet).

On Tuesday a Taiwanese approached me to complain that his efforts to update the Wikipedia page created for the Sunflower Student Movement with a link to my eyewitness account in The Diplomat of the raid at the EY had been frustrated by other users. A quick look into the posting history showed IP address repeatedly deleted the reference. Asked to explain his/her action, the user wrote, “Use of excessive force is subjective. Do not confuse issues.” Lasersharp, the registered user who had attempted to post the reference to my article, then retorted, “yours is based on [Premier] Jiang’s statement, whereas excessive force used in Diplomat source is based on eyewitnesses, sorry.” replied with, “Please stop abusing Wikipedia to push your personal agenda with subjective statements,” and “Mr. Jiang has nothing to do with this. There’s no evidence of excessive force as yet other than claims by activists. Don't make stuff up.” (I am now informed that attempts to link articles in the Taipei Times have equally been blocked.)

After posting something about this on my Facebook page, a friend who is immensely more knowledgeable than me about these things (kudos to Brock!) conducted his own investigation into And what came up was rather interesting, to put it mildly. According to him, the IP address is associated with a communications company that operates in both China and Taiwan. Furthermore — and this is mightily relevant — the company appears to have links to, or is owned by, the Want Want Group, the pro-China media company whose outlets have been among the worst offenders in the media splurge, with their scandalously bad coverage of the Sunflower Movement.

Which brings us back to the aforementioned “opinion monitors.” As, citing Xinhua, reported on March 25, “Once trained, monitors will ‘supervise’ the posting of social media messages, deleting those that are deemed harmful.” It continues, “Beijing claims to have deployed ‘advanced filtering technology’ to identify problematic posts, and will need to ‘rapidly filter out false, harmful, incorrect, or even reactionary information.’” Opinion monitors kicked into action recently over a series of attacks that state propagandists attributed to “Xinjiang terrorists.”

Coincidentally, as I write this article a Facebook user who I do not know has been going through my recent pictures on Facebook and left several comments disparaging the protesters’ artwork at the LY. With the simple click of a button, I was able to rid myself of that annoyance. Blocking China’s nefarious influence on free speech here will sadly require harder work.

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