Disha Ravi and the Toolkit Controversy

Disha Ravi was arrested last Saturday on charges of sedition against the Indian government for sharing a ‘toolkit’ document on how to support the farmers’ protests in India. The document contained guidelines on how to participate in and organise protests, mainly focused on creating international awareness of the farmers’ agitation. Her arrest has been criticised as a blatant crackdown on free speech and democracy. This is being seen as an intimidation tactic perpetrated by the federal Indian government. Greta Thunberg, who shared the toolkit via Twitter, has not commented on Ravi’s arrest.

Disha Ravi is a 22-year-old Indian climate activist. She is also a local founder of Fridays for Future, a global movement for climate change begun by Greta Thunberg, 18-year-old climate activist. Ravi has a reputation of being a law-abiding activist. For example, during a recent campaign to save trees, Ravi approached her local government to seek permission before launching her protest.

Ravi was arrested last weekend for sharing a document intended to help Indian farmers protest against new agricultural laws that will be disadvantageous to them. According to the police, Ravi was a “key conspirator” in the “formation and dissemination of this ‘toolkit'”. This document suggested methods of helping the farmers in their protests and was Tweeted by Greta Thunberg. The Indian police said “The call was to wage economic, social, cultural and regional war against India.”

Ravi was charged with sedition – the crime of inciting hatred against the government. Her arrest has been decried as an attack on democracy and free speech. She did not have a lawyer present during her hearing, and one was not provided for her.

Ravi’s arrest is the latest in a series of crackdowns on any dissenters against the Indian government, perpetrated by the state itself.

“I did not make the toolkit. We wanted to support the farmers. I edited two lines on 3 February.” – Disha Ravi

A copy of the toolkit can be found here.

Clubhouse Blocked by Chinese Censors

After the app was used by Chinese citizens to discuss topics that openly contradict Chinese government propaganda, Clubhouse was blocked by Chinese censors last week. This is the latest blow to free speech in the country. Thousands of Chinese citizens were using the audio-only social network to discuss political topics such as the internment of the Uyghur Muslims in China and the situation with Taiwan.

Clubhouse is an invitation-only, audio-only social networking app, where users can join virtual audio conversations about various topics. The Clubhouse company is currently valued in excess of $1 billion.

China has historically enforced regulations and censorship when it comes to speaking free online. We’ve already seen this in the way of the social credit system, WeChat, and the incarceration of the Uyghur Muslims.

Clubhouse initially evaded Chinese media censors, becoming a place for people in China and everywhere else to speak up about issues that concerned them.

The app was flooded with conversations from around the world, some addressing politically charged topics like the repression of Muslims in China and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Some shared their thoughts on filmmaking, feminists read works by feminist writers, interaction with minorities and the infamous Communist Party propagandist chatroom. It was almost like virtual performance art.

The app allows 5000 users to join audio chat rooms which disappear once the conversation is over. These conversations are not recorded.

An employee at a social media platform who was in one of these chatrooms told the room that no one should ever think they can escape government censorship. Shortly after, the app was blocked in China. Speakers were in tears.

This demonstrates that the people of China crave censor-free conversations. The conversations in these chat rooms were progressive, honest, and free from the filter of official Chinese media.

The Chinese government is blocking free speech because the regime is threatened by the free flowing exchanges and ideas of the Chinese people.

The New York Times writes: “… mainlanders got a chance to prove that they aren’t brainwashed drones. People who had been demonized got a chance to speak out and be humanized… Clubhouse gave mainland Chinese users a chance to flock to chatrooms focused on these taboos.”

Russian State-Controlled Media On Instagram

Instagram has recently rolled out a new feature that labels media outlets as ‘state-controlled media’. Profiles that fall under this category will be labelled so at the top of the page; clicking on the link will redirect users to the policy. While these pages seem to primarily post content that attracts a more progressive audience, these media outlets are supposedly under the influence of the Kremlin.

Media profiles that are affected by this feature include:

  • In the Now: “Fresh news served hot with a side of smile” is a mix of news and quirky, shareable entertainment content.
  • Redfish: A documentary company openly backed by Russia Today, a Kremlin-sanctioned outlet known for propaganda.
  • Soapbox Stand: An independent outlet that ‘rejects partisan politics’ and expresses opinions rather than objective news.

According to Instagram’s policy, a state-controlled media outlet ‘may be partially or wholly under the editorial control of their government.’

According to the policy, Instagram’s reasoning for this system is because ‘we believe they combine the influence of a media organization with the backing of a state.’ There is a set of criteria that must be fulfilled for a page to be labelled ‘state-controlled.’ Pages have the option to dispute their labelling through an official appeal.

Censorship in China via Social Credit

By Nadia babar

You’re a high school senior. It’s May. You’re done! You’re excited to go to university – a real nice one in Beijing.

Until, you receive a phone call from your university. They have rescinded your offer. Why? You ask them, completely bewildered. 

Your father is untrustworthy, they say. 

This is exactly what happened to a Chinese student in 2018. The student in question – identified by the surname Rao – was notified by his future university that on account of his father’s unpaid bills, which led him to bear a poor social credit score, his spot at the university had been placed on hold. Welcome to the Chinese Social Credit system! 

Play too many video games? Watch too much porn? Jaywalk too often? Have fun being limited to economy class air tickets for the rest of your life, peasant. 

Social credit systems were developed by the Chinese Communist Party and began regional trials in 2009. They seek to create a nationwide database of citizens and businesses and standardize their trustworthiness. Credit check systems already exist in many forms – UK citizens will be familiar with websites – like Experian or MoneySupermarket – that track your debt payments and your credit score, which in turn affect things like your eligibility for a credit card or mortgage. A social credit system takes that concept and expands it into every arena of an individual’s life, resulting in a score that is meant to definitely stipulate whether or not that person is a good citizen or not. China currently has four main types of social credit systems, rather than one fully integrated, overarching system. They rank various areas of one’s personal life. The four types include:

  • The municipal social-credit system
  • The People’s Bank of China financial credit system
  • A commercial credit-rating system
  • The judicial system

The judicial system is the one that would appear most frightening. It attempts to keep a record of any individual’s trustworthiness by evaluating their adherence to certain protocols and norms, to which various levels of morality are ascribed. For example, jaywalking, not showing up to your dinner reservation, or running a red light are all examples of instances that – if caught – could negatively affect your social credit. These measures have already been implemented in some Chinese cities. But there also exist ways to boost your social credit, such as donating blood or giving to charity. 

This system is effectively a conditioning process explained by the political theory of Nudge, which proposes positive reinforcement as a way to influence the decisions and actions of individuals. A ‘nudge’ is supposed to make it more likely that an individual makes a certain choice. The goal of such a framework is to eventually produce a society wherein citizens do exactly as their government wants without needing to be told. They are eventually conditioned into being ‘trustworthy’ citizens by themselves. 

Since its conception, attempts have been made to standardize and unify the various social credit systems across China. The goal is for the system to work as a permanent record for each individual, theoretically making it easier for businesses to hire, or even to help the dating process – one Chinese dating app allows you to publish your social credit score as a way to boost your likeability. 

People hasten to criticize the Social Credit System, likening it to that episode of Black Mirror, while failing to recognise that they already happily subscribe to a social credit system themselves, albeit just informally. You rate your Uber drivers, and they in turn rate you. If you happen to throw up in an Uber once, that doesn’t bode well for you the next time you need a ride. Anyone who went to university in North America will gleefully recall searching their professors on; some of us even recall leaving a scathing – but well-deserved – review for some. And this can have a tangible impact; I bet I’m not the only one that second-guessed my decision to take a certain class once I saw the professor’s dismal score on RateMyProfessor. TripAdvisor, Yelp, Deliveroo… the list of institutions that already use rating systems that we don’t think twice about is endless. Of course, there is a marginal difference. China’s systems have already crossed a line that hasn’t yet been implemented in Western countries. For example, in June of 2019, almost 27 million air tickets and 6 million high-speed rail tickets were denied to Chinese citizens who were deemed ‘untrustworthy’ by a social credit system. Their poor rating placed them on a blacklist that then precluded them from buying travel tickets. We have not yet seen measures this extreme come to fruition elsewhere. But perhaps unsurprisingly, there have already been movements to do so. Russia has reportedly begun the process of developing software for its own social credit system. The City of Darwin in Australia has also employed elements of the Chinese system, marketing it as a pathway to a ‘digitally integrated future’ rather than something straight out of 1984. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that eventually, even more countries will slowly follow suit. This prospect is mildly frightening and entirely too Orwellian for anyone to be enthusiastic about, but it does appear to generate results. Rao, whose bad social credit precluded his son from attending university, paid off his debts and is on his way to being removed from the blacklist. Other news sources have seen an uptick in blood donations and a downtick in traffic violations. Therefore, while we can argue all day about the ethics of a social credit system, there is no doubt about its efficacy. Only time will tell if social credit comes to be the insidious control system portrayed in Black Mirror or merely another mildly inconvenient, but accepted institution that we, the public, don’t even bat an eyelid to anymore.