Oct 22, 2012 2:31PM

Oyster Words: Zac Bayly on Internet Superheroes

"Memes are the street art of the censored web," says artist An Xiao Mina.
Ai Weiwei shot by Matthew Niederhauser for Foreign Policy's Top 100 Global Thinkers list.

For Oyster #101: Let's Get Digital, our Contributing Features Editor Zac Bayly writes about the superheroes of the digital age, including Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (most recently seen in a Psy tribute video) and An Xiao Mina. 

As a child I imagined that all my favourite super
heroes — including Catwoman, Captain Planet, X-Men's Rogue and Charmed's Prue Halliwell — interacted in one fantastic world. They joined forces against common enemies, disagreed with and fought one another (occasionally), winked at each other from across the bar, and ran into each other at the supermarket, where they'd chat about the latest episode of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch (that Hilda!) and how they'd take down the Green Lantern next time. The heroes of that imagined future possessed godlike powers — powers that allowed them to control the weather, shoot laser-beams from their eyes, freeze time or, in the case of Alex Mack, flip burgers using only the power of their minds (see The Secret World of Alex Mack S01E10).

In reality the game-changing heroes of my childhood's future — of today, in other words — don't fight for what's right with adamantium claws or a Book of Shadows (that I know of). The heroes of today change the world with the tapping of their fingers, the words in their minds sliding from their brains down neural pathways at breakneck speed, like Tarzan on a vine in the African jungle, throwing themselves from fingertips to keyboards, onto the screen and into the infinite internet!

Globetrotting artist and social-media researcher An Xiao Mina (whose website is filled with insightful articles on the topic of 'Social media and its role in building communities and empowering the individual') believes that "memes are the street art of the censored web," their role in China being akin to that of a piece of LA graffiti: to "reclaim the streets and spread a message." Memes are central to an iconoclastic online counterculture in a country where the internet is heavily censored and prominent activists can be, and sometimes are, disappeared. Unlike more conventional political blog posts, which might directly discuss what An Xiao describes as "sensitive issues" (internet censorship and Beijing air quality being among them) and are routinely deleted (or 'harmonised' — a reference to the Chinese government's aim of creating a 'harmonious internet'), the text in memes cannot be picked up by keyword-detection algorithms, making them difficult to find and delete. That and they're harder for the government to take seriously.

"The fact that the meme format is kind of dismissed is a double-edged sword," says London-based online-media expert Kate Miltner, whose claim to fame is that she wrote her London School of Economics master's dissertation on LOLCats. "It allows people to spread political messages and criticism through humour, which can result in a bigger uptake than something more preachy or earnest — but on the other hand the messages aren't considered to be particularly weighty."

Yet their potential should not be ignored. The events following the Wenzhou train collision show why: On 23 July 2011 in China's Zhejiang province, two trains collided and derailed. Forty people died; hundreds were injured. "The government's original statement was that it was a lightning strike that had caused the collision," An Xiao tells me on Skype. The memes created to express frustration with, and poke fun at, the government's unbelievable assertion rolled out quickly — and remarkably they didn't stop.

"A few months later the government issued a report looking into the cause of the crash, which turned out to be a signal failure." In other words they were forced to admit fault, which is practically unheard of. "There's this sense of momentum in China now. The rail collision was a catalyst that revealed just how much Weibo [Sina Weibo is a Chinese hybrid of Twitter and Facebook] had become this influential public forum. It caught a lot of people off-guard — China-watchers and the government hadn't been aware of just how influential Weibo had become."

It's easy to pass off political memes as merely a means of venting one's anger (which is fundamentally what they are), but the meme movement in China has gained such momentum that it has played a part in radically shifting the role of propaganda in Chinese society. "The Chinese government has realised that the citizens can now provide themselves with their own alternative story to the propaganda story they [the government] have provided, which is quite an interesting thing to observe," An Xiao says. 

As an alternative to the meme culture, one of the country's most prominent political activists uses a method of subversion that has less to do with finding ways around China's censorship mechanisms and more to do with actively defying them.

"When I first met Ai Weiwei it was December 2008, and he still had this blog he'd started on Sina Weibo in 2005," recalls American journalist Alison Klayman, the director of 2011's award-winning documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. "At the time he was posting political essays, and what would happen was that his posts would be unceremoniously taken down. He would repost them without any compunction. He was also known for reposting articles that other people had had taken down — he had a reputation for it. I said, 'Why haven't they shut down your blog?' And he said, 'I don't know. They could shut it down at any time! They can do whatever they want to me.' In May 2009 they did shut down his blog altogether. That was a month before the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen, and it was the year anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake. He had posted the names of the children who had died in the schools [several schools collapsed during the earthquake, allegedly because they were poorly constructed]. He had been doing a citizen's investigation, collecting these names, so the closing of his blog may have been related to that. But, of course, no one sends you a notice and explains why."

"Weiwei's prominence now has a lot to do with activities online. His artworks themselves are not as sensitive as the things he organises online. If you see him getting into trouble, it's not because he filled the Tate Modern with a hundred million porcelain sunflower seeds. What's the threat in something like that? But someone pointing out the flaws in the systems, and the documentaries that he puts online, and encouraging people to participate — that's when he kind of runs into trouble. He's directly communicating with so many people, and that's what's so scary to them."

Many people believe that's precisely the reason Weiwei was arrested at a Beijing airport on 3 April 2011. Let's not get into the various reasons the Chinese government has given for arresting, detaining, and continuing to maintain surveillance of Weiwei, but suffice to say it's not uncommon to hear of prominent dissenters, often in countries with oppressive governments, being charged with fishy allegations. In recent years we've seen Wikileaks founder Julian Assange threatened with extradition for various reasons, while members of political, web-savvy Russian punk band Pussy Riot have been jailed for 'hooliganism' (it should be noted that the brightly-coloured balaclavas worn by protesters worldwide to symbolise the band's struggle have become a kind of IRL meme).

While we're in the region, there's also Russia's most prominent digital activist: Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption lawyer, blogger and politician who was named one of TIME's most influential people of 2012. At the time of going to print he is facing what appear to be trumped-up charges of embezzlement — which ironically has only increased international sympathy toward him.

"Navalny has said in interviews that the internet has been his primary instrument in exposing governmental corruption," says Gregory Asmolov, a London-based Russian activist who has worked for major daily newspapers Kommersant and Novaya Gazeta and consulted for The World Bank, American Councils for International Education, and Internews. "I should also mention that Navalny was a politician long before he started using the internet, but he wasn't so well-known. He was a member of a political party called Yabloko, but he only became famous once he started his blog and was no longer affiliated with any particular party." Here the internet played a huge role in developing the dissenter's personal branding, allowing him his rise to the prominence he enjoys today. "But it's not all attributable to his blog. One of the most memorable things that Navalny did was that he developed his own crowd-sourcing platforms to engage people, and not just to follow him — he participates in online elections, for example. So, in Navalny's case you can see a lot of great political innovation: he uses a diversity of interesting online tools to support his political activities, which in the past have also included physical protests."

And here we briefly enter the realm of what, for the purposes of this article, I'll call 'digitally enhanced activism' — that is, physical protests made possible by the networking possibilities of the internet. The Arab Spring phenomenon is a perfect example: successful uprisings — arranged, for the most part, on Facebook — in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, which have seen the removal of corrupt leaders. In Syria, though, the revolution continues — and there, interestingly, the role of the internet has been a little different, though no less significant in terms of how it has helped shift power back to the people.

"In Syria social media hasn't been used to organise, so much," says Syrian-Spanish blogger and human-rights activist Leila Nachawati (I would strongly recommend you visit her website, because the situation in Syria is incredibly complex and unfortunately I don't have the space here to talk about it fully). "It's all about YouTube in Syria, mainly. If you go back to 1982, when the government killed 20,000 people in just a few days in Hama — which was the first city to stand against the regime recently, in 2011 — if you go back to 1982, there's no video. No photo. No footage of that massacre. If you compare that with the amount of content that floods the internet now, we can get a sense of how revolutionary it is for citizens to be able to empower themselves and share what they're witnessing — without the need for journalists, who may not want or may not be able to enter the country. Since international journalists have been banned from the country for decades, citizens realised they had to share what was happening, since no one else would."

In my mind I've always imagined I would pick songs like A-ha's 'Take On Me' and Queen's 'Flash' for the soundtrack to a revolution, if I were to be involved in one. In Syria they picked 'Irhal ya Bashar' ('Bashar, get out'), which was created and uploaded to YouTube by Ibrahim Qashoush. It features "provocative lyrics and a catchy dabke beat", in Nachawati's words, and it took off, becoming an anthem of sorts for the protestors in Syria.

On 5 July 2011 Qashoush was found dead with his throat slit and vocal cords ripped out. It wasn't until I read about this on Nachawati's website that the gravity of what's being discussed in this piece set in. It's incredibly exciting that the internet has helped level the playing field a little between governments and the people they're oppressing, but this isn't like the cartoons — this isn't like X-Men, where no one really gets hurt. As much as we've become desensitised to images of war and death — as easy as it is to read about Weiwei's detention and forget about it five minutes later, not thinking too much about what an ordeal it must have been — this stuff is happening, IRL, to real people.

Honestly, I'm not sure if I'd be brave enough to do what Weiwei, Pussy Riot, or Qashoush have done. These people, these digital dissenters, are risking their lives for freedom and self-expression. The idea of fighting for freedom isn't exciting to me in the way that it was when I started this piece anymore — it's terrifying, and… well, Nachawati sums up the sentiment best: "This isn't a video game."

Follow Zac Bayly on Twitter and read his blog.

Zac Bayly