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Heavy Hand of Media Control in China -- and Here?

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The media explosions of the world's two biggest economies could bear some clear-eyed comparisons.

It's especially worthwhile to compare the American and the Chinese peoples' vastly expanded access to digital media, both as consumers and increasingly as active participants and originators.

The upsurge in citizen criticism of Chinese authorities (albeit mostly anonymous) would of course have been impossible without the internet. And it's reached unprecedentedly into the heart of some topmost authority, this week prompting the country's very loosely labeled "parliament " (officially the 3,500-strong National People's Congress) to promise reform in matters ranging from school bus safety to increased subsidies in education and farming.

Internet protests completely sabotaged the state's efforts to revive mass hero-worship of a manufactured Communist hero from the Chairman Mao Zedong era, the supposedly charming, tireless and loyal soldier Lei Feng. These efforts reached their pinnacle, if that's the right word, with Monday's 50th anniversary of his death and the officially declared "Learn from Lei Fen Day." A day that was greeted with scorn and derision in Web posting after posting.

Most notable perhaps was the blogger who uses the handle Notebook, and has two million online followers (eat your heart out, @DRUDGE, with about 80,000). She or he wrote: "I have cancer because of the poisonous milk I drank, but you ask me to learn from Lei Feng."

It's a serious matter, undeniably, to challenge authority in China -- a country after all in which "old media," in particular a state-owned TV channel -- is used to reinforce authority by broadcasting a ghoulishly top-rated show called Interviews Before Execution which features "guests" talking before they are hauled before a firing squad. (The BBC showed extracts from this show this week, as a documentary called Dead Men Talking, and PBS has the U.S. rights to it.)

The heavy hand of Chinese authority is indeed pretty inescapable. It should be noted that Notebook's especially scathing online critique (along with the blogger's sharp dart at privileges enjoyed by party bosses: "Your children have migrated overseas but you ask me to learn from Lei Feng in China") was quickly blocked from public view by offended government Internet controllers.

It's an obvious comparison to note, isn't it, that American social media users are totally free of such official surveillance, interference and even retribution?

Well, yes and no.

Thanks initially to my friend and relative dana boyd, the lower-case spelled "high priestess" of social media (to quote the Financial Times awed hailing of her) I've had the chance to read through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's manual for its employees whose job is to monitor Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and all other similar online communities.

First brought into the public domain by a Freedom of Information Act legal suit and since then circulated widely, the DHS "Analyst's Desktop Binder" lays out the broad extent of what it calls the department's "Media Monitoring Capability Mission." Despite a professed purpose of merely providing DHS agents with a fuller "situational awareness" during emergencies, according to an official departmental spokesperson, the department stands accused of compiling files on bloggers -- something described as "outrageous" by California Congresswoman Jackie Speier. It's also accused, this time by a Republican, Rep. Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania, of creating a "chilling effect" on free speech and violating citizens' rights to privacy.

But of course we are nothing like China when it comes to government surveillance of social media -- are we...?

And in old media... we don't have anything like a reality show featuring inmates of death row, do we?. Hmm. Well not yet, anyway...

Read more of David Tereshchuk's media industry insights at his weekly column, The Media Beat, with accompanying video and audio. Listen also to The Media Beat podcasts on demand from Connecticut's NPR station WHDD, and at iTunes.