THE BLOG

Twitterpated: Censoring 140 Characters

In a single 24-hour period in September, Elizabeth Economy, the director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Chinese dissident writer, Liao Yiwu, each commented on the potential of Twitter to affect political change in China. Presumably both were referring to Twitter clones, such as Weibo, since the Chinese Government began blocking the real Twitter over a year ago in advance of the twentieth anniversary of Tiananmen. In July the government also tightened the screws on some of China's more popular Twitter clones. For any government to impose such censorship is inexcusable, however, censorship is an issue that has been addressed elsewhere. For this blogger, there is another aspect, a remaining question that is also deeply saddening. That is: how far has political discourse fallen that 140 characters, even in a language as concise as Chinese, is considered sufficient space to provide political commentary that is not only worth reading but worth censoring?

To understand what I mean, read Mao's Little Red Book, or Thomas Paine's classical pamphlet: Common Sense. Ok, you don't really have to actually read them, though you should, but at least have a look at them. When these works were published, in 1964 and 1776 respectively, they were intended to be short, snappy and sexy political prose that would help sell their respective ideologies to a class of people far less educated and literate than modern Americans or Chinese. Yet by today's standard these political pamphlets are obscenely long with the Little Red Book amounting to 212 tweets in Chinese and Common Sense coming in at 871. The very idea that micro-blogs (Twitter and its clones) would have us measuring our messages in characters seems particularly silly in an era when smart phones, tablets, netbooks, and widespread wireless allow us to instantly send messages or post blogs of unlimited length from almost anywhere.

Don't get me wrong; Twitter has some value as a tool of communication. Its ability to instantly transmit a small piece of information to a large number of people can be used to quickly coordinate protests, and this is undoubtedly an important reason for autocratic governments fear it. But Twitter is only a minor improvement on the already well-established practice of using text messages or e-mails to organize demonstrations, and at any rate these can account for only a tiny fraction of politically related tweets. Twitter's largest "contribution" to politics appears to be the further "sound-bite-ization" of political discourse.

Micro-blogging not only promotes "sound-bite-ization" but actually precludes longer, more meaningful discussion. From Hugo Chávez to Sarah Palin, Twitter allows politicians and average citizens to communicate with the public in a medium so constrained as to disallow even the possibility of a substantive argument. The brevity required by Twitter not only excuses the lack of supporting fact or logic, but necessitates it, making it difficult to differentiate well-reasoned thoughts on important current events from nonsensical jabber. Reflecting back to the first paragraph of this blog, perhaps then there is a silver lining in the Chinese Communist Party's deplorable censorship. If Chinese activists are forced off the internet entirely, they may begin self-publishing pamphlets sufficiently lengthy to allow for a coherent argument.