Twitter has been a boon for the Chinese dissident community. It is, in essence, an open forum outside the reach of GFW censorship. It is a place where Tan Zuoren’s sentence can be spread through an entire community within a couple minutes of it being handed down, a place where Ai Weiwei can respond to that sentence by saying “F*ck your mother!” over and over again without fear of being censored. But is it, as the great Admiral Ackbar would say, a trap?
Twitter is outside the Great Firewall, but the fact that authorities cannot censor it does not mean that they cannot see it, monitor it, or use what people say on it as evidence against them. In fact, I think it’s fair to assume Chinese authorities are monitoring Twitter. The fact that it is blocked in the first place means they’re very aware of what it can be used for, and they’re certainly not likely to ignore that.
Furthermore, the very nature of outside-the-GFW micro-blogging (and you can add Google Buzz to the list of services like that Chinese dissidents are using, at least for the moment) provides a pretty unprecedented opportunity for would-be prosecutors to compile evidence of thoughtcrime. Here is a service that suggests you publish your every thought to the public, where it is then preserved forever (nothing is ever really deleted on the internet). At best, it encourages banality en masse, but at worst it’s a huge data aggregator about the opinions and contacts of many of China’s dissidents. If hacking Ai Weiwei’s gmail wasn’t enough, Twitter provides them up-to-the minute updates on Ai’s thoughts, and a tangible list of people whose ideas he finds interesting enough to follow. And to get this information, they don’t need to do anything more than type in a URL. No hacking required.
Some of you, no doubt, are already accusing me of paranoia. After all, Twitter doesn’t publish Ai’s thoughts (or anyone’s thoughts) unless they type them up somewhere and hit send, but I do believe there is still a point to be made. Writing is a process, and even writing something as short as a blog requires sitting down for a moment and, presumably, reflecting a little bit on one’s ideas, how they should be worded, and whether or not they should be published at all. Of course, you can do that with your Twitter, just as you can type and post without any reflection whatsoever on a blog, but Twitter systemically encourages constant updating, which, to my mind, greatly increases the possibility that one posts something stupid, incorrect, or dangerous without giving it the proper reflection first.
We haven’t heard much about tweets used as evidence against dissidents in criminal cases yet, but given Twitter’s popularity in the dissident community, and the other types of electronic evidence cited in recent cases like Tan Zuoren’s, how far away can the day be when someone is convicted of “inciting to subvert state power” for something they said via their Twitter account?
I want to know what you think, though: Is Twitter any more dangerous than blogging, or are we being paranoid technophobes?
(Note, also, that Google Buzz seems to be even more problematic. Absurdity, Allegory, and China wrote a great post about it, and has also noted that given the way it violates all kinds of privacy regulations, Google is probably about to get its face sued off.)