Stumbling into trans dykehood: the making of a queer love story

CW: Gender Dysphoria, Cheesy Story

I met my life partner at the Reelout Queer Film & Video Festival in Kingston, Ontario. It was this event that would foreshadow our future together as a queer lesbian couple. At the time, I was still identifying as a cisgender man and had hidden my gender identity under a thick layer of masculinity, muscles, and ginger red beard. None-the-less, I felt queer in my heart and decided to go on a friend date to see some rad films. We watched a steamy flick of two gay men in Columbia, a barber and a soldier, who shared an overnight love-fest in the barbershop. And we also watched a very upsetting story about a trans sex worker who was nabbed and murdered by a transphobic asshole.

I was in the closet as a trans woman, but out as a bisexual man. And my partner had not yet reflected on her queerness and was never confronted with the opportunity to explore it. When we were walking home, snowflakes floating down from the night sky, I asked her if she would go on a date with me. She hadn’t been in the dating scene for some time and was caught by surprise. She paused to think and mustered a yes. I walked home grinning.

Our first date was in her house. It was a crowded house with stinky carpet and many housemates (all lovely folks, of course). We had a homemade sushi night and stayed in with some wine. I had worked as a server for a sushi place back in Newfoundland and I was able to cobble up some rough looking rolls. As it turned out, we both loved food and we bonded over that hard.

It was a while before we started going steady. I was immensely shy, and she was uninterested in committing to a label. This was a wonderful way for us to progress through the various stages of love. It allowed us to nurture a non-possessive and not-so-jealous attitude with each other. We could sleep in the same bed with friends and cuddle with loved ones and be happy for each others various life intimacies.

The more time we spent with each other, the more we realized that we had some rad synergy. I told her, months later, on a trip to Montréal for a conference, that I loved her. She agreed, and from then on, we were going steady.

I had problems with my sense of embodiment, and that left me with countless insecurities. I had decided several years prior that I could never be a woman and I was terrified of the backlash from my family who were invariably anti-queer. I took on a hushed-up label of gender queer, all of the while moving into lifting culture at the gym. I gained a substantial amount of muscle, and for a while my body felt good in being distracted by the constant strain of regimented exercise. I had mentioned in passing to my partner that I was gender queer. But I tucked away my issues with gender into the deeper recesses of my mind and forcefully forgot about them.

Almost two years after Reelout, I moved to Ottawa to start a PhD program. It was a tough move, but we had decided that we could make it work. It was difficult at first, but it worked out. We would Skype often and send each other love letters. I tried to get her to join a Minecraft server with me, but she wouldn’t have any of that. There were many hurdles, but it was worth the work we put into it.

Two months into my move, I was sitting in lecture, a class I worked for as a teaching assistant, and the professor was instructing a sea of 400 undergraduates about the complexities of gender and sexuality. To illustrate the textbooks somewhat dull explanation of (trans)gender realities, she put on a short documentary about a trans woman coming out of the closet, and the struggles she encountered with her family and her partner.

I had a sudden ball of pressure in my chest, and I almost started crying. It was that moment, as I was about to turn 29 years old, that I realized I was a trans woman. I bumbled through my tutorial lesson and managed to keep my calm disposition, but the seed was planted, and my mind was making connections between the discomfort I held with my body and the potential undercurrent of gender dysphoria. I called my partner when I got home to inform her that she was indeed dating a woman. And to my surprise, she did not panic or freak out. In fact, she was very supportive. Yes, I have a rad girlfriend!

I cried myself to sleep because I had no idea what to do. The next day I watched a bunch of YouTube videos, learned about the transitioning process, and began to make connections between my life experiences and my womanliness. That evening, I emailed my dad a panicked message to tell him the truth. That was a struggle that I will never forget. We don’t talk anymore.

She took the bus to Ottawa as soon as she was able, and though she didn’t tell me until later, she did a ton of research herself. While I was shaving my beard and learning about make-up, she was consulting our queer and trans friends so that she would know how to approach this without bombarding me with questions and anxieties.

When she arrived, we sat on the bed in silence and I eventually mustered enough courage to tell her a super difficult truth. I said, “I don’t want to hold you hostage. If you need to leave me because this is too much, I would totally be okay with that”. I was afraid that she would force herself to stay, even if she didn’t find me attractive. My whole life, I was fed narratives of the repulsiveness of being trans. I was saturated in internalized shame and I believed that no one could possibly love me.

This was unintentionally upsetting for her. She was aware that I didn’t have a conventional gender orientation and she saw through my masculine ruse from the beginning. In fact, she was already embracing her new lesbian identity and had already come out to her family, who accepted both of us and all our queerness. Even while I was struggling with the idea that I was a woman, she had already accepted it wholeheartedly.

We kissed and she’d later reflected on how my lips were so soft without the thick tendrils of my ginger beard.

The next morning, we listened to cutsie queer music and she walked me through the clothing and make-up she and some queer friends gathered during a collective closet raid. We went to the mall together to buy some womanly things and a ton of cheap make-up. I was terrified. I felt naked walking through the mall without my outer layer of masculinity, muscles, and beard. I felt so exposed to a hostile world, but she squeezed my hand and led me around from store to store. It would be a very long time before I could go to a woman’s store alone. That night she waxed my body and dealt with all my pain. We drank wine and talked about how we met, that night at Reelout.

 

Happy Pride  everyone <3

The DIY Gender Police: doxxing through visibility and ubiquitous presence

This is the second post of a small series on DIY gender police, or anti-trans activists who take it upon themselves to police and harass trans writers, advocates, and scholars in order to reverse our access to human rights, public space, and pride and dignity.

Read part one here: The DIY Gender Police: the surveillance of trans folks by anti-trans activists.


CW: transmisogyny, harassment, suicide

After coming out of the closet as a trans woman, my ability to engage in public discussions as a writer radically shifted. My new identity substantially intensified the stakes of publishing critical ideas as I was forced to come up against anti-trans hate groups on the left and the right.

I mustered up the courage to transition a few weeks before the Lindsay Shepherd controversy at Wilfrid Laurier University which would rapidly become a rallying cry for the far-right, who manipulated arguments in support of free speech to dog whistle white supremacy and (trans)misogyny across the Canadian mediascape. I wrote an article for Vice Canada called For Trans Folks, Free Speech Can Be Silencing to address how open debates about trans and non-binary pronouns often dehumanize and silence trans students in undergraduate classes. I mean, imagine being made to debate your own existence in a classroom setting!

This was the first time I had an encounter with the trolly hate group known as Kiwi Farms. I remember getting a Google notification not long after I published my Vice article informing me that my name had been mentioned on the Internet. I was blissfully unaware of doxxing groups before checking my gmail account that day and I was appalled by their cruelty. I had been doxxed, and I felt violated and vulnerable in the visibility and exposure afforded to me by the Internet.

Along with bemoaning that social justice warriors (SJWs) who wanted nuanced discussions about free speech were somehow ushering in a dark era of Orwellian or Huxley style totalitarianism, Kiwi Farm trolls also attacked me based on my appearance and my gender.

One post read, “If accommodating the 0.1% or so of people who are trannies involves destroying free speech for everyone else, fuck trannies”.

Another followed up, “I thought he just kind of an ugly girl, not a troon”.

This was my first time getting doxxed. As I mentioned in the previous article in this series, doxxing involves active lateral surveillance and intelligence techniques used by a person or group to scour the Internet for any publicly available information that is collected into rough dossiers and posted to cyberspace to engage in punitive “name and shame” tactics. Doxxing is the primary strategy in the  DIY policing toolkit, and it’s widely used within the Kiwi Farms community.

In fact, I will likely get doxxed again for mentioning my experiences with Kiwi Farms as they thrive on negative press. It took me a while to decide whether or not I should tell this story as it will give these trolls more ammunition to shoot back at me. But these assholes need to be challenged, and silence, I feel, is no longer an option.

Another user wrote, “They do it to escape their insecurity or their mistakes from their male self. Unfortunately, the Internet never forgets, nor does their body, which is male”.

They’re right, the Internet never forgets. Trolls and bigots are able to exploit the visibility and ubiquitous presence provided to us by our reliance on social media platforms and near constant connection to the Internet. Kiwi Farms is a prime example of DIY policing in that it has allowed for home brewed vigilantes to play both spy and police officer by weaponizing our visibility to threaten us into silence. It’s also worth noting that they also take joy in attacking people with disabilities and plus size women.

Visibility and ubiquitous presence

Though folks engage in social media to varying degrees, it is safe to say that most of us spend a great deal of time producing and consuming user-generated content. Many of us use social media like Facebook and Twitter to build online social identities and we curate those accounts to give off impressions of who we are. Social media platforms have become synonymous with communication in the contemporary Western world, and this has massive consequences.

Sociologist danah boyd offers us a useful concept to think about our engagement with social media platforms. She draws attention to how social media become “mediated publics” where folks communicate through technologies that shape (or mediate) our interconnections with each other. In line with physical public spaces, mediated publics allow for people to interact with each other, but these interactions are augmented by features unique to cyberspace.

Navigating mediated publics are characterized by persistence, searchability, replicability, and invisible audiences. In other words, interactions in mediated publics endure through time, are easily searchable, can be copied outside of its original context, and are seen by an unknowable number of strangers.

For instance, Kiwi Farms homed in on embarrassing thoughts that I posted to Reddit during a time where I was confused and questioning my gender. Though I won’t go into the nitty gritty details, I posted these thoughts several years ago without foresight that they would be found and used to embarrass me years later. The details that I posted on a trans subreddit were eventually archived, copied by trolls, removed from their original context, and used in a doxx meant to embarrass me in a public full of hostile strangers.

Because social media platforms have become a constant staple in how we communicate, our presence in mediated publics become ubiquitous. We are exposed to publics that might seem harmless, but can quickly dissolve in a cacophony of vitriolic bullshit.

As we navigate mediate publics, overtime we produce substantial social exhaust. This is a form of seemingly innocent enduring data that can be brought together in countless ways and to varying effects. Surveillance scholar Daniel Trottier, notes, “No single act seems risky or malicious, but when taken together overtime, maintaining an online presence can have damaging consequences”. It is this social exhaust, the fragments of a person’s digital identity, that become the weapons of DIY gender police.

Doxxing as political violence

As I mentioned in the first article in this series, activists, scholars, and journalists often focus on the dangers of state-level hierarchical surveillance while neglecting the impact of lateral surveillance practices used in everyday life by everyday people. This is often done in a way that obscures or obfuscates attention to the violences involved in lateral surveillance practices. For a lot of folks, the damaging impacts of DIY gender policing are opaque, and thus, rarely discussed outside of the marginalized groups who face the blunt of such tactics.

Earlier this summer a trans game developer named Chole Segal ended her life after substantial harassment from trolls and doxxers over Kiwi Farms. Though Segal’s tormentors weren’t the sole cause of her dying by suicide, they played a terrible role, and this marks some of the more extreme consequences of doxxing in the trans community.

Gay Star News reported, “Kiwi Farms linked to her death. On the thread there was no regret, only misgendering and mocking”.

Doxxing in inherently violent in that it violates the assumed privacy of a person by collecting disparate forms of social exhaust given off by a lifetime using social media in order to cause a person personal damage.

While speaking about surveillance, Fuchs and Trottier observe, “Surveillance gathers data about humans in order to exert actual or potential direct, structural, or cultural violence against individuals or groups. The violence involved in surveillance either operates as acutal violence or as the threat of violence in order to discipline human behavior”. Doxxing isn’t a mundane or inconsequential act, it is an intentional act of violence that is meant to do harm to people.

The communities that engage in DIY policing are accountable to no one but themselves, which sets them apart from state agencies who are at least marginally tied to a legal system. There are few ways that a person can seek justice after being victimized by anonymous and pseudonymous vigilantes who enact extreme forms of discriminatory violence.

It is important that we begin to address these issues in ways that will provide us with tools and strategies to resist DIY gender policing, ubiquitous presence, and (trans)misogynistic violence. Furthermore, we need to strategize ways of building tighter communities of support over cyberspace, as well as queer, feminist security practices that we can utilize to protect ourselves from forms of weaponized visibility. In the next addition to this series, I will explore how far-right groups use media manipulation and forms of digilantism to actively work towards the marginalization of people of color, LGBTQ folks, and women.


In the coming weeks, I will be exploring some key concepts and ideas around how trolling, doxxing, e-bile, and vigilantism over digital platforms have been seriously impacting trans communities in extraordinarily violent ways. DIY policing, and its vast arsenal of techniques, seems largely opaque in cishet (cisgender, heterosexual) society, and because of this, is mostly ignored as a form of active discrimination. We need to make this form of political mobilization visible and start having a serious conversation on how we might collectively address it.

References

boyd, d. (2007). Social Network Sites: Public, Private, or What? Knowledge Tree 13. https://www.danah.org/papers/KnowledgeTree.pdf.

Fuchs, C., and D. Trottier. (2015). Towards a theoretical model of social media surveillance in contemporary society. Communications 40(1): 113-135.

Trottier, D. (2017). Digital Vigilantism as Weaponisation of Visibility. Philosophy and Technology 30, 55-72. https://doi-org.proxy.library.carleton.ca/10.1007/s13347-016-0216-4.

The DIY Gender Police: the surveillance of trans folks by anti-trans activists

This is the first post of a small series on DIY gender police, or anti-trans activists who take it upon themselves to police and harass trans activists, writers, and scholars in order to reverse our access to human rights, public space, and pride and dignity.

Read part two here: The DIY Gender Police: doxxing through visibility and ubiquitous presence.


Part one: DIY Gender Policing

To be transgender is to be exposed to constant surveillance. Much of the scholarly work exploring the surveillance of trans folks has been fixated on hierarchical forms of watching conducted by state, carceral, and medical institutions. These institutions spy into the everyday lives of folks at various stages of their transition. This form of institutional watching is often rolled out by various experts who act as gate keepers to accessing basic forms of medical treatment and funded aid. Many of these experts are cisgender, heterosexual doctors, psychologists and state bureaucrats who claim knowledge of transgender issues without having ever experienced it.

As Julia Serano illustrates in her book Whipping Girl,  these forms of expert intervention gives way to a system premised on ensuring an “authentic” transition (i.e. informed by cisgender expectations) that lead trans folks to overcompensate their gender performance (like, 120% femme) to convince the expert that they are indeed transgender just to get access to medical care, such as hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

Trans folks are exposed to a profound amount of suspicion ranging anywhere from police and prison guards to friends and family. This suspicion could be as banal as an extra layer of scrutiny when you present your ID card to a liqueur store employee or as extraordinary as rousing suspicion at the border when crossing through airport security. There is an overwhelming sense that a trans person must constantly prove their transness while they are exposed to invasive watching, and if this is not done properly, they can be denied access to important social and medical resources.

A recent example, as reported by journalist Katelyn Burns, is the spike in US government officials revoking passports from trans folks and offloading sometimes extra-legal bureaucratic weight on identity changes.

Though it is important to have conversations about these forms of institutional surveillance, oftentimes these conversations happen in ways that obscure other forms of surveillance which have a great deal of impact on trans folks. Oftentimes, the most impactful forms of surveillance that we face is the surveillance that comes from our friends, family, and peers, and even worse, from Internet trolls, trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), and far-right bigots.

Lateral surveillance

This is what the sociologist Andrejevic calls lateral surveillance: “not the top-down monitoring of employees by employers, citizens by the state, but rather the peer-to-peer surveillance of spouses, friends, and relatives.” The use of lateral surveillance in everyday life relies on the hyper-visibility of a networked social media culture where we are all willingly tethered to various social media platforms where we share intimate details of our private lives. These digital publics allow us to post user-generated content for other users to browse through and has led to the normalization of watching each other.

Though I would argue that being constantly watched by friends, family, and peers does have a disciplining effect on people (i.e., you are more likely to act according to societal norms if you’re aware that you’re being watched), that is not what I am interested in here. I am interested in how lateral surveillance can be taken up by trolls and TERFs as a form of political violence that deeply impacts the trans community.

This is often done through doxxing which is commonly defined as the collection of private, identifiable information and its subsequent publication online. It is usually used in harassment campaigns where the person being doxxed receives a slurry of death threats, harassment, and abuse. For a lot of folks, doxxing is limited to actual names, home addresses, and phone numbers. However, I think it’s necessary to expand its definition to include the collection of publicly available information about and by a victim throughout the Internet.

Doxxing as a political violence

As a trans person involved in the public sphere through activism and writing, I’ve been doxxed several times for expressing important issues in the trans community. What caught me off-guard was the fact that all three times I was doxxed, a profound amount of information about my browsing and Internet history was scooped up into amateur  dossiers that were subsequently posted to forum boards. Literally, a person (or a group) spent an enormous amount of time and energy scrutinizing my life in order to cause me embarrassment, shame, and to ultimately silence my dissent. This has become a common practice across the political spectrum.

I’ve been working on a concept called do-it-yourself (DIY) policing, a form of digital vigilantism, practiced in left and right digital communities, that harness and weaponize the ubiquitous visibility afforded to us by our constant need for social media attention. The Internet, and the mobile technologies that tether us to each other, allow for the most inexperienced watchers to take on intelligence techniques to interrogate the lives of the people around them by collecting user-generated content that victims have produced over the media they used throughout their life.

It’s pretty damn awful.

In practicing DIY policing, digital vigilantes take on the punitive role of state policing in order to dole out forms of punishment and take justice into their own hands. They conduct intelligence work, google social media posts, plunder public records, build dossiers of potentially embarrassing information, and post those dossiers to their forum boards to encourage their members to harass, intimidate, assault, and dehumanize their victims.

Justice, of course, is entirely relative to the political and cultural orientation of the people orchestrating the doxx. For an instance, antifa groups often use DIY policing in order to doxx nazis and white supremacists to cause embarrassment, public shaming, and loss of work and social connections. The goal behind this form of political violence is to remove their capacity to organize against marginalized communities. This form of DIY policing can seem entirely acceptable as the groups being targeted are literally attacking marginalized folks for merely existing. It can be a form of collective self-defence in the absence of protection from state intelligence and policing agencies.

What I am especially interested in exploring in the next few blog posts I will be writing is how anti-trans groups have taken up DIY policing to embarrass, silence, and intimidate trans activists, writers, and scholars who engage in publicly facing advocacy. DIY policing, in this context, is used as a form of political violence to disrupt the so-called “transgender agenda” put forward by “social justice warriors (SJWs)”. What these vigilantes are working against are gains and protections won for trans rights via the often difficult and tumultuous work of activists engaged in protest and lobbying. They are working to actively marginalize us from public participation and lobbying to have us downgraded to second class citizens.

In more extreme circumstances, these groups want trans folks to disappear from what they consider their corporeal and digital spaces.


In the coming weeks, I will be exploring some key concepts and ideas around how trolling, doxxing, e-bile, and vigilantism over digital platforms have been seriously impacting trans communities in extraordinarily violent ways. DIY policing, and its vast arsenal of techniques, seems largely opaque in cishet (cisgender, heterosexual) society, and because of this, is mostly ignored as a form of active discrimination. We need to make this form of political mobilization visible and start having a serious conversation on how we might collectively address it.

References

Andrejevic, M. (2005). The Work of Watching One Another: Lateral Surveillance, Risk, and Governance. Surveillance & Society 2(4), 479-497.

Serano, Julia. Whipping Girl: A Transexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Berkeley: Seal Press.

 

The Case of Media Manipulation and the CSIS Agenda

CSIS report on media disinformation conflates activists with conspiracy theorists

Accusations of fake news across the political spectrum have transformed a very concerning issue into a weapon of delegitimization. A recent report published by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) titled Who Said What? The Security Challenges of Modern Disinformation have conflated anti-globalization activists, who oppose military intervention, environmental destruction and global labour exploitation with conspiracy theorists and “foreign nationals” in the sharing of disinformation.

The report, which emerged out of a workshop organized by CSIS for the purposes of academic outreach, reflects a common attitude that state security and intelligence agencies have towards social and environmental justice activists—that of flippant dismissal and demonization. Though the spy agency claims that this report does not reflect an official position, it does reveal some logics underlying the surveillance of political activists. The report had obscured any of the workshops participants or the reports authors under the Chatham House Rule.

The immense popularity of social media and its omnipresence in how we communicate and share information has transformed the social and political landscape in ways that are only now being unveiled.

As a controversial experiment conducted by psychologists has demonstrated, people’s emotions can be remotely shaped through computer algorithms over social media platforms. Called “moral contagion,” psychologists working with Facebook secretly manipulated the news feeds of close to 700 000 Facebook users and silently influenced how they express emotions online. The idea of mass manipulation has recently overtaken the news cycle with the Cambridge Analytica leaks, revealing the role of socially hacking user’s political sensibilities to aid Trump’s election win. Clearly, there is a case for concern with how social media landscapes can be used as tools of surveillance and manipulation, this is especially concerning when groups use a combination of bots, social media exploits, and fake news to manipulate people on mass for political gain.

Edward Snowden aptly framed the situation in a recent tweet, “Business that make money by collecting and selling detailed records of private lives were once plainly described as “surveillance companies.” Their rebranding as “social media” it the most successful deception since the Department of War became the Department of Defense”. In other words, we’ve been duped. The tools we use to organize our social life are being used against us for profit, surveillance, and policing.

In the CSIS report, the authors collapse any distinction between activists, conspiracy theorists, and hostile foreign nationals into the category of “independent emergent activists” who are understood as “agents of disinformation”. This report asserts that activists distrustful of Western governments engage in the amplification of conspiracy theorists from the political left and right and are susceptible to being hijacked by foreign state disinformation organizations.

Instead of providing a nuanced approach to understanding emerging digital threats in our social media landscape, the report conflates the political lefts opposition to violent military interventions and the exploitation of the global south to online conspiracy theories. There is a big difference between asserting that foreign nationals are able to influence how activists share news stories and activists also being implicit in producing disinformation.

Political and military violence overseas are hardly half baked conspiracies, for an instance, there have been legitimate concerns with unceremonious killing of innocent civilians overseas via US drone strikes. According to an investigation run by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, in a staggering 4,737 strikes to date, there have been between 737-1,551 civilians killed and barely any media coverage. Opposition to such violence inflicted by the Western World through the “war on terror” isn’t merely ideological activist “propaganda”, it is the expression of legitimate concerns that non-Western human life can so easily be rendered disposable by Western nation-states.

CSIS has muddied the water of the very issues it sought to address. At best, it provides vague and ambiguous background information that is unable to distinguish between activists and trolls. At worse, they have contributed to their own campaign of misinformation by not providing sober nuances of complex issues in social and environmental justice.

This is not surprising. It’s within the interests of Canadian state security and intelligence agencies to slander and dismantle the legitimacy of claims from activists. Both CSIS and the RCMP have a long history of spying on activists who are viewed as a threat to either the government or “critical infrastructure.”

With that said we can’t minimize the impacts of disinformation and fake news on our media landscape. These concerns signal the emergence of forms of media manipulation that can be deployed on mass while targeting an individual’s specific tastes and dispositions.

According to a report published by the Data & Society Research Institute, there is still no legal or political consensus on a definition for fake news or how to approach the issue. There are also concerns around the question of who gets to draw the distinctions around what is true and false, acceptable or propaganda. They offer a nuanced approach to understanding the context from which fake news emerges, and how we might collectively approach mediating its negative impacts. And most importantly, the do so in a way that is careful not to throw activists under the bus.

As the report observes, “With ‘fake news,’ the risk is not necessarily that it will overtake real news, but that democracy itself might drown in information.” If we are to approach this issue, we need to be careful not to fall into a state policing bias that privileges security concerns over the ability to engage in political dissent, whistleblowing, and holding the power to account.

Free speech, messy epistemologies, and the reframing of the WLU controversy

A trimmed down, edited version of this article was published in The Conversation.

Free Speech rally at Wilfrid Laurie University

The Lindsay Shepherd controversy has opened the Pandora’s Box once again on the notorious, vitriol-ridden “free speech” debate across Canada. It has largely consisted of tired arguments penned up in op-eds advocating that the university has become home to left-wing authoritarians who muzzle the speech of those with whom they disagree. Such debates have become so politically noxious that Andrew Sheer, leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, has jumped on board—calling for a political response to the free speech crisis in universities. Furthermore, Lindsay Shepherd has become an alt-right darling in the amplified calls for free speech on campus; she now has roughly nineteen thousand followers on Twitter and is consistently feeding the fire with toxic tweets. One tweet reading, “Confirmed: WLU is a mental institution”.

Debates about free speech have a tendency to become unnuanced and flat as they typically amount to blanket statements that call for the unbridled and unrestricted ability to say anything. As I explored in an article for Vice, such an understanding of free speech is complicated sociologically when superimposed on a society already stratified along vectors of identity. Free speech becomes even more nebulous when we read the sub-text of free speech advocacy which often cozies up with white supremacy, transphobia, and sexism.

I want to shift the discussion about free speech. Instead of focusing on why the academy needs free speech, I would like to ask how free speech is reasonably deployed in the scholarly pursuit of knowledge production. This analytical shift will allow us to move beyond romanticised notions of free speech and academic freedom and consider the various ways in which knowledge emerges and becomes entangled in institutional practices and professional obligations.

This debate has by-and-large ignored the ways in which knowledge is produced and shaped within the academy. I would like to suggest that the epistemological insights of science, technology, and society (STS) can provide a scaffolding to understand the complexities of free speech in practice, as opposed to free speech in theory. Epistemology is the study of knowledge production. Despite the centrality of knowledge in all our social encounters, epistemological issues are often undervalued. Donna Haraway illustrates the importance of the structures of knowledge in this beautiful quote, “It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with, it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties.”  The various shapes of the in-between matter that inform how we understand the world have consequences for how we frame free speech.

The production of knowledge in the academy is laden with formal and informal processes that shape how knowledge is produced, debated, disseminated, and taught. The sociologist, John Law, provides a useful framework for approaching knowledge production in the academy. He draws our intention to the messiness of the world in practice;how human emotions, scientific methods, institutional priorities, research ethics boards, peer review committees, professional reputations, class syllabi, employment contracts, graduate student committees, and codes of conduct become entangled when we go about the business of saying or writing something. When we talk about free speech, these constraints are made opaque despite their centrality in shaping how we talk, write, and debate.

A graduate student, depending on their discipline and department, will typically take graduate courses, be employed as a teaching assistant (TA), and research their independent thesis work. In order to guide a budding scholar through the complexities of academic research and politics, a grad student works under a committee. Such committees are made up of professors who have been rewarded PhDs for their familiarity and experience as academics. One of these committee members is the grad student’s supervisor who very closely guides that student’s academic work. All research produced for the student’s thesis must be rigorously checked by their supervisor and committee. This leads to a painful process of sending in drafts and receiving back red marks. Such a process shapes what knowledge is reliable, rigorous, and fair, and what knowledge is inappropriate, poorly thought out, and not defendable. If a student ignores their committee, they will likely fail their thesis defense and not receive a degree.

If a grad student were to write their own independent research, to give it credibility they would need to submit it to an academic journal. All reputable journals use a peer-review process where a committee of scholars assess the quality, reliability, and credibility of academic work and reject work that doesn’t meet academic standards. Poor research is sent back to the grad student to be revised or sent elsewhere. And some work is rejected for not meeting the criteria of the peer reviewers. Grad students need to have tough skin, as we will get torn to pieces several times a year.

There are other ways in which academic knowledge is reasonably shaped. Research on human subjects is tightly controlled by General Research Ethics Boards (GREB) that are informed by federal policy and legislation. If a grad student ignores GREB, they could be expelled and have their credentials revoked. Academic conduct is held to a Code of Conduct and other university policies that shape how scholars can interact with each other. And ultimately, the university must abide by the Criminal Code and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that protect people in the scholarly community against hate crimes and discrimination.

Finally, a grad student typically becomes a TA to help fund their studies. This is an admittedly precarious job that usually have students working overtime with no extra pay. The TA signs an employment contract, works under a professor who teaches the course, and does not have any authority to teach their own content. TAs do not have the same academic freedom as professors. Aadita Chaudhurry, a PhD student at York University, penned up an article that appropriately delves into how Shepherd failed at her obligations as a TA. Grievances with professors are often mediated through a public service union that advocates on behalf of the grad student.

These formal restrictions on how knowledge is produced are complemented with informal occupational norms that are enforced by students, faculty, and administration. This is the everydayness of the academy. A grad student can’t just write anything. Everything a grad student does in public (including their publications) are informally assessed by colleagues and professors. Miscalculations or poorly thought out work can negatively impact the future of a grad student.

To engage in proper research in the academy is to maneuver through the tangled red tape of policies, expectations, institutions, regulations, and professional obligations. This has a grad student dancing and staggering back and forth through research and teaching and negotiating and compromising on the substance of their scholarly practices. This is the messiness of epistemology in practice. These processes are all swept away in popular debates around free speech in the academy. Such arguments are far too easy because they ignore how the academy functions as a complex institution and community.

And don’t get me wrong. None of these processes or practices are immune from criticism. But that is an entirely different discussion than the one being advocated by Lindsay Shepherd. Academic freedom is certainly important, but so are the ways in which it can and cannot be practiced. University administration, faculty associations, and student and labor unions are constantly in friction over how these limits should take shape. These are discussions that are always already happening and do not get near the press attention that Shepherd’s employment bungle has attracted. If the academy is in crisis, its critics are focusing on the wrong issues.

Musings of an (a)social collective: Anonymity and Community

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Anonymous communities can easily be mixed up with as a thick mess of senseless social interactions. At least, that is how I saw this world when I first decided to study anonymous communities for my Master’s thesis. I thought I would study how surveillance operates in anonymous social media applications—specifically, a very popular (at the time) application called Yik Yak.

Just a side note: Yik Yak had gone into a sudden bout of madness and removed the ability to be anonymous from their application. After a complete revolt of their user base (they just about all left), they switched back. But the feed is still a smouldering ruin of regret and nostalgia. To simplify this argument for the sake of a blog post—let’s pretend that the application did none of this. Let’s make an ideal form: an anonymous community.

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When I first downloaded the app a month before I decided to dedicate two years to it—my room mate had convinced me to check it out. An seemingly infinite central feed of anonymous comments that were sorted by a slurry of up-votes and down-votes. The Yak feed is tied to a geolocational system that connects the app to particular locations. My Yak, was the Queen’s University Yak. It was a busy feed. And it was constantly changing. To me, it seemed to be a chaotic and nebulas thick tangle of associations. A fun challenge for a scholar following and Actor-network inspired philosophy.

The popular posts stood out from the unpopular posts by an upvote/downvote feature. It was kind of like a mash between Twitter and Reddit with a touch of anonymity.

After a stint of digital ethnographic work and a ton of interviews with enthusiastic and committed users I began to see something else. Something that, as an outsider, was invisible to me at first. There was an elaborately balanced Yik Yak community. As Gary T. Marx asserts, anonymity is entirely a social process. The only way for anonymity to occur is through a faceless interaction with another faceless person. This includes social regulations, exploitations, and oppressions. But also, playfulness and a culture of care.

I would like to play with a concept I’m thinking of called (a)social. ‘a’ can be used as a negation. ‘a’ can also be used to represent anonymity. But mostly, ‘a’ will be used to approach a society which remains almost entirely faceless. A community of people interacting around nothing more than posts from people who occupy similar space. Similar cultural values.

Though I have major problems with the corporate side of Yik Yak with their capitalist motives and try-hard branding schemes, their application has facilitated the construction of an elaborate community. It’s created an (a)social experiment. It is a community that both contains a culture of trolling and a culture of care.

All things are a collective endeavor. The (a)social communities are also a collective endeavor. In Donna Haraway’s most recent philosophical publication, Staying with the Trouble, she discusses her concept of sympoiesis—a collective unfolding of reality. This collective includes everything. All human, inhuman, and nonhuman components that are threaded into the collective mess.

When we load up Yik Yak to our mobile phones and post snippets of thought to the main feed (or engage in grueling arguments over all controversies in the comments)—we work with silicone, wires, codes, telecommunication companies, algorithms, molecules, humans, bots, and entire scaffoldings of bureaucracies, legal frameworks, and governments. Interacting with the Yak spans the world over.

Furthermore, the Yak’s platform—allows particular functions and blocks others—shaping its users to interact in particular ways. They impose standards, through their Code of Conduct, which they enforce through algorithms looking for offensive key words. And they sometimes change up everything in an update (to remove their main feature, anonymity). These are the institutional forces that shape and provide stability to the community.

However, I have noticed that there is something more powerful at work in maintaining the community. It seems that the mess of interactions from users balance out particular norms and ways of acting. This is done through both the comments section and the up-vote/down-vote feature. These are the vernacular forces that generate norms and cultures. Certain topics, maybe, offensive topics, are down-voted (a -5 score from votes deletes the comment from the feed). This vernacular power, though institutionally enabled, allows for a regulation of trolls and bullies without Yak’s employees ever having to get involved.

(a)social sympoiesis initially looks like a senseless and dense knot of relations. It’s noisy and confusing. But, once, as an ethnographer, you begin the arduous work of untangling these associations—it begins to look like every other community. Despite all of the contradictions, despite the arguments, the controversies, and the confusing faceless interactions—the Yak community is able to balance out, stabilize, and “hang together” as a coherent whole.

Though such an (a)social collective is not shielded from the larger world. Once, for whatever reasons or motivations, Yik Yak decided that their users didn’t want to be anonymous and forced every user to get user handles (and suggested they link up their Facebook page)—the entire community collapsed. All that is left are groups of Yak “refugees” with no where to go but to be visible to the world.

Xinjiang: A Pokemon Journey to America (Part Three)

This is the third and final post in a brief, un-academic series about my personal experience of living in China’s troubled Xinjiang region, and the censorship both online and offline that it entailed. This functions largely as a final whimsical anecdote and a conclusion. You can read the background information here, and several other anecdotes from my time in China here.

I previously wrote about having my phone service shut down for using a Virtual Private Network to circumvent the ‘Great Firewall’ and use Facebook, Skype, and other foreign apps.

Well eventually Pokemon Go released, which several foreigners in my social circle downloaded and started playing. Given that Pokemon Go makes use of Google services to function, this was only possible by running the game through a VPN–the same kind that got me shut down several months before.

In an English class one day I discussed starter Pokemon choices with some of my students. They informed me that Pokemon Go was an American conspiracy to locate military bases in China. These students still played it anyways, though.

Not eager to be an unwilling participant in a supposed clandestine mapmaking operation, but a childhood lover of Pokemon, I knew I had to get back online.

A friend helped me register my passport with different cellphone carrier from the one that had shut me down, and I finally bought a new SIM card. By that time we knew I would be leaving China within a few months anyhow, so I went for broke and kept my VPN on 24/7. I didn’t end up getting shut down a second time, though it’s possible that if I had stayed it would have happened eventually.

What was curious to me was that while playing the game, I regularly found evidence of other players active in my area, despite having to use a VPN for it to work, and reports that it wasn’t supposed to function in China at all. One day I decided to use the in-game clues (active lure modules) to find others who were playing. After an hour of wandering from pokestop to pokestop, and setting a few lures of my own to draw out other players, I ran across three young guys in front of a movie theatre. It suddenly dawned on me that my Chinese vocabulary included exactly zero Pokemon terms. In the end I simply showed them my phone and smiled. They showed me theirs and laughed, and we all spent about ten minutes trying to get to an inconveniently placed pokestop. 

I wish I could properly follow up on Pokemon Go in Xinjiang. The number of players I found evidence of in Xinjiang was initially surprising, but it shouldn’t have been. The Chinese are notorious for their zealous adoption of mobile games, and the restrictions on Pokemon Go were relatively easy to circumvent. I even had a ten year old ask me to recommend a VPN service one day after class. 

I later learned that at that time Pokemon Go was unplayable even with a VPN in most of China, even in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai. But it was functioning well enough in Xinjiang, one of the more sensitive and closely-controlled regions. I never made sense of that.

I’ve now taken my Pokemon adventure (and the more mundane aspects of my life) out of China. But there are certain remnants of the surveillance and censorship apparatus that stick with you even outside the country.

When I visited my father over Christmas, for example, he picked me up from the airport and we went straight to a restaurant for breakfast. “What’s Xinjiang like, then? Do the people there want independence like in Tibet?*” he said. My stomach twisted and I instinctively checked the restaurant to see who might have heard. Of course nobody present cared.

(* – This is an oversimplification of the Tibet situation, but this post isn’t about that)


A Chinese Christian friend of mine related a similar experience she had: after years of fantasizing about boldly professing her religion, when she finally moved to America she simply could not feel comfortable praying without drawing the blinds first. Similarly, my girlfriend has physically recoiled once or twice when I spoke the name of a well-known Chinese dissident out loud in our thin-walled apartment. Every time she’s caught herself and said aloud “Oh, right. Nobody cares here.”

China is not Oceania; there is not really anything like thoughtcrime. But there are speechcrimes. And when certain things are spoken, especially in a full voice, you know in your stomach that those words could get someone in trouble if the speaker isn’t careful.

Before I moved to Xinjiang I had it in my mind that I might like to study Western China when I eventually return to school to pursue a Masters in Anthropology. But now I’m no longer certain if I can: as alluded to already, I met a wonderful woman in Xinjiang. We’ve been together for more than a year now, and we moved to the US now so she can attend a graduate program. While we will certainly return to Xinjiang in the future, the continuing presence of her family there, as well as my girlfriend’s Chinese passport make me ever-conscious of Chinese government’s attitude toward those who are critical. Even though I am against extremism of all kinds, and believe that independence would fly against the interests of those living in Xinjiang, the caveats I would attach to those positions are likely unacceptable to the regime.

And so, perhaps even what I’ve written here is too much to say.

If you have questions or requests for clarification please don’t hesitate to comment below. And as a good friend regularly says: “Every day’s a school day,” so if you’d like to suggest a correction, or a resource or if you otherwise take issue with something I’ve said, please don’t hesitate to comment either. If there is interest, I would love to contribute to Socionocular again.

Xinjiang: Several Anecdotes (Part Two)

This is my second post to Socionocular on the topic of Xinjiang, a far-western region of China where I lived for 18 months. For a very basic overview on Xinjiang and China’s internet and social media landscape, please see here.

What follows are several anecdotes from my year and a half in China regarding the topic of internet (and other) censorship and the atmosphere of distrust and paranoia it fosters.

In my first year in Ürümqi I regularly attended a weekly English club with a close network of Chinese professionals. We ate in a private dining room at a small mom-and-pop restaurant, and it was an intimate-enough group that sometimes conversations turned political. There were a small few who spoke without hesitation, but without fail somebody would get up to close the door before having their say.

I remember it was during one of these conversations that a relative newcomer to the group asked me out of the blue if I ever called home to Canada.

“No,” I told him, “I just use the internet.”

“Good,” he replied, “Someone might listen, if you called.”

This sort of caught me by surprise, so I probed him: “What, like American spies?”

He shook his head no, but then thought about it. “Maybe them too. But I mean the Chinese police.”

There was also a (in my opinion) completely reasonable belief among many of the foreigners that many of our apartments might be bugged as well. A friend who attended college in China over a decade ago says he was told flat-out that the foreign student dormitory was being recorded, but not monitored. “If something happens,” he was told, “They can go back and review the recordings.”

I visited another friend’s apartment once, and it came up in conversation that he believed his place was definitely bugged. When I asked him how he knew, he said that another foreigner had lived in it before; he had been friends with him and spent a lot of time visiting. One day a young policeman in the neighborhood warned him to be careful what he said when he visited. Despite the ominous warning, he liked the neighborhood and tried to rent an apartment nearby, but was blocked by the police. I know others who were barred from this neighborhood as well. Finally, though, after his friends moved to a new home he contacted their landlord and inquired about their old apartment. He was given permission to move in by the same police who had told him it was impossible before. The popular opinion was that they probably approved it because they wouldn’t need to go through the trouble of re-bugging the place.

Again, it isn’t to say that everyone’s apartment is bugged. But it’s very telling to me that whenever the topic came up, the usual verdict was usually ‘Yeah, could be,’ and never ‘No, stop being paranoid.’

It isn’t just the foreigners who are so concerned, either. In fact, many locals are subject to more immediate, more real, and more invasive surveillance. Early in my stay in Xinjiang I made friends with a university student who offered to show me around the city. We kept in contact and enjoyed chatting from time to time. On our third or fourth meeting he confessed to me that he was a practitioner of an illegal religion. He said he was never worried about telling foreigners this, because foreigners never seemed to care. “But,” he gestured to the students sitting at the table next to ours “If I told you this in Chinese I might get in trouble.” He recommended some reading materials I should look up, and then spent some time laying out his burdens: at college many of his classmates regularly had their phones confiscated and searched. He showed me both of his phones: one for storing his religious materials, and the other one ‘clean’ so he could hand it over to be searched without worry.

For all the presumed monitoring and censorship, the most people I associated with largely got on with their lives without worrying about it too much. It was occasionally a topic of conversation, or a bit of a game (such as conspicuously whispering pro-China slogans into lamps), but it became a more immediate personal concern in the summer of 2015.

I only briefly mentioned the “Great Firewall” before this, partly because its reputation precedes itself. What some people don’t realize, though, is that most of the time it isn’t terribly difficult to circumvent. There are multiple free Virtual Private Network (VPN) options that will allow one to access Facebook and Youtube, and most foreigners I know made use of one or two VPNs regularly. Some Chinese people I knew also made use of VPNs, but others considered them too much of a hassle for too little benefit (I was once told “Why pay go through so much trouble to use the foreign internet? The Chinese internet has everything I want.”). Word started to circulate that China Mobile, one of the larger cellular carriers, was shutting down service to those running VPNs on their phones. One night at a regular foreigner hang-out, a friend told me about his  experience. He had his phone service cut, went to China Mobile to have it reconnected,  but was referred to the Public Security bureau. The PSB  instructed them to delete all “foreign communication apps” including Facebook and Skype, and submit their phones for inspection before they could be re-activated.

It was clear that the network could tell if a phone was making use of a VPN, but the shut-downs seemed random. A little less than half of my friends got shut down, and I myself continued to use my phone without issue for another six or seven months after that. At the end of January 2016, though, my phone service finally stopped without warning or explanation. At first I thought I had just run out of credit, so I sank some money into my account to put myself back in the black. This didn’t work, so I told my company’s foreigner-handler that I had been shut down. She took me to the Public Security Bureau where they asked me to hand over my phone so they could have a look. I had changed my SIM over from my iPhone to the cheap Nokia phone I had bought in my first week in China. They observed that there were no foreign apps and told me my phone would be re-activated in two weeks. The whole visit took less than fifteen minutes.

They must have figured out I was being less than honest, though, because two months later my phone still hadn’t been reactivated. Otherwise they lost the paperwork or some other institutional failure caused a problem. In any case, I gave up on getting my phone service for a time, and satisfied myself with hopping from wifi hotspot to wifi hotspot around the city for a few months.

Though there are others, these anectdotes are roughly representative of my experience in China. I’ve avoided providing too much biographical info, and/or changed a few details where they are inconsequential, to guard against an unlikely situation where post blips on the Chinese radar.

I will conclude in a third and final post to discuss one last anecdote concerning a personal vice of mine, and the lasting echo of censorship that rings even after leaving China.

Flight of the Drones: UAVs and public space

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), otherwise known as ‘drones’ have increased in popularity over the past decades for recreational and commercial purposes. The amount of drone purchases has risen dramatically and it is projected to continually rise in the years to come. And this is due in part of the technology being affordable for purchase, ranging anywhere from $20.00 to $1000.00 depending on the size and capabilities of the quadcopter.

This technology has been showcased in providing vital aerial perspectives for photography, which has begun to be used by real estate agencies and freelance videographers. Other prominent groups within society have begun to incorporate drone use within their repertoire.

Companies such as Amazon seek to use drones for package delivery; law enforcement agencies have begun to see the benefits of using drones, especially when it comes to crime scene photography and search and rescue missions; and now journalists have also begun to use drones in their arsenal for better reporting of events.

The potential benefits of this technology are almost limitless but this can also be said for its potential consequences.

To begin with, it helps to understand what ‘drones’ really are. Fundamentally, the technology is just a platform with propellers, because of this it can be fitted for just about any task and the aerial movement provides advantageous in accomplishing the job.

Since 1911, humanity has witnessed the power and control that comes with air superiority. Left unchallenged and unchecked, control of the skies allows for an unhindered use of drone technology. It will be done by those with the power to do so, allowing for their superiority to be better represented by those subjected to the drone’s presence, all the while being able to operate the device at a safe secure location, often away from the scene.

Though it may seem that this technology is relatively new, it has been around since the late 1800s with air balloons being used to as bombs to target enemy cities. Though the technology really got going during World War I by Dr. Elmer Ambrose Sperry who invented the gyroscope, thereby allowing for more precise targeted missile strikes. The technology subsided for a while and was picked up again in the 1950s, this time serving as surveillance and recon for military operations.

As they’ve continued to develop, drones have transformed into hunter-killer devices in wartime settings and are now being operated for police surveillance in domestic areas. However, the lineage of these devices is not so clear cut, as the influence by remotely piloted airplanes by hobbyists has also been attributed to this sudden rise in this technology in a recreational setting.

Now, technology itself is neither good or bad, it is typically taken as neutral. What is important is who is using the technology and for what purpose, coupled with the perception of the drone by the intended target. In this is where the debate and controversy lies. With the constant maneuverability and over encompassing visual surveillance that drones are capable of—questions emerge: who really benefits from this technology when it is in use? Which groups benefit when the police use them? When corporations use them? When journalists use them?

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With the emerging trend of police drones, it will be of no surprise to see security rhetoric being used as a tool to influence the populace into believing that we need drone surveillance as a way to feel safer and for it to be easier to catch the ‘criminal.’ Which was exactly what was done with the implementation of CCTV (closed circuit television) cameras. When in reality, it may be used as a tool of control that will benefit the rich and powerful and will be used on the disenfranchised resulting in particular communities and populations being disproportionately exposed to police surveillance.

In addition to providing a hindrance and an interpretation of a violation of our privacy rights.

Drone technology has the capacity to violate our privacy rights. However, this violation can become obscured by the shaping of public understanding mentioned above. This illusion of security is known as ‘security theater,’ a concept coined by Bruce Schneier as a way to explain the countermeasures that are set in place to provide the feeling of improved security while doing little or nothing to actually achieve it.

And what is surprising about all this, is that this is already happening, just on another medium, data collection is routinely gathered on everyone—government and corporate agencies can easily identify your behaviors and whereabouts stored in carefully constructed profiles, all by analyzing the data from your phone or computer.

A drone’s visceral appearance amplifies how we perceive drones and their impact on our privacy. The thought of being watched and the loss of control over surveillance puts individuals in a state of unease. It’s right there, potentially watching you and it may require a lot of effort to do something about it.

The drones are here and their flight has begun. However, it will be important to note who’ll be using the devices and for what purposes. The use of such technologies are often a reflection of its users.

Guest Blog: Brandon Rodrigues

 

Xinjiang: Internet Censorship Laboratory (Part One)

I recently completed eighteen months of living in China’s far-western province of Xinjiang. As part of the coming-home process I contacted Kyle and offered to write a brief account of my experience in the ‘internet censorship laboratory of the world.’ What follows is a whirlwind of thoughts, opinions, and personal anecdotes that I will be the first to admit require much fact-checking and cross-referencing. Please consider them pages torn from my personal journal and shared with readers of Socionocular for their curiosity value.

One random day in mid-2014 three of my soon-to-be coworkers received text messages from the propaganda bureau of Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in far western China. The messages reminded them that foreigners weren’t to be trusted, and that they must not share secrets with outsiders.

Which foreigners were these good Chinese citizens supposed to be wary of? And what secrets did three English teachers possess that could possibly compromise the safety of the nation? When later I asked these questions I betrayed my newcomer status. I would eventually conclude that all foreigners are suspect, especially in Xinjiang, and that the point is not so much to safeguard secrets as much as it’s to maintain the atmosphere of low-grade xenophobia.

The question that possessed my local friends was more pointed: why them? Broadcast text messages signed by the propaganda bureau weren’t uncommon, but this message was specific in its content and its recipients. For one, even though there were numerous foreigners working out of that office, only three of the more than two dozen Chinese staff got this particular message. As they chatted about it over lunch, they tried to work it out. One girl was dating a foreigner; the other was sleeping with one; the third was very close to a foreigner in a chaste, conservative Christian un-relationship that everyone could see through. But other staff had been so close with foreigners before. Besides, who would have been interested but inconspicuous enough to report these various liaisons to the propaganda bureau? And why would they bother?

The conclusion they eventually arrived at was that all three had used their ID cards to buy a SIM card for ‘their’ foreigner. That was the link.

And the phone company and Propaganda Bureau were evidently watching closely enough to notice.

To sign up for social media in China, most popular services require authentication using a mobile phone. In order to get a mobile number, one must register their government ID with the phone company before being given an activated SIM card. If the pieces fit together correctly anonymity is impossible on the Chinese internet. While I have friends who assure me that one can sever a link in this chain elsewhere in China, it’s much more difficult in Xinjiang.

The reason is, I suspect, that the stakes are higher in Xinjiang for the government, and so the fist is a little tighter. Like Tibet, Xinjiang is an autonomous region principally populated by China’s minorities, not the majority-everywhere-else Han. The Uyghurs who lend their name to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are a majority-muslim turkic ethnic group who share neither language nor culture with Beijing. The history of the region is complex, and contested, and supporting the wrong narrative or questioning the ‘right’ one is considered subversion.

20th century Xinjiang has been marked by episodes of pan-turkic, and separatist thought. There were two abortive independent states declared in the past century, both called East Turkestan. Both collapsed quickly. In the 21st century Beijing has bundled separatism with extremism and terrorism, labeling them ‘The Three Evils‘ which must be opposed at every level of society. The official line, packaged with China’s notorious control over the mainstream media has had the result of conflating each of the three evils with each-other.

The result of the party’s stranglehold on most of the news-media in China (if you’re curious, read The Party Line by Doug Young) is that the really interesting stuff is happening online. In China, the internet and social media have become somewhat of a haven for off-message thinking, mostly in the form of jokes. As mentioned, true anonymity is difficult on Chinese social media, but the Chinese language’s rich ability to cast puns has been used as a tool to avoid automated censorship, and make subtle jabs at those in power.

But the government has some surprisingly grassroots-seeming tactics of it’s own, such as its ability to rouse patriots to comment on the internet to support the party (mostly in Chinese, but also in other language). The use of paid government commenters is also an open secret. These paid internet posters are derogatorily called 五毛 (‘wǔmáo’), meaning ‘five mao’ (a unit of currency) because that is supposedly the going rate for one internet post (.5is about $.07 USD).

Ultimately, though, China is also willing to throw the switch completely. Similar to how Egypt did in the wake of protests in early 2011, China took all of Xinjiang offline in 2009 for 10 months in the wake of the Urumqi riots.

I’m sure you can imagine that in this atmosphere it’s impossible to take others at face-value unless you are very close with them. Very often people will claim apathy or ignorance when asked uncomfortable questions, or echo the official line even if they roll their eyes while doing so. Contrary opinions are not shared easily, and paranoia is pervasive.

There is much I haven’t even touched on, some of which has been discussed at length by others (such as the Great Firewall blocking Chinese citizens’ access to many foreign websites). Instead of repeating myself (or others), I’ll conclude this introduction to the situation here. Shortly I will follow up with another post containing a series of anecdotes which touch on this self-censorship and paranoia.