Sarah Jeong is a “tech journalist” who currently works at The Verge, an offshoot of Vox Media. You may recall she briefly worked at the NY Times editorial board and at the time there was some push back over that because of her history of Twitter jokes about white people. Even NY Times subscribers found those to be offensive. In any case, she left the editorial board last September after suggesting on Twitter that people should feel free to cancel subscriptions if they were upset about the Times’ coverage of a whistleblower. At the time she said that she had chosen not to buy a home or have children so she never felt obligated to support her employer:
I’ve eschewed children and a mortgage exactly so I can have the freedom to follow my conscience. I will not dissuade anyone else from following their conscience as well.
— sarah jeong (@sarahjeong) September 27, 2019
Anyway, Jeong now writes what she wants for Vox Media and today she has a piece which I have no doubt the NY Times is sorry they didn’t publish. It’s thesis is that something new is afoot in the world which she calls “information-nationalism.” Just to make sure you get it, she uses the phrase 20 times in the piece.
So what is “information-nationalism?” It’s the idea that nations are averse to data that makes them look bad. That may not sound terribly ground-breaking but it is apparently. Jeong’s argument is that nations are now going beyond simply downplaying bad news that would embarrass them on the world stage to actively suppressing it and simultaneously highlight bad news for rival states. She points to China’s suppression of the Tiananmen Square massacre as the best known example of the suppression part of this phenomenon.
For a long time, China’s crackdown on all references to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre has been held as the prime example of the dangers of internet censorship. It is also the clearest example of information-nationalism: to allow Chinese citizens to speak of or remember Tiananmen Square is to cultivate weakness.
So China can’t acknowledge Tiananmen Square or its present-day treatment of the Uighurs. For the inverse reason, Russian disinformation operations on Facebook have promoted real videos of police brutality in America and attempted to organize Black Lives Matter protests. Before that, Russian state media outlet RT excelled in its coverage of Occupy Wall Street and WikiLeaks. For years, Russia has sought to emphasize and even exacerbate existing tensions in the United States, presumably because it believes this is in Russia’s own interest.
At this point you might stop and note that the Tiananmen massacre happened in 1989, long before there was any public facing internet on which news could be suppressed. The point being that what she’s describing isn’t really a new phenomenon at all. It’s what some autocratic (often communist) countries have always done. The internet just makes it a much tougher job, i.e. China now has to employ tens of thousands of people to knock down the spread of information online whereas in the 1980s it was probably much easier to control the flow of information.
In any case, Jeong might have an interesting point to make about China and Russia but of course what she really wants to do is lump in the U.S. as not really any different:
The major players in this game are China (with its unrivaled surveillance-censorship apparatus and Great Firewall), Russia (with its highly successful RT network and its shadowy Internet Research Agency), and the US (which still lays claim to some of the biggest tech companies in the world). At this point in time, the leaders of all three countries have bought into the same values and same assumptions about information-nationalism. It is not so much a cold war as it is three identical Spider-Mans pointing fingers at each other.
The graphic for the piece is a variation on the Spider-Man meme with three nearly identical figures (they didn’t use Spider-Man because lawsuits) are all pointing at one another. And this really does seem to be her point: The U.S. is no different.
In 2020, this is becoming a genuinely difficult question to answer. China is detaining over a million Uighurs in internment camps, citing national security issues. The United States detains migrants in its own internment camps, even going as far as to place children in cages. China is not a democracy; the American president has proposed to unconstitutionally delay this year’s election. China brutally represses its political dissidents; in America, law enforcement in military camouflage have grabbed protesters off the streets and shoved them into unmarked vans.
It’s a snappy piece of writing but it doesn’t hold up well to any thought. Is China detaining a million Uighurs in re-education camps for months or years against their will, where they are beaten, starved and threatened until they comply really comparable to the U.S. putting illegal migrants in detention camps for a few weeks while they process their claims for entry and asylum? It’s not at all the same. For one thing, the Uighurs want out of the camps and the migrants want in to the U.S. precisely because they know they’ll be better off here than in their countries of origin.
But this sort of apples and oranges comparison scheme continues. Jeong writes “China brutally represses its political dissidents; in America, law enforcement in military camouflage have grabbed protesters off the streets and shoved them into unmarked vans.” To be clear, people who spoke up about, for instance, the epidemic in Wuhan had police show up at their doors in the middle of the night. Some of them disappeared and haven’t been heard from since. Not even their relatives know for certain where they are. Meanwhile in Portland, someone was arrested by federal police in an unmarked car and released a few hours later. There’s really no comparison here except the kind that a truly motivated propagandist might make.
To her (partial) credit, Jeong does eventually admit that it’s not really the same thing at all. Or at least that it wasn’t until recently.
For many years, the United States ran its own version of the Chinese state-controlled internet apparatus, but we just called it “the internet.”…
But still, hypocritical or not, the old American internet was in no way equivalent to the Great Firewall of China. And neither is the old foreign policy equivalent to the new. Regardless of how the American government behaved in secret, its public-facing policy was once to promote liberal democracy. Now it is openly engaged in information-nationalism.
Information-nationalism pervades many arenas, beyond the issues of racism and political dissent. The federal government has made it harder to see numbers on coronavirus infections.
That link goes to a story from early March. If you check the CDC website now, there’s a page devoted to testing data (65.7 million tests as of yesterday).
What this all boils down to in the end is the claim that to avoid becoming China America needs to be more like modern Germany, i.e. willing to own up to past sins (Nazism in their case, slavery and Jim Crow in ours). Isn’t this moment in time, with BLM protests having taken place in cities around the country and the 1619 Project having just won a prestigious award, an odd time to claim that we’re suppressing the past. Aren’t we, as a nation, awash in the past at this moment?
Jeong’s argument that we’re actually closer to suppressing it comes mostly from a statement by Sec. Mike Pompeo:
As these protests were raging, Secretary Pompeo gave a speech at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia where he attacked The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which originated as a special issue of The New York Times Magazine containing articles examining slavery and its lasting legacy in everything from mass incarceration to pop music.
“They want you to believe that Marxist ideology that America is only the oppressors and the oppressed,” said Pompeo. “The Chinese Communist Party must be gleeful when they see the New York Times spout this ideology.”
That’s it. The government (in the form of Sec. Mike Pompeo) has visciously suppressed the truth!
Or, you know, maybe not.
There’s a difference between government suppression of bad news (Does the founding of the nation still count as news?) and one office-holder expressing a critical opinion of someone’s else’s very popular and widely-read opinion. Has the 1619 Project been erased from the discussion. Have the police shown up to arrest anyone for mentioning it? Not so far as I’ve heard. But Sarah Jeong writes as if this comment proves our freedoms are nearly gone.
There’s a difference between being able to speak freely and being able to speak without being criticized by those who disagree. China doesn’t have either and Sarah Jeong seems to want the latter but the American way is the former. People get to speak freely and other people get to respond to them. Let’s keep it that way.
Update: The editor of the Verge highlighted the exact false equivalence I reacted to above, calling it an inkblot test for authoritarianism.
He later tried to back away from this, claiming the false equivalence to China wasn’t central to Jeong’s argument:
As an editor he should know better. The part he’s highlighted above is a definition of her term “information-nationalism.” That’s an important part of her piece but the actual thesis is that China, Russia and the US are “three identical Spider-Mans pointing fingers at each other.” In other words, her thesis is not that information-nationalism exists, it’s that there are three global players who are in some sense all playing the same game, one of them being the U.S.
One way you can tell that’s her central point is that the image of the three Spider-Man figures is the one atop the piece who are indistinguishable except for the colors of their costumes (i.e. their flags). It’s literally illustrating her thesis. Another way to tell that the false equivalence with China is a part of Jeong’s thesis is by looking at her conclusion:
But institutions — and popular dissent — erode under steady pressure. Time and new technologies can carve out unthinkable landscapes. China did not forget Tiananmen Square overnight; Russia’s Internet Research Agency wasn’t built in a day. The banning of apps, the passage of new digital surveillance laws, the regulation of speech on platforms, the government sponsorship (implicit or explicit) of new technologies — these are the battles that make up information-nationalist warfare.
For what it’s worth, I do not think America will build its own Great Firewall. But this has less to do with faith in the strength of American values and more to do with the sheer scope of such a project. I’m pretty sure America can only make a very poor imitation of the Chinese surveillance-censorship apparatus, just like I’m pretty sure TikTok by Microsoft is going to suck balls.
In other words, the United States has embroiled itself in a war it cannot win and has no business fighting in the first place. I suppose that is one American tradition that won’t be easily undone.
Again, her point isn’t that information-nationalism exists as defined in those two bullet points, it’s that the U.S. is fully engaged in a three way battle with China and Russia and that it shouldn’t be.
As I pointed out above, her support for this thesis is pretty thin. Some false equivalence to China and one comment by Mike Pompeo don’t prove that we’re “three identical Spider-Mans.”
Also, though I didn’t spend much time on this, her claim that the sale of TikTok is because the U.S. can’t handle the truth is nonsense. The sale of TikTok is because our government has been cracking down on Chinese thefts of information, including their use of the Thousand Talents Program to get information out of top academics as well as the massive thefts of private data such as the 2017 hack of Equifax and the more recent attempt by Chinese hackers to steal coronavirus vaccine data. In short, this is about stopping China from stealing from us, which goes well beyond any concern about exposing human rights abuses.