Briefly Noted

Things Read, Seen or Heard Elsewhere

The future of propaganda is now. We're watching it with China's media response and social media control of information related to the Hong Kong protests.

One of the earliest ponderables we’re asked to consider concerns issues of observation and perception. Does a tree falling in the woods make a sound when no one’s around?

A 21st century media variant runs like so: If an event takes place and no one shares it, did it really take place at all?

Consider China, where tensions between pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong and the Chinese government continue to rise. Just this week masked assailants attacked protestors and police fired rubber bullets at them.

That’s what we see and hear on the outside. Inside China, the story is different. There, the country’s propaganda and censorship apparatus works to shape narratives and keep information from the public. The result is that not much is known in the country about why protests are taking place, only that they’re an affront to China and its One Country, Two Systems policy.

Quartz recently published a video demonstrating how the Chinese actively bury news coming out of Hong Kong. It’s a fascinating look at the country’s censorship technology. It includes removing social media posts containing specific words and phrases (common and well known); removing single messages (be it a video, image or text) from within people’s private message threads (less well known and eyebrow raising); and flooding the information field with counter-narratives (a common propaganda tactic).

View on YouTube

The attempt is full state control of the information ecosystem. It begins with disappearing content, continues at scale with state narratives, and continues by gaslighting those who say a story or event runs differently.

Take the state-run China Daily newspaper. Visit its web site and the stories about Hong Kong are few. Those you do find call the non-violent protestors “radical rioters” who must be “smacked down“. A far cry from what the rest of the world has seen and watched in international coverage.

China’s official channels decontextualize the protests. Mainland Chinese watching the country’s most popular news program aren’t told why there are protesters, only that there are protesters, and no matter what the protests might be about, a silent majority supports China’s Hong Kong policies.

Aside from this, the protests don’t really register as news. One of the few Hong Kong-related items on the China Daily home page is a special advertorial on doing business in Hong Kong.

Combine the non-coverage with the country’s ability to disappear social media posts about the protests and, arguably more sinister, its ability to silently block individual messages within chats between individuals and you see how effective traditional propaganda becomes when combined with cutting edge digital censorship.

Video Still, What Hong Kong's Protests Look Like from Inside China, via Quartz.
Video Still, What Hong Kong’s Protests Look Like from Inside China, via Quartz.

Into the information vacuum go the words, images and narratives of the state. A 2017 study estimates that the Chinese government fabricates about 448 million social posts and comments each year.

If mainland Chinese can’t see the protests, don’t hear about the protests and can’t share information about the protests, what does it mean to say that that they’re taking place?

Primary in the activist’s toolkit is that someone, somewhere bears witness and passes information to a larger collective that can then take action based on that information. What happens when the ability to do so is silently stripped away?

What we see in China are the early years of a state’s attempt to digitally root out that capability. More, we’re watching the attempt to do it surgically and at scale.

Some of the techniques might seem blunt or crude at this time but it’s a given that they’ll only improve moving forward. That other authoritarian states are watching, learning and looking to get their hands on the technologies and methodologies to do the same is also a given.

Give it a generation. As the tools grow more subtle and difficult to perceive, the state’s ability to simulate reality and codify opinion will grow more complete. Reality won’t be televised. Instead, and unfortunately, it will be delivered by bots and trolls, fakes deep and shallow. With it, the state’s will have an ever growing capability to gaslight and silence those that disagree.

We’re watching how this new censorship tech works in Hong Kong, one protest at a time.

Featured image – Detail, Fables and Fairy Tales by Filip Zrnsević.

America's trash problem is growing and getting worse. China used to be our dumping ground. Now our waste has no place to go.

“Recycling has been dysfunctional for a long time,” a trash expert tells The New York Times, “But not many people really noticed when China was our dumping ground.”

Municipalities across the United States are noticing though. As Vox explains, almost half the world’s used plastic used to end up in China as part of a $200 billion global recycling industry. A little over a year ago, though, China stopped accepting much of the recycled waste it once processed in an effort to combat its notorious pollution.

Towns and cities now face mountains of trash they once recycled somewhat economically.

As a result of this ban, the global recycling system has been crumbling, and plenty of cities in the US are now struggling to figure out what to do with their recycled goods…

The University of Georgia has estimated that China’s ban on imported recyclables will leave 111 million metric tons of trash from around the world with nowhere to go by 2030. But we don’t even need to look ahead to the next decade for consequences because they’re already happening. Tons of recycled paper and plastics are piling up across the country, and this problem has only just begun.

The Times provides some anecdotes about how China’s withdrawal from recycling the US waste is upending our trash economy:

Philadelphia is now burning about half of its 1.5 million residents’ recycling material in an incinerator that converts waste to energy. In Memphis, the international airport still has recycling bins around the terminals, but every collected can, bottle and newspaper is sent to a landfill. And last month, officials in the central Florida city of Deltona faced the reality that, despite their best efforts to recycle, their curbside program was not working and suspended it.

China isn’t the only country that’s backed out of recycling other countries’ waste. Countries such as India and Thailand still import scrap but have new restrictions on what they’ll take. Basically, with fewer global buyers for recyclables, US recycling companies are charging cities more to take it. As cash strapped municipalities balk at the price increases, more trash gets sent to incinerators which, in turn, leads to health issues as dioxins spew into the air.

Take, for instance, Wired’s recent reporting on the Covanta incinerator in Chester City, Pennsylvania. The incinerator takes in waste from nearby states and “torches around 3,510 tons of trash, the weight equivalent of more than 17 blue whales, every day.” Into the air go known carcinogens that health experts worry affect the surrounding community.

Nearly four in 10 children in [Chester] have asthma, while the rate of ovarian cancer is 64 percent higher than the rest of Pennsylvania and lung cancer rates are 24 percent higher, according to state health statistics.

The problem isn’t one just affecting the United States (and to see how it affects individual states, see Wastedive, an industry site, and its state-by-state tracker of what’s happening where). With fewer developing nations willing to take on the world’s trash, countries like Australia have decided to just bury it.

These are band-aid solutions though, and as the Covanta incinerator shows, hazardous ones at that. The world’s trash is piling up with few ways to properly, healthfully, dispose of it.

Over a dozen countries now ban the sale of single-use plastic shopping bags and various companies like Unilever and PepsiCo are using reusable packaging (yet still produce so much plastic bottled beverage).

Still, such measures are just the tip of the trash heap. How we tackle the word’s waste will take a lot more digging.