“Unerasable Characters III” By Winnie Soon is created as a website and available in a web browser. It is easily accessible by searching “Unerasable Characters III” in your search engine. This website is the third part of the unerasable series that explores the politics of erasure and the voices that go unheard due to digital authoritarianism.
When you access the website there will be a moving portrait that looks like outer space. While you are on the webpage it recommends that you open the portrait on the top of the screen in a separate desktop browser. You can access that separate browser using a hypertext link by clicking the highlighted word, “here” on the webpage. The portrait is black with white textual characters, symbols, and emojis. Below the portrait that is staged at the top of the webpage, there are multiple paragraphs in both English and Mandarin that explain what the portrait is displaying. In the portrait, there are many dates scattered throughout. However, nothing else is legible on the portrait which demonstrates how digital authoritarianism has erased the voices of many people. The textual characters, symbols, and emojis found in the portrait are symbolizing the unheard voices.
In the paragraphs below the portrait, the paragraphs explain where the unheard voices hidden in the portrait originate from. Dr. Fu King-wa from the University of Hong Kong created a system called “Weiboscope” . Weiboscope is a project that Dr. Fu King-wa started that examines microbloggers with 1000 or more followers or have posts that are frequently censored. The portrait is showing the censored voices from one of the biggest social media platforms in China called “Weibo”. In the portrait, the unheard voices that are being presented are from a set of data that was collected from the microbloggers between December 1st, 2019, and February 27th, 2019. It is important to note that this time period was when the COVID-19 outbreak began in China. During that time period, there were 11,362,502 posts, 1,230,353 contained an outbreak-related keyword and 2,104 (1.7 per 1,000) posts had been censored. This information makes reference to an article that questions if the world looked over “COVID-19’s early warning signs” .
The digital artwork that is displayed says a lot without saying anything at all. The unreadable material is significant because it was at one point information available for everyone to see. Now all that is left is the punctuation, emojis, special characters, and blurry time stamps. The content has been erased and is no longer available for people to interpret. This is a result of politics and digital authoritarianism. The content was censored because the material in these posts went against what the China government wanted consumers to see. Censorship and erasure of digital content is very problematic because it controls what information consumers see. It only shows consumers one narrative on a given subject. Censorship denies the opportunity for people to debate, or fact-check an opposing narrative. When considering the 2,104 posts that were censored on Weibo because they contained an outbreak-related keyword, you have to ask yourself, why were they censored? Since the posts containing outbreak-related keywords have been erased all that can be questioned now are the impacts that censorship has on people as individuals as well as how it impacts the entire world. If these posts about the COVID-19 outbreak were not censored, could it have prevented widespread transmission leading to the prevention of a worldwide pandemic? Did the Chinese government intentionally censor the digital posts that warned of the COVID-19 outbreaks to allow the outbreak to cause a worldwide pandemic? The beauty of silent digital artwork is that it allows the viewer to form an opinion on censorship and erasure. Whether you stand for or against censorship and digital authoritarianism, both opinions matter and should not be silenced.
This website was super easy to use and navigate. Overall, I enjoyed engaging with this webpage because the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted my life in many ways. When the COVID-19 pandemic was in its early stages there were many rumours going around. It is nice to see some truth behind what had transpired in China during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the truth is not revealed due to the censored content, it provides us with knowledge moving forward. In a world that is becoming increasingly digitized, we must be aware of censorship and digital authoritarianism. Reflecting on the silenced voices on the Weibo social media platform we must always ask ourselves; is what we are seeing the absolute truth? Or are there voices being silenced by digital authoritarianism?
This entry was written as a part of Professor Dani Spinosa’s class ENGL 4309H: Digital Adventures in English at Trent University in February 2022.
Fu, King Wa; Zhu, Yuner (2020): COVID-19 related Weibo Data from “Did the world overlook the media’s early warning of COVID-19?”. HKU Data Repository. Dataset. https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.12199038.v1
Soon, Winnie. “Unerasable Characters III”. The New River. 2021.