It goes without saying that social media is one of the most important communication tools of our generation. For the Uyghurs in China, where they are subject to genocidal policies, social media acts as a double-edged sword, providing opportunities for resistance and, at the same time, crippling oppression and surveillance.
Chinese citizens are some of the most active and numerous internet users, despite the Chinese web being heavily censored and monitored. The instantaneous, user-created content that emerges from social media has proven to be more difficult to censor than other forms of internet use, which has created a balance of activism and authoritarianism.
Social Media as Oppression
Social media has created an opportunity for the state to track and predict user movements in China. No other time in history has permitted a state to use facial recognition software so easily, to track user movements through mobile chips, and to track patterns of speech or language. Social media users create data that aids the government in predicting future behaviours or preferences. For China and the Uyghurs, this has provided the government open access to surveil citizens.
In 2009, Uyghur youth used Facebook to coordinate protests in objection to the mass killing of Uyghur workers at a factory in Eastern China. Shortly afterwards, hundreds of Uyghur youths were detained by police and went missing. Subsequently, internet access was limited in Eastern China for over 10 months. The entire country was blocked from Twitter and Facebook. In 2010, when the internet was reopened, non-Chinese social media such as Twitter and Facebook were completely blocked, and continue to be blocked, by strong firewalls. These restrictions make it difficult for individuals to communicate with anyone outside their country, and much less share instantaneous, unfiltered information with family and friends, as all communication is monitored and censored.
In February 2021, Chinese authorities blocked another social media site, Clubhouse, which is an audio-only chatting app, after some of the chats were found to have discussed issues such as violence against the Uyghurs. The Chinese government continues to block any discussion of human rights abuses against the Uyghurs, by both censoring and silencing any dissenting views.
Chinese authorities have also purchased social media ads as forms of propaganda for their actions against the Uyghurs. The Global Times, a Chinese-controlled tabloid, has run ads on Facebook reiterating their stance that the camps in Xinjiang are vocational training centres. These ads, showing smiling and dancing detainees, were targeted at millions of Western viewers. There is an active campaign within and outside China to justify their human rights abuses against the Uyghurs.
Social Media as Resistance
Alternatively, social media has provided some opportunities for communicating the lived experiences of the Uyghurs. While social media is strongly censored in China, and Xinjiang especially, there has been growing resistance from international sources. Family and friends of those detained have been speaking out around the world, helping to bring focus to the lived experiences of the oppressed in Xinjiang province. Activists and Uyghur rights groups have been pushing their governments to do more, using social media as their tool for resistance.
Some notable posts have come from TikTok, a Chinese-owned app, like that of a U.S. teen who pretended to be giving a makeup tutorial and, within the video, encouraged users to educate themselves about the Chinese genocide against the Uyghurs. The video has received millions of views. Other TikTok users have been utilizing similar tactics to disguise their posts, in the hopes they will pass through the censorship of the Chinese media.
In August 2020, Twitter changed its advertising policies so as not to permit state-owned news outlets to purchase ad space from its platform. On January 20th, 2021, Twitter went a step further and blocked the Chinese Embassy in the US Twitter page after a “dehumanizing” tweet saying “[Uyghur women are] no longer baby making machines”.
Facebook, on the other hand, continues to depend on user complaints of content before considering censoring and has admitted it still accepts ad revenue from state-controlled media.
In the complex balance of free speech, human rights, and state censorship, social media provides a means for activists to draw attention to the genocide occurring in China. Conversely, social media has also created even greater surveillance and censorship of the Uyghurs by China. Still, there seems to be some increasing momentum recently, whereworld powers are publicly recognizing that what is happening to the Uyghurs is genocide. Thanks to social media, we have been able to get glimpses into some of the human rights offences occurring in China against the Uyghurs, but there are undoubtedly more stories to be heard. With momentum and attention now gaining in Canadian media, how much more do we need to see and hear before the Canadian Government acts?