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Ai Weiwei, censorship and sacred facts

My friend Michael Anti posted a tweet earlier today about Chinese artist and political activist, Ai Weiwei:

Ai Weiwei to undergo cranial surgery in Germany within hours, a month after beaten by Chengdu police. Let’s pray for him.

The post caught my eye because Xiao Qiang, founder of China Digital Times, spoke about Ai’s increasingly vocal protests in talking about the Internet’s transformation of activism in China at the Cloud Intelligence symposium in Linz, Austria.

Xiao Qiang told the audience that Ai had become obsessed with the collapse of school buildings during the Chengdu earthquakes. A disproportionate number of school buildings collapsed in the quake, probably due to shoddy construction performed by contractors who kicked back money to government officials to win bids. Ai Weiwei’s protest was very simple and powerful – he collected the names of children killed in the earthquakes and posted more than five thousand of those names on his blog.

The New York Times topic page on the artist remarked that it was unusual that Ai Weiwei’s blog had remained uncensored, given the fierce critiques he was posting as well as the children’s names. But Ai Weiwei’s an unusual guy, the son of a revered poet and an artist with an international reputation who was one of the designers who concieved of Beijing’s beautiful “bird’s nest” stadium. A year ago, he generated controversy by deciding to stay away from the opening ceremony of the Olympics and writing about his reasons in western publications, including The Guardian.

Ai Weiwei in custody of Chengdu police. From Wen Yunchao’s blog

While his inquiries about the Chengdu schools were initially uncensored, that changed in July, as reported by CBC, which mentioned that his blogs and other online accounts had been shut down, and Ai Weiwei reported that he’d been followed and harassed security agents. In August, Ai Weiwei travelled to Chengdu to speak as a defense witness at the trial of Tan Zuoren, an environmental activist and journalist who helped conduct a three-month investigation of the earthquake and its consequences. Ai Weiwei was detained by Chengdu police, who came to his hotel at 3am, beat him and detained him for 11 hours, making it impossible to attend the trial.

Kathleen McLaughlin, writing for GlobalPost, reports that Ai Weiwei is undergoing cranial surgery in Germany today, possibly caused by the beating he received a month ago in Chengdu. But she’s careful to source the claims only to the artist’s twitter feed, and the headline “Surgery for Chinese activist beaten by police?” makes it clear that it’s not easy to verify that the artist is undergoing surgery, or that the surgery is connected to his time in Chengdu police custody.

I’m interested in Ai Weiwei’s story on at least two levels. First, it’s fascinating to think about the story of a celebrated artist becoming an activist and becoming such a threat to power structures that police would risk detaining and beating him, knowing the potential international attention it could attract. (Rebecca MacKinnon’s interview with Ai Weiwei is useful for understanding his rapid move into activism and politics.) Given his existing fame, it seems like detaining or injuring Ai Weiwei would be an extremely dangerous way to attract attention to the controversy over Chengdu schools.

For me, there’s another level of fascination, which has to do with contemporary newsgathering and newsreading. I hadn’t planned to write about Chinese activism and free speech today – and there are a few editors to whom I owe drafts who likely wish I hadn’t just spent two hours reading about Ai Weiwei and his situation. But one feature of digital media is that it can make you vulnerable to ephemeral obsessions, topics that pique your interest and demand a deep dive, if only to understand the facts of the story.

On reading Michael Anti’s tweet, I wanted to know two things: was it true (i.e., was Ai Weiwei undergoing cranial surgery in Germany, and was the surgery related to injuries he’d suffered while in police custody?) and whether the story was going to get any amplification in English-language media. I’m very poorly placed to answer the first question – I speak neither Chinese or German. But part of the joy (and perhaps the problem) of these ephemeral obsessions is that the Internet makes it possible either to research these questions, or to feel like you’re researching these questions. My hope was that, if I could find a definitive answer to the first question, I could use what tools I have at hand to amplify the story, perhaps in the hopes of getting broader mainstream media attention to the situation.

I’m wondering how much of this dynamic was at work surrounding global interest in the Iranian election protests. My friends at the Web Ecology Project suggest that roughly 480,000 Twitter users posted at least one update regarding Iran during the weeks immediately following the elections. Some small subset of those users became devoted posters on the topic of the Iran revolutions, and not all those who became invested in aggregating, filtering and retweeting the news were of Iranian descent, were Farsi speakers or were particularly directly connected to the story. They’d simply gotten fascinated by it and were doing their part to investigate, report and amplify the story.

I think, in general, this is a really good thing. Most Americans aren’t especially interested in international news – Pew’s research on expressed media interest finds that all 15 of 2008’s high interest stories were either domestic or had a very significant domestic component. (On the other hand, the same report shows that these were the 15 stories to receive the most coverage in a sample of US media. It raises the intriguing question of whether more international reporting would lead to more interest…)

If people are willing to pay very close attention to an international story and become part of the mechanism that investigates and amplifies it, that’s a good thing. Actually, it’s probably something both journalists and activists need to harness – it raises the intriguing possibility that readers will join you in the process of investigating and understanding a story if you both provide them with enough to work with and an opportunity to meanintfully contribute. Even if an individual’s contributions don’t measurably push the investigation forwards, this may be a method to help people become more emotionally invested in stories they’re otherwise detached from.

The downside of this process – triangulating the truth from the reports you’re able to access online – is that all sorts of unwanted filtering effects can come into play. I think a lot of non-Iranians who followed post-election reports may have overestimated anti-Ahmedinejad sentiment because they were primarily able to read English-language blogs and tweets… and many of the people who opposed the post-election protests either didn’t write online or wrote in Persian. As I researched Ai Weiwei’s health, I favored reports from news sources I trust and discounted ones I trust less. Had Xinhua posted an official report on Ai Weiwei’s health, I likely would have discounted that report and waited to see if the New York Times weighed in on the story.

Fine. But what happens when different people discover very different “facts” by selecting news accounts that support their view of the world? Two very different sets of facts floated around the internet this weekend as people discussed the “912” protest in DC organized by Freedomworks and promoted by radio personalities including Glenn Beck. Right-wing activists celebrated the success of the demonstration, citing an attendence of 1 to 1.5 million, a figure that came from Matt Kibbe, one of the protest organizers. Conservative pundit Michelle Malkin and others edged up the figure to 2 million, while the more cautious Daily Mail ran the headline “A million march to US Capitol to protest against ‘Obama the socialist'”.

Here’s the odd thing. Kibbe told his audiences that the estimate of 1 to 1.5 million had come from ABC News. ABC News explicitly denied reporting this, and cited a figure of 60 – 70,000 protesters, citing an estimate from the DC Fire Department. Most newspapers cited a figure in the “tens of thousands”. There’s a big disparity between a march of 70,000 people – a big number, by anyone’s reckoning – and 1 – 2 million, which would have made the march one of the largest protests in the history of Washington DC.

For lots of readers, it probably didn’t matter. There are enough voices online repeating the 2 million figure that, if you’re trying to triangulate and confirm that figure, you’ll find likeminded voices to support the interpretation. We’d expect ABC’s official statement to carry more weight than Michelle Malkin… but keep in mind that public trust in media appears to be reaching new lows. (The Pew Center’s recent research indicates that only 29% of US respondents believed that news organizations “generally get the facts straight.”)

Megan Garber’s got a great piece in CJR titled, “Tea for two… million?” where she looks at the spread of the (grossly inaccurate) 2 million figure. (The comments on the story are especially fascinating.) She’s particularly fascinated with a post on Pajamas Media/Vodka Pundit by Stephen Green where Green quotes a “back-of-envelope” calculation from a friend who agrees with the 2 million estimate. Green quotes his friend, then says, “Knowing Charlie like I do, I’m inclined to trust his guestimates more than most people’s ‘facts.'”

The motto of Richard Sambrook’s excellent Sacred Facts blog is “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts,” a quote from the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. If we want civil, productive debates, we need to have disagreements about our opinions and intepretations, but we need common facts, or we simply talk past one another. When we don’t have facts, someone – professionals, amateurs, crowds – need to do the hard work necessary to excavate them. But I worry that the sort of armchair investigation I’ve been engaged in today can lead to these conflicts over dueling facts that make it difficult to have any sort of meaningful disagreement.

Two weeks ago, filmmakers John Alpert and Matthew O’Neill were denied the visas they needed to present their film on the Sichuan earthquake at the Beijing independent film festival. My Chinese friends who’ve been watching the Sichuan/Chengdu/Ai Weiwei story closely are hopeful that the film will tell the story to a global audience… but Chinese authorities appear to be working very hard to make sure the story isn’t told domestically.

Ai Weiwei, with the Grass Mud Horse

After authorities removed Ai Weiwei’s blogs, he posted this self-portrait on his personal website. The animal covering his genitals is intended to be a “grass mud horse”, a reference to a dirty joke about Chinese censorship so complicated that I’ve got to lead you to a whole other blogpost to explain it.

I still don’t know whether Ai Weiwei is having surgery today, or whether the surgery is connected to his police treatment. I pray that he’s okay.

Update: a friend offers a translation of a recent Twitter post from Ai Weiwei: ” Here the newest photos. Surgery lasted 2 hours, 2 holes in the skull, 30 ml of blood have been extracted, the pressure on the brain is normal again, no head ache any more.” So, good news. Here’s a photo of Ai Weiwei recovering in bed in Munich.

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More on Ai Weiwei’s condition from Danwei, who translate a post from Liu Xiaoyuan’s blog.

4 thoughts on “Ai Weiwei, censorship and sacred facts”

  1. Pingback: Twitter is so interesting… « my digital diary

  2. I think that this asshole deserves having been beaten by the police. I have arrived to such conclussion after seeing one of his “art masterpieces” . This man is just a parasit that only wants to gain celebrity without the minimun skills required for that. His only way is the “conceptual art”. Ai Weiwei is a living insult against any existing artist in this world.

  3. he just wants a visa to avoid responsibility for destroying a national treasure in a moment of madness.

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