When Ai Weiwei was arrested by the Chinese government in April of 2011, the first question asked was — what will happen to his Twitter account? The dissident Chinese artist’s social media presence, including dozens of tweets a day, was his way of connecting with local and global audiences despite the restriction of the Great Firewall. Prior to his detention, he also used it for activism, posting the names of children who fell victim to the deadly Sichuan Earthquake as part of a campaign against corrupt governmetn officials.
When Ai was released, his Twitter output started up again, and has reached its old volume. But now China's msot famous artist's online presence has crashed up against Twitter's recently announced new international censorship policy, which makes it possible for national governments to control what tweets are displayed to users in their countries. He has not wasted time denouncing the policy.
“If Twitter censors, I’ll stop tweeting,” the artist tweeted on January 26.
Twitter couches the decision in softer terms. “We give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country — while keeping it available in the rest of the world,” the company wrote in a blog post. “We have also built in a way to communicate transparently to users when content is withheld, and why.”
Twitter now has the ability to work with local governments and local laws on a country-by-country basis to decide what tweets are displayed to users. This does not mean that a single tweet could be excised from the global network as a whole, only that users in the targeted country won’t be able to see it in their stream. Twitter states that they will be transparent about the censorship, publishing a placeholder instead of the offending tweet with a link to “learn more” about why it was excised.
The strategy of compliance will help Twitter expand in countries where there are “different ideas about the contours of self-expression,” the company wrote euphemistically. But this new policy may also damage Twitter’s reputation as a proponent of social-media-enabled activism — the site was seen as instrumental to the uprisings of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. It marks, in the Financial Times words, a “more pragmatic phase in the company’s evolution.”
For the time being, Twitter remains an avenue of relative freedom for Ai Weiwei. Elsewhere in his life, he is watched more closely. On January 15, police summoned the artist to the Chaoyang station closest to his Beijing studio. They informed him that he was suspected of “attacking a security camera,” reports NTD. The accusation was a result of people caught “throwing things” at the cameras stationed around his studio, according to Ai’s mother Gao Ying.
The artist was quickly released and the incident turned into a joke among Chinese netizens — including on Twitter. Economist He Qinglian tweeted drily, "'attacking’ normally refers to behavior against people. The camera is a thing, not a person. Only the Communist Party would raise the tools of the regime to the status of people.”