Are we thrown into prison cell?

In China, with the development of Internet, the public has more opportunities to make themselves heard, which can promote the social democracy. However, unexpected consequences come along with the advantages. In recent years, a new term popped up into the cyberspace, which is called “Online Water Army”. This is a group of people hired by so called “Online PR Company”, whose duty is to post comments in high frequency on social media, forums and blogs in order to spread message and influence public opinion.[1] In some ways, “Water Army” can be beneficial, for example product promotion and public relation in crisis. Nevertheless, fake news and unethical agitation are greatly produced, placing the reliability of the Internet is at stake.

“Water Army” is anonymous and consequently uncontrollable. This greatly concerns the Chinese government. To solve this problem, many provinces in China have decided to establish the Internet real-name system. This means Internet users have to register with real names to get on-line, and their online behaviors are under supervision of the administration. The goal of Internet real-name policy is to boost cyber security and ensure the health of the Internet landscape.

However, The Internet real-name system reminds me of the concept of Panopticon

Panopticon blueprint by Jeremy Bentham, 1791

designed by Jeremy Bentham, an English jurist, philosopher and social reformer. Panopticon is in a circular structure, with an “inspection tower” in the middle and prison cells around. The “inspection tower” is equipped with glass window in every side toward prison cells, and every prison cell has two glass windows, one toward the “inspection tower”, the other facing outside, allowing the light go through the cell. In this way, inspectors can easily observe inmates in any prison cell; while inmates might not know whether they are been watched since they cannot see through the “inspection tower”. Therefore, in case of being watched, inmates have to behave properly all the time.

Michel Foucault addressed the effect of Panopticon on human behavior in Discipline and Punish. He thought that the Panopticon is a perfect way of surveillance. Under the surveillance, people are guided and tamed by invisible rules, and have to behave properly and identically, losing individual personality as a consequence.

The Internet real-name system is similar to the Panopticon. With real names displayed, netizens who post political sensitive topics may be easily identified. Afraid of punishment or revenge, netizens might be inclined to restrain themselves in expressing thoughts, avoiding the risks of being “improper”. This may lead to the fact that less reflection of the truth can be heard from the Internet, and the function of supervision on government behavior might be weakening as well.

I have a picture in my mind: I am sitting in front of my laptop, typing my comments on a blog; the screen of my laptop is not a real one, but a window through which an inspector is watching me. His eyes were sharp, like saying to me that “watch out, I know your real name, don’t do something stupid!” I can hardly feel comfortable about this, because I do not want to be a “prisoner”.

[1] Echo. The Online Water Army: How Businesses Deceive Chinese Internet Users. Retrieved from: http://www.east-west-connect.com/china-internet/online-water-army-how-businesses-deceive-chinese-internet-users

Shu Hu

With a BA degree of Sichuan University in Editing & Publishing, Shu is a former graduate member of CCT community. She is the first Chinese blogger of gnovis, of which she is really proud. For the academic interests here in CCT, blogs focusing on new media study and cultural comparison between countries may be unfolded by Shu. Also, she enjoys dancing, drama, and whatever forms of art.