Digital Convergence and Divergence: An Age of (dis)Connection
Updated: Nov 11, 2020
Note: I wrote this article for my departmental magazine back in April 2020. The issue can be found here.
The real and the unreal behind global digital coverage
With our heavy reliance on communication software, electronic devices, and their associated infrastructure, is it still useful or even possible to distinguish virtual life from ‘real’ life? More importantly, as opposed to (or in addition to) facilitating the orthodox narrative of peaceful co-existence, how might this fusion help stir the undercurrents of resentment and provoke conflicts between peoples?
Beginning with the spread of colonialism and transitioning through various stages of nation-building and the rise of international governance, the past centuries have led humanity to a historical movement of convergence (fig.1). Modern European ideals, such as ‘sovereignty’, ‘representation’, ‘freedom’, ‘rights’ as well as the master concept of ‘democracy’, are now widely recognised as universal values that undergird our contemporary political consensus. This ideological landscape of universalism has been the distinctive background of my generation, especially for those with a privileged cosmopolitan exposure.
This convergence of values, however, now provides a new context for conflicts through a parallel convergence of ‘technological development’. Ideological manoeuvres and clashes are surely nothing new. What is new, is the digital transformation of conventional ideological media into something more extended and diffused - ‘infospheres’ (Hui,2020); like Twitter, where every seemingly innocuous tweet could be a deliberate construct.
'Netizens', people, and Internet wars
We may look at this through the peculiar concept of ‘netizens’ (whatever that means). Earlier this month, an ‘Internet war’ between ‘netizens’ from China and ‘netizens’ from Thailand, Taiwan, and Hong Kong broke out (keywords: milk tea alliance/ Thailand China meme war). Deeply politicised memes as well as hateful posts and comments in Chinese, Thai, and English characterised this regional clash on Twitter (see fig. 2-3). At one point, the war even spread to Weibo – a Chinese microblogging platform, where related hashtags had over 4.64 billion views and 1.44million posts.
Fig. 2/3 Screenshots of memes and tweets exchanged between Thai and Chinese Twitter users
It all began when a Thai TV star Vachirawit Chivaree re-tweeted four photos to which he referred as ‘four different countries’. It did not take long until his active Chinese fanbase spotted that the photos included Hong Kong – a city perhaps best known recently for its ongoing democracy movement - and immediately questioned Chivaree’s motivation. Although Chivaree soon apologised, a collective of mainland Chinese ‘netizens’ moved on to dig up posts from the Instagram account of Chivaree’s girlfriend - Weeraya Sukaram and found that in 2017 post, Sukaram specified her style as ‘Taiwanese’. Taken as evidence of disrespect towards China’s territorial integrity, the Chinese fans decided to escalate their operation, prompting Thai netizens and fans to push back. This series of events eventually and quickly spiralled into a Twitter war following #nnevyy and #milkteaalince.
State presence loomed large even in this seemingly insignificant grass-root ‘war’. The Chinese embassy in Bangkok stated on Twitter to insist the ‘One China Principle’ (China, Taiwan and Hong Kong as one ‘China’), as the incident triggered sensitive elements of regional politics, with ‘netizens’ from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Thailand soon joining forces. Arguably, the turning point was the expression of solidarity of Joshua Wong (a well-known activist from Hong Kong and a key advocate for the ongoing democracy movement) with the Thai and in opposition to the Chinese.
In reality, the black-boxed term ‘netizens’ tells us little about anything, as though a human being would simply morph into a ‘netizen’ when an electronic screen lights up. While it may be said that netizens are obviously people - are ‘people’ ever just ‘people’? The example of ‘Wu Mao’ （五毛）may tell us a thing or two. Wu Mao refers to ‘internet commentators’ hired by the Chinese state to produce pseudonymous and deceptive writings disguised as the opinions of ordinary people. These hired guns play a pervasive role in managing public opinion by attacking government critics or anyone deemed a threat to the ‘public order’. It is estimated there are as many as two million Wu Mao, producing 448 million posts every year. The Wu Mao are often indistinguishable from those who voluntarily attack opponents of the regime and create a jingoistic atmosphere online, known as the ‘volunteer Wu Mao’ and ‘little pinks’ （小粉紅）– millennials with intense chauvinistic sentiments (King, Pan and Roberts, 2017).
The value of realness?
To be sure, the basic functioning of everyday life is sustained by a reliable-enough does of faith in the stability of reality. If we wake up everyday questioning whether we live in a simulation, Purdue Pharma would probably be 100x its current size.
While an anthropological truism dictates that our perception is necessarily mediated (to oversimplify, the idea that we are conditioned, one way or another), the pervasiveness, hypersensitivity and unpredictability of these ‘internet wars’ challenge directly our ability to make sense of what is ‘real’ in everyday life - now that we know such spectacles could indeed be organised theatrics. Meanwhile, to what extent can we interpret the apparently voluntary aggression on the Internet, like a history textbook might, as a top-down product of official rhetoric and ideologies?
I don’t have an answer, nor am I sure whether that’s the right question to ask. However, it does exemplify the (unintended) consequences of cross-cultural interaction afforded by ‘communication technologies'. Informational overload is already a much discussed topic when we talk about connectivity. The ongoing pandemic has rendered visible the otherwise intangible ‘infospheres’ that have been meticulously constructed over the past decades (Hui, 2020). If anything, we have already witnessed how information circulation remains fluid despite our restrained mobility. It rings true that, for many urban dwellers, the lock-down entails more of a 'bodily distancing' rather than 'social distancing', as Zizek argues recently.
These intangible digital spaces enable a new type of human conflict, ‘infowar’- a type of conflict with no boundaries, physical or otherwise. On the one hand, infospheres are de-territorialised, as they move beyond physical borders and blur the boundaries between the local and the global (Hui, 2020). On the other hand, the state simply ceases to be a meaningful unit for us to understand the ideological proxy wars that dominate our Twitter feed. The phenomenon of ‘Twitter diplomacy’ is a prime example, as traditional figures of authority and official representation now effectively yell at each other when and wherever they want (fig. 4-5)
Fig. 4/5. Hu Xijin (left) is the editor-in-chief of Global Times (a major Chinese state-owned media). Solomon Yue (right) is a senior American-Chinese member of the republican party. (Twitter)
The parallel convergence of value systems and ‘technology’ thus presents a peculiar dilemma. Whereas keywords such as ‘humanity’, ‘representation and ‘sovereignty’ constitute a common language that enables exchanges between modern peoples, the same narrative is also the context in which ideological clashes take place, amplified by competing regional and global infospheres.
The benefits of enhanced connectivity, swift accessibility and real-time exchanges offered by ‘communication technologies’ have been much celebrated, but to what end? It is not my intent to explore whether digitised communication is more or less ‘authentic’, but to question how increased connectivity erects barriers. Underneath the harmonious picture of a unified humanity, hidden wells of resentment are being released and channelled through various infospheres. Have we entered a time where virtually ubiquitous and meticulously orchestrated propaganda is fused with ‘democratised’ trash talk? If globalisation is indeed rolling back, it may not require official constraints. We might already be too busy yelling at each other behind glass doors, no longer with any desire to travel between rooms.
Appadurai, Arjun. 1990. Theory, Culture & Society, vol.7(2-3), pp.295-310
Hui, Y, 2020. One Hundred Years of Crisis. [online]. e-flux.
King, G. Pan, J. and Roberts, M. 2017. How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, Not Engaged Argument. American Political Science Review, 111(3), 484-501. doi:10.1017/S0003055417000144