Widespread political repression, the subjugation of citizens, authoritarianism and totalitarianism were the defining hallmarks of the period after World War II. Shortly after the war, an atmosphere of fear, pestilence, and poverty cast a gloomy shadow over most parts of the world. It was this air of post-World War II melancholy that formed the backdrop of the novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four written by Eric Blair, with the nom de plume George Orwell. Published in the year 1948, Nineteen-Eighty-Four is a dystopian novel that draws on the prevailing realities of the times it was published to predict the future. While the year 1984 which Orwell’s novel predicted may have come and gone, the distressing prophecies the novel forecasts remain timely. No one described the essence of Orwell’s novel better than English writer, Anthony Burgess, who said that Nineteen-Eighty-Four is “an apocalyptic codex of our worst fears.”
All of the things that Nineteen-Eighty-Four presaged — a gross violation of human rights, repressive governments, mass surveillance of citizens, suppression of independent thought, regimentation of human action and behavior — have become present-day realities, 72 years after the novel was published.
The widespread permeation of internet network technologies throughout the world has further aggravated this reality of mass governmental suppression. Besides using digital platforms and devices to subjugate citizens, governments across the globe have also taken their espionage and battle for power to the world wide web; China and America’s supremacy battle vis-a-vis which country gets to float 5G first; Russia’s obsessive meddling in America’s elections; China’s bugging of the African Union building and the weaponization of social media to spread fake and misleading information during election campaigns all show the growing importance of the internet as the new battlefield where countries and powerful groups flex their power. Moreover, mounting evidence suggests that terrorist cells across the globe have also resorted to using the internet to lure new recruits and spread their ideologies.
To further expand the scope of this discussion, I’d like to briefly explore China’s newly introduced social credit system which shares a lot of similarities with the world of George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four and the popular Netflix series Black Mirror.
According to the Chines government, the raison d’etre of the social credit system which is driven primarily by mass surveillance is to cultivate public trust and enhance social stability. In a statement that reads like a religious edict, the Chinese government stated that the social credit system will “allow the trustworthy to roam freely under heaven while making it difficult for the discredited to take a single step”.
To start with, the use of big data communication technologies is the lifeboat of the social credit system. Mass deployed facial recognition cameras are placed in strategic places to match faces of citizens to a massive database of citizens’ pictures in seconds while the Chinese police wear artificial intelligence-powered smart glasses and drones to monitor the actions of citizens; very similar to the way George Orwell’s “Big Brother” and the Ingsoc party uses telescreens to monitor the citizens of fictional Oceania. Furthermore, data garnered from these mass surveillance activities are linked with the Chinese government’s digital repository which holds important school, employment, financial, transportation and health information of all Chinese citizens. With these unified digital systems, it has become very easy for the government to effectively monitor citizens, reward “good behavior” and “punish bad behavior”.
Just like it is in the Nosedive episode of Black Mirror, Chinese citizens who have low social credit scores are subjected to certain restrictions. The Chinese government has also created a digital blacklist where the data of supposed bad citizens are publicly listed. Any Chinese citizen added to the government’s digital blacklist faces harsh punishment; they are excluded from booking flights and train tickets, ineligible for admission into certain schools or jobs, restricted from accessing public services and ultimately shamed publicly.
A typical, real-time example of how the social credit system is used to punish “bad behavior” manifests in the experience of Liu Hu, a Chinese Journalist popular for investigating the Chinese government. Given his notoriety as a staunch government critic, Hu has been blacklisted in the social credit system which means he cannot buy properties, travel on China’s top tier trains or take a loan. God help Liu if he attempts to find love on a Chinese online dating site because some dating sites in the country have started integrating on their platforms a structure that displays people’s social credit score next to their dating profile.
On the other hand, individuals who comply strictly with government regulations; praise the government on social media; snitch on friends, neighbors, work colleagues and Chinese religious minorities or donate to charity organizations. This category of “trustworthy” individuals is usually rewarded with expedited work promotion, tax breaks, quick access to financial services and fast track school admission for them or their children.
With China’s successful piloting of the digital technology-enhanced social credit system, it has become crystal clear that online platforms, communication technologies, and internet-enabled digital devices are fast replacing traditional newspapers, books, television, and radio as tools for shaping public opinion, stifling government criticism and spreading ideological propaganda.
At this point, I’m sure I have an answer for Albert Einstein who didn’t “know with what weapons World War III will be fought”; if you see Mr. Einstein, do tell him that World War III will be fought with internet data, surveillance cameras, and cloud servers.
Orwell, G. (1983). 1984 : a novel . New York, N.Y: Harcourt Brace.
Guadagno, R., Lankford, A., Muscanell, N., Okdie, B. & McCallum, D. (2010). Social Influence in the online Recruitment of terrorists and terrorist Sympathizers: Implications for Social Psychology Research. Revue internationale de psychologie sociale, tome 23(1), 25–56.
Mac Síthigh, D., & Siems, M. (2019). The Chinese Social Credit System: A Model for Other Countries? Modern Law Review, 82(6), 1034–1071. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-2230.12462