Instagram censors Melbourne artist’s anti-Beijing post but ignores trolls | Technology
The censorship of Badiucao – and later restoration – by Instagram came as Twitter and Facebook suspended more than 200,000 accounts deemed to be part of a “co-ordinated state-backed operation” of misinformation from the People’s Republic of China.
Badiucao, a Shanghai-born Melbourne artist and outspoken critic of the Chinese government, had his artwork, a stylised depiction of Chairman Mao mounting an emu and a kangaroo – a comment on Chinese influence in Australian politics – censored by Instagram as “violating community standards”.
Badiucao – a pseudonym used to protect his identity – has repeatedly flagged death threats made against him but these have not been censored or removed. Several examples seen by the Guardian include abuse toward him and his family and direct threats such as: “Motherfuckers. I will kill you. Cut down you head bitch.”
Badiucao said he “strongly objected” to his art being censored, while online trolls were allowed to threaten people with impunity.
“Instagram’s violation on my free speech is unacceptable. This violation is not just happening to me but also to a lot of dissidents and people who dare to speak up against China’s bully[ing].
“The real thing is … Instagram’s failure [to] address the constant death threats and online bullying from the trolls of China. I have reported many times about this issue. But it never gets addressed, every time Instagram [says] the death threats I receive do not violate its rules.”
Facebook, owner of Instagram, later reversed its decision on his artwork, writing to Badiucao: “it looks like we made a mistake and removed something you posted on Instagram that didn’t go against our community standards. We want to apologise and let you know that we’ve restored your content.”
Previously, Badiucao was only photographed or seen publicly wearing a mask. But he revealed his identity on 4 June – the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests – after his identity was compromised, leading to the cancellation of a Hong Kong exhibition over “safety concerns”. Since then, he says, he has felt unsafe, not only online but in Melbourne where he lives.
“It’s dangerous to speak out against the Chinese government. Since my identity was revealed, my life has changed a lot. I have been followed several times, once by four men, all wearing bluetooth earpieces, on a bus. I’ve been intimidated on the streets, or while I am travelling. I have suspicious cars parking outside my residence.”
The physical intimidation is not limited to Australia. In Berlin, where Badiucao worked last year, his apartment building was broken into and his mailbox raided.
Badiucao told the Guardian that Australia needed to have an open and frank discussion about the influence of the Chinese state in Australia. But he said there was a danger in the public and political discourse of conflating people of Chinese ancestry living in Australia with the Chinese state, in assuming that all Chinese people and organisations were supportive of or loyal to the communist party.
“I think Australia is way behind in having this discussion,” Badiucao said. “In Australia, 5% of the population has a Chinese background – it’s a great thing, however I don’t think the Australian government can get away from the manipulation, intimidation and control of Beijing. That needs to be addressed.
“At the same time, I do think there are problems like xenophobia and racism in Australia; those kinds of attitudes are helping push the Chinese propaganda much more smoothly: ‘you need a strong motherland to protect you’. Australia needs to address the issue of Chinese government influence in education, in business, in politics, to debate it, but not to exclude the Chinese community, to make it part of the conversation.”
Badiucao is speaking at the Chaser Lecture at Sydney University on Thursday night, in conversation with the journalist and comedian Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, who is delivering the keynote lecture.
Since reporting on the pro-China rallies in Sydney on Saturday, Xu said she had been overwhelmed with abuse and threats from online trolls, who had physically threatened her, described her being raped, insulted her family and condemned her as a traitor. Others called for “doxxing” – the publication of personal details such as her address and phone number.
“I have just shut down all of my socials. There is just too much.”
Xu said as a journalist she had spoken to many people in the Chinese Australian community who disagreed with the ultra-nationalistic views espoused by some, but who were too frightened to be publicly quoted in opposition.
“They would say, ‘we don’t agree with this, but please don’t write about it’. People who disagree are made to feel like they are the minority, that is the way the authoritarian regimes work. At the protests, it is shouted ‘if you don’t love China, you’re our enemy’ – that rhetoric, that you are an enemy, makes dissenting a difficult place to be, a lonely place.”
Xu said her speech on Thursday will canvas her transition from orthodox and patriotic Chinese student to free speech campaigner.
“I used to be quite patriotic, but it was individual stories that put some compassion and empathy in me. I was inspired to do some work that could contribute to human rights, to freedom of speech. This will be my first time telling my own story publicly, and I hope I can make others feel that empathy, that understanding.”
Globally, Twitter has announced it has suspended 936 accounts it believes originated from within the PRC “deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong”. The accounts were the most active part of a “larger, spammy network” of more than 200,000 accounts that had been “proactively suspended” by Twitter before they were significantly active.
Twitter is blocked in the PRC, but millions access the social platform by using VPNs.
Facebook has removed seven pages, three groups and five accounts “involved in co-ordinated … deceptive tactics”, including posing as news sites and spreading misinformation about the ongoing Hong Kong protests.