by Daniel McGroarty, TES GeoPolicy Editor
What do Winnie the Pooh, Eric Cartman, Daryl Morey and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi all have in common? In a twist on Sesame Street’s “one of those things is not like all the others,” in this case, all of these things are not like the others.
Except for one thing: A British fictional toy bear, a South Park cartoon character, the general manager of a pro basketball team and the late and un-lamented leader of the ISIS terror group are all recent examples of the great digital decoupling – the effort by China and Russia to wall off their people from images, ideas and information available via the Internet, but held to be slanderous, perhaps even treasonous, by the rulers in Beijing and Moscow.
Christopher Robin’s Pooh Bear was the first to be digitally disappeared, not from the world wide web as a whole, but inside the Great Firewall of China – the inspired name for Beijing’s efforts to control its citizens’ unfettered Internet access. Winnie’s crime? An uncomfortable resemblance (try as I might, I can’t quite see it) to Chinese President Xi Jinping. China’s digital commons wasn’t big enough for the both of them. Pooh had to go.
Next came Morey, the Rocket’s GM, whose October 4 Tweet – “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong,” just days before NBA teams including his Rockets played exhibition games in basketball-crazy China – may have set some sort of a record, requiring only 39 characters of his allotted 140 to earn him a digital delete within the Great Firewall. Morey himself quickly deleted the Tweet, under fire from a weird flash-mob of NBA mega-stars and Chinese Communist Party apparatchiks, but no matter. In our era of decoupling, the damage was done.
Then came – or more precisely, went — South Park’s Cartman, along with every single one of the show’s now-300 episodes, for the offense of standing with Morey in standing for Hong Kong. And the show exited the Great Firewall with a colossal bang, with its Band in China episode, in which — spoiler alert — the South Park kids find themselves in the Chinese gulag, where they meet Winnie the Pooh. The difference, of course – often lost in our Internet-mediated world – is that Winnie the Pooh and Cartman don’t actually exist, while Daryl Morey did. Or technically still does, with the exception of the collective consciousness of 1.4 billion people in East Asia.
But China’s not the only nation with massive misgivings about a free-range Internet. Russia, too, announced this week its intent to test a planned unplugging from the Internet, beginning November 1. The test of a self-contained “RuNet system” is billed by the regime as a way of ensuring the safety and integrity of the Russian Internet against external threats – but some Russian citizens see it differently, noticing that this would funnel all Russian Internet traffic through government-monitored chokepoints, making it easier to surveil all online activity, ban access to sites that anger the regime and otherwise take a giant step towards Putin-approved thought-control. You can see images of some of the protests of what digital dissenters dub PutinNet at this link – better click quick if you’re in Smolensk when you read this.
Here’s where it gets tricky – because it’s not all about what you can’t see online any longer; it’s also about what you will see, if the decouplers wish it to be so.
Enter the just-exited Abu Bakr Al Bagdhadi, who, according to breaking news reports from the U.S. Department of Defense, vaporized himself via suicide vest as American Special Operators closed in. But less than 24 hours after al-Baghdadi’s final act, Moscow’s Defense Ministry begs to differ, disputing whether the fatal assault took place, and floating questions as to whether rumors of the ISIS leader’s death are merely greatly exaggerated.
So, while Pooh and Morey and Cartman are being air-brushed out of digital existence inside the Great Firewall, get ready for al-Baghdadi – who no longer exists in the non-digital world – to be air-brushed back in, making a cameo soon somewhere on the RuNet, trolling the American military with whatever digital legerdemain the deep-fake artists can muster.
Such is life in the time of digital decoupling. At best, we will have our own choice of realities, competing truths at the click of a keystroke — as curated by the American Internet, RuNet or China’s Great Firewall. Those on the wrong side of the Digital Iron Curtain will find it far harder to ferret out truths deemed dangerous by their digital overlords. Some have likened our experience in 2019 to the arrival of Orwell’s 1984 (itself banned within the Great Firewall). But I’m put in mind of a different image: A world in which the wonders of super-computing, Artificial Intelligence and image recognition are twisted to produce for billions of our brothers and sisters a mental map not much different than the mariner’s charts of the Middle Ages, with vast swaths of our world darked out with the warning, “Here Dragons Be.” And a new dark ages – this time digital and infinitely more difficult to escape — will have begun.
Maybe Daryl Morey was onto something: Fight for Freedom. Full stop.
Daniel McGroarty, TES GeoPolicy editor, served in senior positions in the White House and Department of Defense, and has testified in the U.S. Senate and House on critical minerals issues. McGroarty is principal of Washington, D.C.-based Carmot Strategic Group, and president of the American Resources Policy Network, a non-partisan virtual think tank dedicated to informing the public on the importance of developing U.S. metal and mineral resources. The views expressed here are his own.