By: Jane’a Johnson
Pro tip number one: Pick a word any word – except maybe the hashtag #MeToo. The Me Too Movement, founded by a Black American woman named Tarana Burke to encourage empathy and empowerment for sexual assault survivors, became ubiquitous online and offline in 2017. In China, women have been using the coded phrase “rice bunny” (米兔), pronounced as “mi tu,” to get around would-be censors who would shut down conversations online about sexual harassment.
Pro tip number two: It might also be a good idea to avoid the words “pork,” “Mexico,” or “Al Qaeda.” In 2012, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security released a group of 377 words they used to track what they identify as threats, following freedom of information request received from the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
“Bacteria”, “Wildfire,” and “Spammer” are also to be avoided. No word yet on if “White Supremacy” or “Alt-Right” has made the updated Homeland Security list for 2018.
Online censorship and its close cousin online tracking are international problems shared by democracies (though some preeminent scholars argue the United States is an oligarchy and has always tried restrict democracy in one way or another), unitary states with one-party rule, and theocracies. Strange, since we are so often encouraged to think about the vast differences (and there are vast differences) between these types of governments. Perhaps power transcends cultural constructs and ideological differences. Maybe controlling the flow of information is something common to all regimes, thus making its free dissemination an important value across territorial lines — though that freedom will different in different places.
Avoid directly dismissing the importance of the dominate religion in public and civic life — advice not followed by Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who received 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes in 2007. Try using phrases such as “check the water meter” to mean a house call from the police, another gem gleaned from China. Please, never write about “cops” or “gangs,” lest you be some kind of threat to someone somewhere in these 50 states.
To wrap up: When in doubt, think very carefully about who and what is an existential threat to your government. It might surprise you. Or not.
Jane’a Johnson is pursuing a PhD in modern culture and media at Brown University and an MLIS at San Jose State University. She holds a BA from Spelman College in philosophy and an MA in cinema and media studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. Jane’a’s research interests include visual culture and violence, heritage ethics and media archives.