Unerasable Characters II

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2020
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The project explores the politics of erasure and the temporality of voices within the context of digital authoritarianism. Unerasable Characters II presents the sheer scale of unheard voices by technically examining and culturally reflecting the endlessness, and its wider consequences, of censorship that is implemented through technological platforms and infrastructure.

The project collects unheard voices in the form of censored/erased (permission denied status via the official API) text, including emojis, symbols, English and Chinese characters, which is based on one of the biggest social media platform in China called Weibo. A daily scraping script is used to fetch those text via Weiboscope, a data collection and visualization project, developed by Dr. Fu King Wa from Hong Kong University, in which the system has been regularly sampling timelines of a set of selected Chinese microbloggers who have more than 1,000 followers or whose posts are frequently censored.

Consisting of a custom-software (written in Python and p5.js) that scrapes the erased “tweets” from Weiboscope on a daily basis, the project, as a web-based art, presents the archives in a grid format. Each tweet is deconstructed into a character-by-character display that occupies a flashing unit for a limited period. The duration of each ‘tweet’ is computed from the actual visible time on Weibo, and the web page will transform from a busy canvas to an empty one with all the text is fully disappeared. The program will then fetch a new set of archives and the cycle will repeat endlessly. It takes an average of 4 hours per cycle to empty the screen.

Unerasable Characters II raises questions regarding not only data capture from a corporational perspective, but also the matters of who might be the readers in digital platforms like Weibo, and even the wider influential audio and web conference platform like Zoom, where online events were being censored globally. The project further points to the operations of censorship that requires different levels of collaboration between corporations, states, human labours, the intelligence of machines and algorithms, but more importantly is to examine the contested notions of "violation of policies" (rule of law) as the seemingly common argument of corporations, as well as wider issues of censorship and the threats to free speech and academic freedom.

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Cecilie Klingenberg