Ai Weiwei is placed under house arrest

Chinese authorities express their displeasure at the artist's impudence.

The Chinese government has placed the Beijing-born artist and activist Ai Weiwei under house arrest until midnight on Sunday 7 November. Ai, who designed the 2008 Beijing Olympic Stadium and whose work "Sunflower Seeds" is now on display at Tate Modern, was told earlier this week that his new £750,000 studio in Shanghai is to be demolished on Monday because it had been built without proper planning permission.

In a cheeky riposte that is likely to have angered the government, Ai sent an open invitation via his Twitter account (@aiww) for people to join him for a feast at his studio on the day before its planned demolition. Guests were promised hundreds of river crabs -- a popular Shanghai delicacy and whose Chinese name sounds like "harmony", a term used by the government to affirm its own success, but which has been adopted by critics to mock the regime.

Ai told the Daily Telegraph earlier this week that his new demolition order had come despite a personal invitation from the local mayor to build the studio two years ago:

It's all very strange. This guy [the mayor] flew to Beijing twice to personally invite me to build the studio and have one or two artists based there so they could build up the new art district. Now they say they want to knock it down. The local officials say the word has come from above and they're "sorry, but they can't do anything about it -- you have to destroy it", and no further explanation.

According to the Telegraph, Ai thinks his recent activism is the real reason behind the demolition:

Ai suspects that the order may be linked to two high-profile campaigns that have embarrassed and angered the Shanghai government in recent years. In 2008, Ai was instrumental in turning the case of Yang Jia, a man who stabbed six policeman to death after being arrested and beaten for riding an unlicensed bicycle, into an internet cause-célèbre. This year Ai made a documentary to highlight the plight of a Shanghai-based activist-lawyer called Feng Zhenghu, who spent more than 100 days marooned at Tokyo's Narita airport after being refused entry to China eight times by Shanghai officials.

Ai has continued to tweet since his house arrest, and has told people the event will still take place despite the fact that he isn't able to attend. Ahead of the sunflower seeds exhibition at the Tate -- well received by critics until visitors were barred from walking on them because of the ceramic dust thrown up -- Ai said to the New Statesman: "Living in China can be very frustrating, but also very exciting. You see the possibilities and play the game." This week, unfortunately, it's a game he'll be playing from home.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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