Fighting Algorithmic Censorship
How artists and activists from under-heard and under-represented communities are using technology, memes, and a variety of tactics to subvert algorithmic censorship and media bias to ensure they get their messages across.
By Kira Simon-Kennedy
How do you draw the world’s attention to overlooked injustices when the mainstream media is optimised for mindless clicking? How can you subvert and bypass algorithmic censorship when no one wants your message to be heard?
Artists from all around the world have found many clever ways to communicate, even when faced with massive opposition. Some of their art works like memes, meaning they are easy to make, can be endlessly remixed, spread fast and are often captivating, mesmerizing and participatory. Artist-led, often meme-like strategies are used by under-heard and under-represented communities to get their messages across. They have created songs, dances, signs and banners that have gone viral worldwide, often also in service to other movements. These “meme tactics” can be grouped into distinct but sometimes overlapping categories, which are by no means meant to be exhaustive, but provisional and constantly changing.
Tactic 1: Take It Straight to the People
This tactic is best used for public pressure, and involves person-to-person, IRL (“in real life”) interactions or online actions, often documented for virality and posterity. In 2019, Chilean feminist collective Las Tesis choreographed a performance of “Un Violador en tu camino.” Combining dance, costumes, and chants, Las Tesis conjured an orchestrated flash mob denouncing patriarchal violence. Videos and pictures of the public dance took off on digital media worldwide and spurred spontaneous efforts to translate the lyrics and adapt them to cultural contexts around the globe. In cities all over Latin America, Europe and the US, people came together to stage similar performances.
In Nicaragua in 2018, anti-government protests galvanized around a number of issues including an attempt to privatize pensions, and led to government repression and the subsequent banning of all public protests. But when physical, collective presence in the streets became impossible, people used balloons as a safer means of showing their dissent. Balloons with “#SOSNICARAGUA” written on them were released in the streets, carrying messages of resistance and memorializing the names of those killed by police violence. These objects became a distraction for the police, who had to painstakingly pop each one – and the hashtag #sosnicaragua created an online space for organisation while the balloons symbolically occupied public space.
Nicaraguan queer performance artist Elyla Sinverguenza reprised the balloon’s symbolism in performances in exile in New York, inviting onlookers to grab a pin and pop dye-filled balloons onto white messenger suits the artist wore while delivering letters from Nicaragua to China. One of the many things that sparked the uprisings in Nicaragua were plans to construct an inter-oceanic canal through the centre of the country, which would have displaced countless indigenous people and farmers. It would also have brought huge environmental devastation by crossing Central America’s largest source of freshwater, just so that China could have access to faster shipping routes without needing to rely on the US-controlled Panama Canal. The new canal was financed by billionaire funds out of Hong Kong, but while the project has been indefinitely stalled, the land seized for construction was never returned. Since this story barely made the global news, Elyla wanted to create a direct link between the people most concerned. She collected testimonies in the form of letters and hand-delivered them in Beijing to residents in the hutongs, who were also facing eviction and government pressure to relocate for the financial gain of others. This project lives on a website, where people can listen to and read the letters in Spanish, English and Chinese, and where anyone can respond to the families in Nicaragua.
Tactic 2: Hide It in Plain Sight Aka Steganography
This tactic is best used when faced with censorship and surveillance. Steganography is the practice of concealing a message in plain sight. The word steganography comes from steganographia, which combines the words steganós, meaning “covered or concealed”, and -graphia meaning “writing” – think invisible ink and hidden messages. When a message is steganographically concealed, an unaware onlooker will not even notice anything has been hidden, unlike with an encrypted message or a code that is visible and indecipherable, and so might alert a viewer to the presence of a secret.
Artist Amy Suo Wu has long been fascinated with steganography and her ongoing research project, Tactics and Poetics of Invisibility, revives the use of the obsolete, low-tech and analogue steganography methods. She has compiled an extensive array of techniques in her Cookbook of Invisible Writing. In 2017, Suo Wu created a way to dissimulate radical anarchist feminist texts by early 20th century Chinese feminist and anarchist He Yinzhen on fashionable streetwear. By using a discrete QR code, ubiquitous in China and worn as a physical patch sewn onto garments, she indirectly invited passers-by to scan and download these rare and suppressed texts, which advocated for the abolition of gender and capital as early as 1907. By working collaboratively and teaching sewing workshops, she is also inherently developing remixing and skill sharing as a way to inspire communities to create their own poetic and playful forms of communication. All of these tactics come together in her work as fashionable and fun ways of nurturing social bonds.
Internet users in mainland China are inherently familiar with the whack-a-mole game of evading censors as messages sometimes disappear in real time. Occasionally, benign messages or text building blocks will get caught in the dragnet, like when it was no longer OK to mention carrots because the vegetable shares a character with the name of a politician. The nature of pinyin – the Roman alphabet input system for writing Chinese characters – lends itself to many homonyms, so when swear words are banned, cute animals pop up in their place. When all mention of the #MeToo movement was scrubbed, rice rabbit, 米兔, became the new shorthand. The Future of Memory artist collective compiled an algorithmic censorship resistance toolkit, collecting the many ways people have evaded censors through witty puns.
In the 1970s in India, an upsurge of Dalit literature was instrumental in creating the radical Dalit Panthers, an organisation that battled caste discrimination and was inspired by the US-American Black Panthers political party. Most of their material is still not available for mass public access. The Dalit Panther Archive is committed to digitizing the archive of writings, magazines, and other materials from this movement. Back then, poets jotted down messages on bus tickets, leaving them on buses for anyone to read. Furthermore, the little magazine movement began during the Dalit Panthers movement: The format, now popularly called a zine, has recently grown in usage with illustrators, poets, and artists worldwide drawn to its subversion of capital and censorship.
There are many other tactics out there, including our current favorite that we have started calling “Rickrolling for good” which works best for political education and to redistribute attention and resources. Other instances of this tactic have brilliantly been deployed by K-Pop stans mobilizing online, by TikTok beauty influencers hiding important messages in makeup tutorials, and by actress Jane Fonda, who used revenue from her workout videos to finance the civil rights movement and other activist causes. While we cannot detail them all, we hope you will be moved to action and creativity in service of the causes that are near and dear to your heart and your communities’ survival and ability to thrive. Remember, these meme tactics are a way to inspire each and every one of us. They are meant to remind us of our collective power and creativity. Take them and make them your own!