June 5, 2012

These words will get you noticed — by big government


Type “North Korea” one too many times on Twitter and you might come to the attention of the Department of Homeland Security.

James Fallows at The Atlantic writes about two recently released lists — one from the U.S. and one from China — that include the words that will get you noticed by the world’s two superpowers.

The U.S. list, included in the delightfully named “Analysts Reference Binder,” was released after the Electronic Privacy Information Center sued under the Freedom of Information Act.  The Department apparently created the 2011 list as part of their “Media Monitoring Capability Mission.”

Here’s one rather obvious section on Domestic Security:

The whole list may be seen here.

The Chinese collection of unmentionable words is the result of a Google quirk. Fallows explains,

“For China, the list has been produced through very creative use of the feature Google made available a few days ago…Google started warning users within the Great Firewall when one of the search terms they were entering was likely to trigger a disconnection or blockage. The tyros whizzes at both GreatFire.org and ATGFW.org managed to reverse-engineer this feature to produce a more-or-less master list of currently firewalled terms. This is interesting in its own right — and additionally significant because the uncertainty of what was and was not allowed added to the Great Firewall’s effectiveness.”

The Chinese watch list includes “facebook” but also words you’d expect to see, such as “falun” and “freetibet”.  You can see the whole list at GreatFire.org, where the overall rate of censorship of each word across Baidu, Google and Weibo (the Chinese Twitter) is rated as a percentage.

In fact, Weibo sits at an interesting nexus between Chinese state censorship and the demands of the Chinese people to be able to communicate digitally.

As Slate’s Jacob Weisberg reported on NPR’s On the Media, Weibo is attempting to control the platform by implementing a points system. Users start with 80 points and if points are deducted for subversive chat or gossiping and they reach 0, their account may be suspended. Points are awarded for posting in a “constructive way”, and not about rumors, true or otherwise.

People are getting around these parameters in creative ways, Weisberg says. For instance, Tiananmen Square, which occurred on June 4, is referred to as “May 35th”.

Reuven Cohen on Forbes reflected further on the U.S. list.

“What wasn’t disclosed is how the agency actually gains access to the various search engines and social networks to monitor the specified keywords. My guess is the DHS has a “special arrangement” with companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo and Twitter to gain secure direct API access. This type of access would allow it to use distributed cloud technologies to monitor the daily flow of social media and search activity in something close to real time.”

That may be true, but I wouldn’t say there’s anything unexpected in these lists, and after all, anyone can monitor you on Twitter.


Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.