It was the summer of 2016, not too long after Snapchat first introduced an update with face and geofilters. I had just graduated middle school and was at the peak of my unreasonable pubescent confidence. Although those filters are easily classified as “cringey” to most of us now, to my friends and my eighth-grade self, those filters were everything. We spent much of our time snapping selfies with the doggy filter, the puking rainbow filter, the flower crown filter.
So when my parents told me we were going to vacation in China that summer, I was ecstatic — not only to see my relatives for the first time in years but for a new audience to show my Snapchat filters to.
When we stepped into the Shanghai airport, the first thing I did was open my phone and snap a picture so I could apply a geofilter and broadcast to the world where I was. To my surprise and chagrin, however, I found the location stamp unable to load on my phone. In fact, none of my filters or snaps or any other forms of social media would load.
I remember turning to my parents in frustration, complaining to them that my data plan wasn’t working. My father had chuckled then and jokingly wished me luck. He told me that most of my favorite social media platforms, including Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube, are blocked in China.
My parents explained that, in an attempt to avoid any potential subversion, the Chinese government censors much of the media environment and controls what type of information is spread to citizens. Those who are caught posting negatively about the government or authority figures can potentially face fines or even jail time, and their comments are forcibly redacted.
Back then, my parents’ words practically went in one ear and out the other. I still didn’t fully understand why these apps were blocked — nor did I care to understand — and only felt slight annoyance that I wouldn’t be able to use filters on my photos for several weeks.
Over the course of the next few years, however, as I grew more politically active and conscious, I often thought back to that instance at the airport. I noticed my peers and I in the United States would often post to social media pictures and infographics containing information criticizing the government, current political movements or our school district. This uninhibited freedom of expression is absolutely unheard of in China.
Especially now, here at UC Berkeley, one of the more liberal and politically active schools in the country, the contrast is ever-so apparent. Even I’m sometimes surprised at how polar the campaigns and opinions students bring to social media can be. In just two semesters here, I’ve seen multiple waves of condemnation directed toward the city, university, UC system — even Carol Christ.
Just a few weeks ago, for example, a movement here that gained a good amount of traction and attention involved UC Berkeley’s new housing initiative at People’s Park. Those who supported this plan cited student safety and the need for housing, while many others petitioned the immorality of demolishing a cherished community space. Regardless of how extreme their opinions were, however, many students took to social media to advocate their stance.
I remember talking about this with an international student from China in one of my classes. Before she even told me her position on the topic, she said that she could never see herself posting any sort of political opinion on social media. She said that although the same censorship obviously doesn’t exist in the U.S., the way that she was trained growing up makes it difficult for her not to fear the consequences of publicly opposing authority.
My parents, who grew up in a similar environment, also never take to posting political views on their socials. Frankly, outside of our house, they rarely even discuss politics, especially when it’s with a negative connotation. I’ve only realized recently that the culture of censorship in the country they’re originally from is likely to blame.
Although this probably isn’t something others regularly think about, the practice of openly posting — or, often, even publicly discussing — negative personal views on social media is a privilege that we Americans can take for granted. I’m long past my years of caring about censorship only when it comes to the doggy filter on Snapchat, but I’ve found a new sense of appreciation for the ability to use my social media platform as I wish.
Being from a family where we don’t typically broadcast our political beliefs, I cannot say that I will take to posting some of the more polar stories or infographics my peers do in the near future. I’m grateful, however, one day, that when I’m ready, when I feel brave enough, I have the option to do so.
Manya Zhao writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected]