The art of suggestion
When Margaret Thatcher died earlier this year, many Brits took to the streets to celebrate; a gesture that some considered in poor taste and unsympathetic. On the social media, a short-lived trend arose among her detractors. Many adorned their profile with a YouTube video of the song “The Witch is Dead” from The Wizard of Oz. Quite often, no further comments were given, but those in the know well knew that this gesture was scornful.
This phenomenon is known as social steganography (from Greek steganos = covered and gráphein = writing), and the expression was introduced earlier this year by the American researcher Mary Madden. Together with a colleague she studied a number of US teenagers’ internet habits and found that roughly 58 per cent in 2012 at regular intervals posted messages on Facebook that on the surface seemed innocent updates, but in reality included a hidden message for the initiated. An Estonian study from this year has shown similar results.
The thing is that social media have a built-in surveillance effect. A posting on your Facebook wall never goes away, and your audience – the virtual circle of friends of whom many simply are acquaintances – has for many youths become so big that it is almost impossible to figure out what it is okay to write, just as it is difficult to differentiate the content of the messages for different part audiences.
That the parent generation by now also has joined Facebook does not make the need for self-censorship any less for the many teens. The media researcher Danah Boyd has among other things described how a teenaged victim of unrequited love used the happy-sounding song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” to get her girlfriends’ sympathy, since they unlike her mom knew that the song is from a scene in the movie Life of Brian where the protagonist is about to die.
Some could be tempted to think that a new strategy against data surveillance has seen the light of day. This may be true in a Western youth context, but if we look to the East, social steganography has already had its heyday in the censored Chinese media. Back in 2009, Chinese bloggers and free-speech advocates started using creative wordplays to bypass the very rigid Chinese internet censorship. Among other things, stories and songs spread about the good fantasy beast the ‘grass mud horse’, which defended itself against evil river crabs.
In Mandarin, the sound of ‘grass mud horse’ is very close to the pronunciation of a forbidden sentence (something on the order of ‘screw your mother’), which in this context symbolises ‘free speech’. In return, the word for river crab is phonetically very like the Chinese word for ‘harmony’, which in Chinese internet circles has become synonymous with the oppressive political system.
Hence, the story about the good grass mud horse fighting the evil, invasive river crabs is really an image of the dissidents’ fight against the regime’s censorship; something that the regime didn’t get right away. The word for ‘grass mud horse’ was for a while one of the most sought words on the Chinese search engine Baidu, China’s counterpart to Google; but naturally the meaning of the word did in the end come to the regime’s attention, and then the search results were censored.
This illustrates what is likely the biggest problem with this popular strategy. Social steganography usually consists of implied metaphors, which may erect a legal fence around the sender. However, the metaphor will in time become commonly known, and suddenly the message is no longer hidden.
Music videos with images of Thatcher and the song “The Witch is Dead” quickly became a YouTube phenomenon, and for a week the song was number two on the British singles hit list. Today, there’s not much innocence left in the uncommented videos on Facebook. For even if such a video isn’t aimed at Margaret Thatcher or anybody else, her supporters will see it as a distasteful and unsympathetic gesture.