Using Imagery to Avoid Censorship


"It's really hard for the government to censor things when they don't understand the made-up words or meaning behind the imagery," said Kevin Lee, COO of China Youthology, in conversation at the DLD conference in Munich on Monday. "The people there aren't even relying on text anymore It's audio, visual, photos. All the young people are creating their own languages."

Posted on February 4, 2013 at 6:39 AM • 21 Comments


Steve BennettFebruary 4, 2013 7:13 AM

Facebook now supports voice and video messaging. Before reading this article, I didn't really see the point and thought it was just a lame copy of vine.

Published text has always been an easy target for censorship, but non-textual communication, especially if it's highly idiomatic, is more resilient than that (e.g. Polari).

It makes me think of the saying about the Internet routing around censorship, and really it's not just the Internet, it's the whole of human culture that sees censorship as damage, and finds a new solution. Which is kind of reassuring really.

Steve GodrichFebruary 4, 2013 7:43 AM

Rod Serling used a similar technique when he created 'Twilight Zone'. He was able to make the social comments he wanted to make by creating a story that highlighted the situation which wasn't obvious to censors, executives or sponsors who were more interested in the bottom line.

Piotr A.February 4, 2013 8:06 AM

There's a novel by a Polish author Janusz A. Zajdel titled (in Polish) "Paradyzja" in which peeple invent poetic language full of puns and double entendres to work around an automatic surveillance system. There's even a Wikipedia entry for it:

So not a new invention, but a one that repeats in history, real and fictional, over and over.

BioFeedbackFebruary 4, 2013 8:37 AM

Seems like censorship is just like an "evolutionary" pressure on communication/ideas.

Foolish JordanFebruary 4, 2013 8:52 AM

What if the censors just change to block anything they don't immediately understand?

Maria HelmFebruary 4, 2013 9:27 AM

Spammers/malware emails used this technique heavily in the early 2000s. We would see spams come in that had no textual content, only images. Since mail filters check text and filetypes, they wouldn't catch these, and blocking all messages with images would hinder business. You could have the mail client not show images by default, but that doesn't prevent messages taking up bandwidth and diskspace. (This was when blacklisting really took off, because it was the only way to block these messages from the users.)

From the article, it looks like they're taking this to a new level though. They are sending a message with images which wouldn't flip a filter, even if a human being examined them. Even if you had a human that was familiar with the 'hipster signals' sent by the images, it seems that some of them would be so ambiguous that you couldn't be 100% certain they weren't meant to be taken another way. (i.e. the bandaid on the mini cooper) If you tried to block them, you'd end up with some really abstruse filters.

anonymousFebruary 4, 2013 10:57 AM

look for martian language. The chinese are replacing character for something else that will pass censor(including their parent that don't understand it)

noble_serfFebruary 4, 2013 3:13 PM

This may have been in the original text but it would seem to me that Chinese and other languages written in symbols with larger "alphabets" could be more naturally read and understood in some type of image-based code, at least compared to western languages with such a limited number of characters.

I've always wondered when they'd get enough bandwidth to just do voice / video chats with ease. The fact their coms are SMS heavy aides those who would scan and sensor. Maybe not so much soon...

paranoia destroys yaFebruary 4, 2013 7:58 PM

@Steve & Jordan:
Rod Serling was not the only one to hide a message in a story by changing the circumstances Gene Rodenbury also addressed social issues in Star Trek. Examples of censors trying to block material they didn't understand are the non-political jokes on The Smothers Brothers. Hearings on the lyrics to "Louie Louie" concluded that one heard what they wanted to hear.

AtkFebruary 5, 2013 7:20 AM

Interesting topic. Reading the link, I suspect that they* got it wrong. They assume that China is unable to understand the meaning behind an idiom, but at the same time that the population is able to understand, using a car commercial as their example. I would argue that China doesn't think that the commercial is annoying enough to react. As soon as such commercials or other imagery become sufficient in quantity or overtness, the. china will respond. Until that time, the imagery can be used to detect 'undesireables'. In thieir commercial example, people who buy minis will have extre 'undesireae points' next to their name in exchange for driving the vehicle that advertises frustration with the state.

* not sure if 'they' is the reporter or the cited expert. Too much seems to get misreported...

Old guyFebruary 6, 2013 9:20 PM

Many years ago some elected idiots wanted to pass a law in the US banning obscenity online. That just won't work. We'd substitute new words, such as the names of the idiots who sponsored the law.

Northern RealistFebruary 7, 2013 3:30 PM

For aan amazing story on secret communications or getting past "censors", check the "Radio is Dead, Long Live Radio" episode of CBC's UNDER THE INFLUENCE (

THe segment on how the a Latin American government communicated with its kidnapped soldiers is imaginative, brilliant, and a good example of covert communications...

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