Virgil: A Guide for the Censored–How Dissidents Have Flourished, Then and Now

Facebook Noah Berger : AP
Noah Berger/AP

A February 27 article in Breitbart News, based on a scoop from Project Veritas, highlighted a new concept, courtesy of our friends at Facebook: The Troll Twilight Zone.  (Cue up the eerie music.) 

It seems that Facebook censors—oops, I mean content monitors—have developed new techniques in their endless quest to make us all live up to their high standards. Specifically, the company’s engineers, eager to “demote bad content,” have suggested the creation of “troll twilight zones” which will “confuse and demoralize” said trolls.   

To that end, the Facebook overseers have already identified certain trigger-words, including, “zucced,” “normie,” “MSM,” “Overton Window,” “IRL,” “red pilled,” “SJW,” “shitposting,” “Kek,” and “REEE.”  

As anyone who has spent more than 15 minutes reading Breitbart News knows, Silicon Valley’s woke watchfulness is as omnipresent as, well, social media itself. 

We can stipulate, of course, that certain kinds of content—most obviously, child porn—are always objectionable and should have no place on the Internet.  So there’s a need for some level of oversight, even if, as The Verge recently reported, Facebook treats its frontline human monitors like, well, trolls.

Of course, mindful of such bad human-resource optics, it’s a cinch that Facebook will find a way to automate more of its monitoring processes.  And since computers and algorithms never sleep, it’s just as much of a cinch that Facebook’s scrutiny of its subjects members will become ever more thoroughgoing and intense. And the rest of Silicon Valley will soon, without a doubt, catch up.  

So, absent some sort of regulatory reform (as Virgil has called for), it seems likely  that those who hold politically incorrect thoughts—and who wish to continue to communicate them—will have to figure out new ways of communicating. 

Happily for the heterodox, there are lots of ways to beat the system, even if, of course, there are also lots of ways for the system to beat you.  So it’s best to be careful and then, perhaps, be more careful still.  After all, one doesn’t want to be insufficiently cautious and thus end up in the troll twilight zone, or worse, in a prison camp. 

That’s what happened to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  In February 1945, Solzhenitsyn was a young artillery captain in the Soviet Red Army, fighting at the front against the Nazi Wehrmacht.  And yet, appalled by the atrocities committed by his fellow soldiers, Solzhenitsyn wrote a letter to a friend in which he offered oblique criticism of the Soviet regime and its dictator, Josef Stalin.  Solzhenitsyn was savvy enough not to mention Stalin directly; he referred instead to “the boss,” the “master of the house,” and “the man with the mustache.” 

Yet just those vague phrasings were enough to trigger SMERSH, the Soviet counter-intelligence outfit that was more interested in snooping on Russian soldiers than in defeating Hitler.  So for his “crime,” Solzhenitsyn was pulled from the front and packed off to a Gulag prison camp for eight years.  

Obviously, at that moment, Solzhenitsyn needed to be even more obscure in his word choices, although, of course, decades later, he would get his revenge on the communists; he would write of his grim experiences, and those of tens of millions of others—many of whom did not survive—in his immortal work, The Gulag Archipelago.

Yet for those who wish to avoid a Siberian fate, there are strategies to keep one’s online hand hidden.  Herewith are a few:

First, change a few letters.  For instance, “zucced,” one of those words on Facebook’s index prohibitorum, is a play on “Zucked,” as in Mark Zuckerberg.  Also “Zucked,” is the title of a critical book on the Facebook chief, and it rhymes with, well . . . you know.   So if “zucced” is no longer allowed, the alphabet still offers myriad possibilities for anti-Zuckerbergians.

Second, replace letters with symbols.  Examples include “sh*t,” and “a$$.”

Third, slide one one letter over, as a preassigned code.  That is, if you shift the letters in MSM over one, you get NTN.  (Fun fact: the computer character “HAL” in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey was a slide-over on the name of then-dominant computer company, IBM.)  

Fourth, assign a random word in lieu of the forbidden word.  For instance, in China, freethinking netizens drop in the name “Zhao”—a common surname in that country—in place of other words that might perk up the censors.  Indeed, Epoch Times, a Falun Gong-related dissident publication appearing in the West, has helpfully provided a list of 20 code-words and phrases, all aimed at slipping past the censors; for instance, the Beijing regime’s secret police are ironized as “national treasure.”

Fifth, whole phrases can be “repurposed.” For instance, the Chinese words “grass mud horse” have been hijacked by regime opponents in a way that makes for a dig at the government and a naughty pun in Chinese. 

Sixth, words can be replaced altogether by evocative pictures.  Once again looking to the wily dissidents of China, we can note that satirists there have juxtaposed Xi Jinping, the supreme leader, with Winnie the Pooh, the cartoon character, whom Xi sort of resembles.   

Yet no subversion lasts forever.  Eventually, the authorities got the Xi-Pooh  joke—but they didn’t think it was funny. 

So as we can see, the problem with any sort of code is that censors can crack it.  That is, cryptographers, plus computers, can learn to spot the pattern and make the bust.  And then, depending on the exact nature of the oppressive regime, the offender can be de-boosted, de-platformed, deported, or even, de-existed.

So that’s why dissidents have sometimes had to dig even deeper, hiding not just in coded words, but also in veiled literary allusions and allegories.  To be sure, just about every author wishes to make some sort of subliminal point, but hidden political messages have always been important tools of protest against oppressive regimes. 

Yet still, even if writers are careful never to mention contemporary politics, they can still get nailed.  To cite an almost random example, in 1736, Voltaire, the brightest star of the French Enlightenment, published a play, La Mort de César (The Death of Caesar).  That play portrayed the assassin Brutus as a hero, defending the Roman republic against the imperial encroachments of Julius Caesar.  Voltaire’s play was anciently historical, and yet the French royal of the era, Louis XV, didn’t want Frenchmen getting any small “r” republican regime-changing ideas—and so the play was suppressed.  (Six decades later, the French Revolution came anyway, leading to the death of the next king, Louis XVI.) 

Skipping ahead to Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, in 1924, Yevgeny Zamyatin published the sci-fi novel We.  That novel took place thousands of years in the future, and it was set in an all-glass place called the One State, where people’s names had been reduced to letters and numbers, such as “D-503.”  

So one might think that the communists wouldn’t have worried about We.  And yet the reds saw the parallelism to their regime, and so they stomped on the novel.  Zamyatin was exiled, and We was not published in Russia until the 1980s. 

Still, sometimes sly commentary makes it through the totalitarian gauntlet.  In 1967, for example,, the Soviets allowed the publication of another sci-fi novel, The Second Invasion from Mars, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.  Somehow the censors missed the book’s derisive reference to an “angry red eye”—a dig at the Soviet reds.   

Of course, these days in America, nobody should think that Facebook, monitoring and monetizing our every click, is another totalitarian regime in the making.  Or maybe, mindful of what could be looming ahead, we can offer this careful advice: Nobody should say out loud that Facebook is another totalitarian regime in the making. 

In censorious times, especially when all data is retained forever, maybe there’s already great value in being subtle—and ironic.  So maybe Virgil, anticipating the  future squelching of freedom by Silicon Valley, should seize this moment to proclaim how much he likes Facebook.  

Indeed, maybe he should be the first to welcome our Zuckerbergian Overlords.   

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