Noted nerdy songwriter and mathematician Tom Lehrer has written dozens of popular comedic scientific ditties, including that staple of high school chemistry classes: the periodic table of elements set to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Major-General’s Song.” (You may also be familiar with “New Math” and “Who’s Next,” an ode to nuclear proliferation). Among his lesser works is a satirical homage to the former Atomic Energy Commission (“where the scenery’s attractive, and the air is radioactive”).
But writing theme songs for secretive government agencies isn’t the exclusive domain of parodists, as we learned last week when the Cyberspace Administration of China released its earnest musical number, “Cyberspace Spirit.” According to the Wall Street Journal’s English translation of the Chinese lyrics, the administration’s well-rehearsed chorus, costumed in tuxedoes and matching red dresses and arranged in orderly rows at the center of a brightly lit stage, trumpets the “clarity and brightness” of the Chinese Internet as a “beam of incorruptible sunlight,” reminding listeners that “the Web is where glorious dreams are!” To reiterate: This is not a parody.
The bizarre production seems especially ironic and (figuratively) tone-deaf coming from a country that is well known for its aggressive online censorship and an Internet experience that more closely resembles a meticulously pruned shrub than a beam of incorruptible sunlight. However, even if you don’t work for the agency responsible for keeping the Great Firewall up and running, transforming government Internet hygiene and online safety and security practices into points of national pride would be a hard sell pretty much anywhere—and in pretty much every medium. Go ahead and imagine the National Security Agency equivalent (“where your hard drives are infected and your phone calls intercepted …” or “the Web is where terrorists are!”)—it’s hard to believe that it would be a much bigger hit.
There’s a reason that the government agencies that view part of their mission as monitoring online activity and keeping the Internet safe and secure don’t typically do a lot of singing and dancing—their messages are usually cautionary or even alarmist rather than triumphant, their actions usually not a source of great national pride or enthusiasm.
Don’t get me wrong—I like nerd music as much as the next person (OK, probably a good deal more than the next person). As a general rule, I’m also in favor of new and creative audience-friendly approaches to helping people understand Internet policy issues (see, for instance, John Oliver on net neutrality), as well as the ways that agencies like the Cyberspace Administration influence users’ online experiences. But “Cyberspace Spirit” isn’t so much an instructional video as it is a promotional one, something strangely akin to a Coca-Cola commercial about teaching the world to sing. It is a video less designed to engage viewers with issues of online safety and security than to reassure them that the Chinese Internet is a paragon of cleanliness and success. But maybe it does have something to teach us about how hard—and how fraught with unintentional comedy—it is to present a public, pretty version of an agency dedicated to regulating and restricting the Internet. After the giggling is over, the video should make us reflect for a moment on why this seemed like a project worth investing in—and training and costuming those singers—and why it ultimately failed to incite anything other than ridicule.
The Cyberspace Administration of China is not the first government agency to take flak for an off-the-mark marketing campaign. Take the NSA CryptoKids website, which introduces cartoon characters like Crypto Cat and Decipher Dog—complete with coloring pages!—to teach children about online safety. It’s been similarly mocked. A set of talking points that the agency released to employees just before Thanksgiving 2013 and authorized them to “share” with family and close friends (“NSA performs its mission the right way” … “NSA performs its mission exceptionally well”) was also met with derision. Clearly it’s not easy for an agency accustomed to working in secret to figure out how to put its best foot forward on a public stage.
Even more-public-facing government agencies that focus more on educating users than interfering with their online experience seem to struggle with finding engaging ways to promote online safety. The FBI’s Cyber Surf Islands game and the Department of Homeland Security’s Stop Think Connect campaign, for instance, are two examples of government initiatives to teach people better Internet hygiene that don’t appear to have had a noticeable impact on users’ awareness or activities. And those are efforts to promote relatively uncontroversial notions of a safe and secure Internet—unlike the much more politically charged versions of online safety and security embraced by the Cyberspace Administration and the NSA.
You can understand the PR conundrum China faces—it’s a lot to expect people to take pride in how clean and shiny their Internet is when they know that means they can’t read the New York Times without a virtual private network. So it’s no easy task to make a show tune out of how safe and secure you believe your government has made the Internet. People don’t feel gratified or proud to hear that their government is “keeping faithful watch” on the Internet.
The message that a government agency is keeping the Internet safe—even in a country with a relatively freer Internet than China—is a hard sell. It’s a tricky theme to try to weave into the fabric of national pride, even in the United States, because we’re often not comfortable with the ways that government bodies manipulate the Internet in the name of keeping us safe. A lot of the time we don’t really want to think about what they’re doing—we certainly don’t want to sing about it.