INFORMATION IMPERIALISM: "[T]he creation and maintenance of an unequal economic, cultural and territorial relationship, usually between states and often in the form of an empire, based on domination and subordination."

That is the definition Wikipedia gives to the word imperialism. It implies a forceful, aggressive tactic, specifically aimed at “taking over” a country for expansion of a nation’s influence. In history it is represented by such events as the creation of the British Commonwealth by expansion into colonies all over the world. The United States also has been identified as imperialistic, demonstrated, for example, by occupation of The Philippines until its independence in 1946.

An interesting perspective was offered by Mark Twain on the occupation of the Philippines:

“I have read carefully the treaty of Paris, and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem. It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.”

Today the Associated Press published that the Chinese government has objected to an online appearance by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton being seen in China, calling it Information Imperialism. I suppose it is dangerous to focus on an article that is barely hours old, but the term is fascinating, even apart from the article.

The Chinese government is accusing the U.S. of using the Internet as a weapon to “dominate and subordinate” the Chinese people with words. It is too early to either reject or support the accusation, but the concept deserves attention.

There are other examples of intentional interjection of ideology over the air waves,such as Radio Free Europe. But the Chinese accusation takes the concept to a new level, charging that the US is interfering with the stability of China and exercising imperialistic intent.

I doubt that anyone could believe that the US would have visions of taking over the nation of China. However, the concept of influencing the thinking of Chinese people is credible. In the past few weeks China has instituted a practice of intercepting the use of Google in the nation, causing Google to threaten to withdraw its company’s product from Chinese Internet.

My interest in this debate is focused on the power of words. I’m fascinated with the realization that the two major powers in the world have identified the ability of words to do what military aggression cannot do: take over the thinking of an entire nation. That’s awesome when you think about it.

Maybe we take the power of words too casually because we, in the U.S., are bombarded with words constantly. It is second nature to us to be on the receiving end of advertising, political rhetoric, commentary, and the millions of other ways spoken and written words invade our minds. But I suppose in a place like China, where the spread of information is measured and restricted, the leaders of the nation can see more clearly the potential danger of words.

It will be interesting to see how this U.S./China/Google episode plays out. But it is clear to me that at this point a new phrase with huge implications has entered our lexicon. A phrase which should not be taken lightly.

Photo Credit: “The Power of Words”

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