June 6, 2024 opinion

Nineteen Eighty-Four: past, present and future

Justin Sau in Hong Kong

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George Orwell's book 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' is still relevant in the era of social media and Big Data.

Picture by: Ivan Radic | Flickr

‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ The haunting opening line of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, publishedon 8 June 1949, captivated audiences around the world.

Now, on its 75th anniversary, in the age of social media and fake news, the dystopian world of ‘Big Brother’ and ‘doublethink’ still resonates.

Published in the aftermath of World War 2, Nineteen Eighty-Four drew inspiration from the rise of totalitarian regimes and the erosion of personal freedoms in countries such as Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union.

The story follows a mid-level worker named Winston Smith, who works for the ruling Party in the fictional superstate of Oceania. Dreaming of rebellion, Winston starts a forbidden love affair with his colleague Julia as they learn about a shadowy resistance group called the Brotherhood.

Among the many tactics utilized by the oppressive Party is the telescreen, an amalgamation of a television, surveillance camera and microphone. As introduced in the book, the telescreen serves as a metaphor for the loss of privacy in totalitarian states. But what does that say about society today, where almost everyone has phones, tablets, computers, smartwatches, and other devices with voice-activated assistance that populate our everyday lives?

All of us have listened to that one family member rant about how our phones are listening to us. But all of us have also likely had the odd experience where after mentioning something like toothbrushes in casual conversation, it shows up in a recommended advertisement.

In the era of Big Data, it truly is alarming how much information is being collected about us on a daily basis. Every time you download a new app, it will ask you for permission to track your activity and/or your location. Even if you click ‘No’, there is still so much data about you available to pretty much anyone who can access the internet.

There are ongoing concerns about technology companies and their collection of users’ information. But this is nothing new. Large tech companies and governments have long had access to vast amounts of personal data, including browsing history, online activity and, with Face ID (Apple) and fingerprint recognition, even biometric information.

For the most part, this information isn’t used for harm, only for profit. Targeted advertisements and algorithmic recommendations help make Google and Amazon what they are today. However, there is certainly a potential for misuse.

Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013 about mass surveillance by intelligence agencies, such as the collection of phone records and internet communications, further raised concerns about an Orwellian surveillance state.

What does the looming TikTok ban mean for smaller business?

Last year, TikTok came under fire at a congressional hearing over concerns of national security and data privacy. While its use of data collection was not found to be dangerous, TikTok and other social media outlets do serve as a realization of many of the themes in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

In April 2024, US President Joe Biden signed into law a potential ban on TikTok, unless its Chinese parent company sells it within nine months.

The way that algorithms work, along with our own confirmation bias, can lead to the creation of echo chambers, where we’re exposed only to content and information that aligns with our existing beliefs, leading to radicalization and narrow perspectives.

Social media as a whole also serves as an outlet for huge amounts of misinformation and fake news. Political actors and other entities have been known to exploit social media platforms to disseminate false information in order to sway public opinion, undermine trust in institutions, and advance their own agendas. This is ominously reminiscent of the Party’s use of propaganda in Orwell’s novel, as well as the concept of ‘doublethink’ – the ability to accept two contradictory ideas at the same time.

The rise of AI and deepfake technology, which allows for the creation of highly realistic fake videos, further blurs the line between truth and falsehood. The incredible accessibility of information at our fingertips as well as the lack of in-depth fact-checking mechanisms, has made it far easier for misinformation to reach a wide audience and potentially influence matters of domestic or global importance.

For all its modern relevance, however, Nineteen Eighty-Four is frequently misquoted, misattributed and mishandled. Having read it in English class, my friends and I often react to our school administration’s restrictive policies by referring jokingly to our school as “literally Nineteen Eighty-Four”.

Yet for every one of our jests made in good fun, there is some cherry-picked invocation or distortion of the novel’s themes to fit with one side of the political spectrum. The term Orwellian and its connotations of totalitarianism or the label of ‘Big Brother’ are often carelessly thrown at one form of government.

This completely ignores Orwell's original intention: to criticize all forms of oppressive regimes and to highlight the dangers of centralized power and control.

As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of this extraordinarily well-written and prescient novel, it’s important to keep in mind the potential dangers of social media and recognize the importance of critical thinking, thoughtful analysis, and a commitment to the truth.

And please, read the book before you quote it.

Written by:


Justin Sau

Culture editor

Hong Kong, SAR

Born in 2007, Justin studies in Hong Kong at the HKIS. Fluent in English and Mandarin, he is interested in journalism, English literature, history, and sports.

Justin joined Harbinger’s Magazine in 2023 as a contributor, writing predominantly about culture. In 2024, he took over the Culture section of the magazine.

Edited by:


Maria Mitko

Women’s Desk editor

Warsaw, Poland


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