Select your localized edition:

Close ×

More Ways to Connect

Discover one of our 28 local entrepreneurial communities »

Be the first to know as we launch in new countries and markets around the globe.

Interested in bringing MIT Technology Review to your local market?

MIT Technology ReviewMIT Technology Review - logo

 

Unsupported browser: Your browser does not meet modern web standards. See how it scores »

A study by researchers at Harvard University offers an intriguing look behind the veil of China’s extensive Internet censorship effort, and suggests that censorship behavior around specific topics could serve as a predictor of government action. The group found, for example, that censors began removing a higher-than-normal percentage of comments referring to outspoken artist and political activist Ai Weiwei several days before his surprise arrest in 2011.

The research, which the authors call “the first large-scale, multiple-source analysis” of social media censorship in China, is certainly comprehensive. And its publication comes at a time when the Chinese government’s efforts to control online discourse have garnered worldwide attention.

The researchers conclude that “contrary to much research and commentary, the purpose of the censorship program is not to suppress criticism of the state or party.” In other words, the censors are surprisingly tolerant of people bad-mouthing the government or its representatives. The Internet police in China are much more focused on silencing comments that could spur or reinforce collective action in the real world—like protests over an activist’s arrest.

Using an automated process, executed from many locations around the world, including China itself, the researchers collected millions of posts from 1,382 different Chinese social media sites over a six-month period last year. They then ranked the posts according to their political sensitivity and kept track of which ones were removed. Nearly 60 percent of the posts collected were published on Sina Weibo, the country’s most popular micro-blogging platform.

Bill Bishop, an independent analyst in Beijing who monitors Chinese Internet media, says the fact that censors are more concerned with collective action than about individuals using social media to criticize the government is probably obvious to most users of Weibo. “What is interesting about Weibo is not what is censored but what is not,” Bishop said in an email to Technology Review. “It is full of people criticizing the government.”

1 comment. Share your thoughts »

Tagged: Web, China, social media, censorship, Internet filtering, microblogging

Reprints and Permissions | Send feedback to the editor

From the Archives

Close

Introducing MIT Technology Review Insider.

Already a Magazine subscriber?

You're automatically an Insider. It's easy to activate or upgrade your account.

Activate Your Account

Become an Insider

It's the new way to subscribe. Get even more of the tech news, research, and discoveries you crave.

Sign Up

Learn More

Find out why MIT Technology Review Insider is for you and explore your options.

Show Me
×

A Place of Inspiration

Understand the technologies that are changing business and driving the new global economy.

September 23-25, 2014
Register »