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A Peek Behind China’s ‘Great Firewall’

New research shows the primary aim of Internet censors is to suppress collective action.
June 13, 2012

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.”

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