Harvard Team Releases Paper Detailing China's Internet Censorship Tendencies

Our colleagues at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science (IQSS) have just released a new paper analyzing Chinese censorship. The study, which is directed at longform blogs and message boards, aims to understand what web content Chinese censors look for specifically.

Spearheaded by Harvard political scientist Gary King and PhD candidates Jennifer Pam and Margaret Roberts, the paper finds that “posts are censored if they are in a topic area with collective action potential and not otherwise. Whether or not the posts are in favor of the government, its leaders, and its policies has no effect on the probability of censorship.”

The Wall Street Journal notes that the study does not look at “what websites China blocks through the Internet filtering system widely known as the ‘Great Firewall’ or at the many sensitive keywords censors use to control what Chinese users search for and post on social media sites.” Instead, it focuses on the content the state-enlisted censors take down individually. King, et. al. explain that the Firewall “does little to limit the expressive power of Chinese citizens who merely find other sites to express themselves... [whereas] ....hand censoring cannot be evaded by clever phrasing.”

Some bloggers were surprised at how seemingly even-handed the censorship is toward views both for and against the Chinese government. Frank Ching, writing for the China Post, explains the regime’s rationale in doing this: “the government's top priority is political stability -- the budget for internal security is greater than the defense budget -- so every attempt would be made to nip a nascent protest in the bud.”

Another interesting finding is the way censorship may predict future political maneuvers. The WSJ explains the example of political artist Ai Weiwei, who was imprisoned by the Chinese government in 2011:

Researchers [found] that deletions of posts about the artist began to rise five days before his arrest, prior to any public signs or warnings that he would be arrested. Checking the rise in deletions against censorship rates for Ai Weiwei discussions throughout the year, Mr. King found the jump in censorship was statistically the highest of the year.

These discoveries led the research team to believe that there is a potential correlation between increases in censorship and future political actions. They were unable to provide a definitive answer as the initial design of the study was not intended for predictive purposes, however, their retrospective analysis does support this post facto theory.

With more news emerging about China’s censorship tactics and others’ reactions to it, more light is being shed on the intricate mechanism powering the Chinese government’s censorship program.