Big Data Reveal Three Surprising Facts About Chinese Censorship

I went to a stellar presentation last week by Gary King, a political scientist at Harvard and director of the school’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science. He talked about research he’s been conducting with Jennifer Pan and Margaret Roberts about the nature and practice of censorship in China today.

This work got started when King’s team noticed that some of the Chinese social media posts they were collecting (for other purposes) disappeared after a short time. Once it became clear that this was because of government censorship, a fantastic research opportunity opened up.

Crimson hexagon, which King cofounded, constantly collects a huge amount of social media from around the world. By seeing which of this content later disappeared from within China the team gained an unprecedented view into a dark and fascinating topic: which aspects of its people’s speech a modern totalitarian regime wants to suppress. This view also allows us to make better-educated guesses about why and how this censorship happens. What we learn from it would have surprised even Orwell.

Here are my three headlines from King’s talk and his team’s research (published here and here)

China’s leaders don’t want to suppress criticism of the government. In fact, they probably like it. China is a huge country, and the hinterlands have always been difficult to manage effectively in large part because they’re so hard to monitor well. As the old saying goes, “the mountains are high, and the emperor is far away.” Not any more, since the advent of social media. Citizens use these tools to complain loud and long about corrupt local officials. This provides a great way for Beijing to know who’s stealing above their station, and hence who to crack down on when the kleptomania and/or public pressure to do something about it mount too high. It’s a perverse result, but free online speech turns out to be the top despot’s great friend, because it allows him to keep his underlings in line.

I asked King if citizens were allowed to criticize even the top despots themselves via social media, and he said they apparently were; the team found virtually no evidence that negative posts about the highest officials were removed. He reminded me that these people have vast power and wealth and every material comfort they could imagine. So so what if their people criticize them? It makes them look like normal guys.

The real purpose of Chinese censorship is to prevent free assembly. The one thing China’s top despots won’t tolerate is social media that could lead to protests, marches, mass meetings, or any other form of free assembly. Tiananmen Square showed them how dangerous crowds can be to the status quo, and the Arab Spring and many-colored revolutions around the world showed them how effective social media can be at helping to form and organize them. So any posts about bringing people together, and even otherwise-innocuous posts on topics that have sparked previous assemblies, vanish quite quickly.

The censors appear to receive marching orders on specific topics. King and his colleagues noticed a few instances where posts started or stopped disappearing a few days before a specific event — an arrest, a foreign policy announcement — actually occurred. The strong implication is that the government has a way to tell its army of censors, which King estimates at around 200,000 people, what to start or stop paying attention to. This darknet is like life on other planets: almost sure to exist, but so far invisible.

Virtually none of this was known, or even much hypothesized about, before King’s work. The ideas and theories about censorship in the political science literature were way behind what the data turned up. It’s a pattern we’re seeing a lot of these days. And I think we ain’t seen nothing yet.