Cataloguing internet censorship

July 13, 2013 by Nick Fielding

Just before 6 am on 26 June 2013, rioting broke out in the town of Lukqan Township in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, in northwest China and home to millions of Uyghur Muslims. At least 24 people were killed by suspected Islamists, who set about them with swords and knives.

About seven hours later the state-run Xinhua News Agency broke the news on its English news wire service, followed closely by numerous Chinese news portals that covered the story with a Chinese translation.

A few hours later, Chinese speakers living in the United States first heard the news on the BBC and CNN, both of which quoted the original report from Xinhua. But when they began to look on Chinese websites, they could find hardly a trace of the story. The censors had been at work.

For those living in China and China observers such censorship of important events is not unusual. China has never been far from the bottom of the Press Freedom Index published by Reporters without Borders and is presently in 173rd position, with just six countries worse . Foreign websites are routinely blocked and Chinese websites are under continual, close scrutiny.

According to the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society, China devotes “substantial technical, financial, and human resources” to develop the apparatus of censorship and has instituted “by far the most intricate filtering regime in the world.” Since censorship is a common practice in China, censored information has become an alternative perspective that we should not neglect when seeking to understand this country

Censorship is a crude tool at the best of times and often the material censored carries crucial information for people both inside and outside China – even if it is too inconvenient for the Chinese authorities. The outbreak of SARS in 2002-3, for instance, was censored from Chinese media for five months, presumably to avoid spoiling the harmonious atmosphere created for the 16th National Congress of the Communist Party. However, the decision was not without implications: it allowed the virus to travel irreversibly across continents until a worldwide epidemic emerged.

So too with other subjects, which, like SARS, are not only inconvenient but also crucial; in fact, it hardly makes sense to devote huge resources in terms of human labour and computing power to monitor and eliminate subject matter that was merely trivial.

At the same time, the authorities’ decision to censor information that is inconvenient, even if it is important, provides an opportunity to observe China from the standpoint of what it discards, rather than what it consumes. And that is precisely what a number of researchers outside China have now begun to do – namely, to examine and assess news stories that have been censored from the Chinese media.

Of course, the analysis of deleted stories will never provide a full picture of media control. In many cases journalists familiar with a particular regimen will know not to write certain kinds of stories. This is a form of pre-censorship. The journalists in a newsroom may often be privy to certain information that they know it would be foolish to circulate. But with articles that have appeared and then just as rapidly have disappeared, there is a different situation. In these cases, the material has been published, but is subsequently judged to be unsuitable and is removed.

But how to collect this censored information before it vaporizes? In recent years scholars and institutes have been trying to uncover information censored from news portals and social media in China. A common technique involves two steps: collect and check. First, information published online in China is collected using big data techniques and, in the second stage, is repeatedly and continuously checked for availability. Once a link appears broken, it is “red flagged” for suspicion.

While it is possible for articles to be removed completely for editorial purposes, in practice this is rare. In such cases, as with corrections to, say the New York Times website, it is usually possible to identify the corrections, through the use of italics or some similar device.

Even stronger evidence to rule out alternative explanations beyond censorship can be obtained by comparing deletions in a variety of news media to see if they cover similar topics. If so, then censorship is a strong possibility, because similar deletions reflect the systematic control of content, which in turn is a good indication of regulated behaviour.

One recent censorship study conducted jointly by Michigan State University and the City University of Hong Kong focused on NetEase and Sina, two major news portals in China. From November 2011 to October 2012, the researchers found on average that two articles were deleted from each website per day and that the deletions from the two websites followed similar patterns. In particular, domestic news had a significantly higher probability of being deleted compared to international news: twice as likely for NetEase, and six times for Sina. Beijing stories had twice the probability of deletion compared to news covering other places in China. Surprisingly, very few articles on Tibet appear to have been deleted, a fact that the researchers put down to pre-censorship. Compared to neutral stories, for NetEase, positive news had one third the probability of being deleted whereas negative news nearly four times, and for Sina, negative news had three times the probability of being deleted.

From a list of 13 news topics, five were strongly associated with deletions: politics, business, foreign affairs, food and drugs, and military. These topics frequently included sensitive keywords or phrases, such as land acquisition, death toll, social unrest, poor working environment, food safety, and disputed territories.

These findings are in line with sociological theory on censorship, which suggests that the elimination of improper political news helps keep ideological purity, the removal of military news reflects a concern over national security, the ban on news covering disputed territories indicates the protection of national interest, and the expurgation of news on unsafe foods is one approach to maintaining social order. Like all modern states, China is wrestling with the impact of the growth in social media. It is aware of just how quickly online media can amplify the impact of events and invite participation, as seen in the Arab Spring movement. In his well-received book Rewire, Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, narrates how this movement started with a family’s protest against government corruption in Tunisia, spread beyond one town, and eventually reached over a dozen countries.

Over a decade before the Arab Spring, China’s leadership had foreseen the potential threat of online media and started developing censorial strategies and tools. What it aims to constrain is the mobilizing power of online media, as indicated by a study conducted by Gary King and his colleagues at Harvard University.

From the messages deleted from nearly 1,400 Chinese social media platforms, they observed that the state aims to prevent and suppress ongoing and potential collective activities. This is in contrast to the widely held view that first and foremost the Chinese censors target harsh criticism of the state. Hence, on the one hand, social media are censored to prevent mobilization, and on the other hand, news media are censored to eliminate possible triggers for such mobilization. That is why international news was found to have been much less deleted than domestic news from NetEase and Sina, because remote events are not relevant enough to provoke strong reactions among citizens.

China is not the only country to censor social media. Censorship exists in all societies and all forms of media. For example, there is presently a growing international debate on the ease with which pornography can be accessed online and whether or not this is a danger to children. Websites regarded as promoting Islamic fundamentalism are routinely banned in certain countries. In China, whilst censorship is pervasive, the debate over who controls online access to information and what are its limits has barely begun.

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