Commentary

China Loosens Social Media Censorship To Uncover Dissent

Just remember, when an authoritarian government expresses interest in your opinions, it’s not necessarily with your best interests at heart.

That’s what the Chinese government has been doing over the last few years, according to a study by researchers in Hong Kong, Sweden, and the United States.

The study found that the regime has been selectively loosening its grip on social media censorship and allowing users to discuss some sensitive topics – but it’s doing this in part to better track dissent and nip potential protest movements in the bud.

For the study, titled “Why Does China Allow Freer Social Media? Protests versus Surveillance and Propaganda” and published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, researchers analyzed more than 13 billion posts made to Sina Weibo, a Chinese-language microblogging platform akin to Twitter, and correlated these with 545 collective protest events.

They discovered that online censors often allowed free discussion of controversial topics including official corruption and pollution, in many cases accompanied by calls for protests and strikes, apparently with an eye to preventing or limiting the latter.

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Overall, around three million posts relating to protests or social conflict and another 1.3 million relating to strikes were allowed to remain by censors.

Towards that end, the authors state “we find that social media can be very effective for protest surveillance,” as “Most of the real-world protests and strikes that we study can be predicted one day in advance based on social media content.”

In one case, the city government of Chengdu simply canceled the weekend, requiring workers to show up at their workplaces and students to be in school, in order to head off a protest over a planned toxic chemical factory.

On a more positive note, social media posts also help the central government uncover official corruption among local and regional officials, whose shady dealings might otherwise go unreported, given the corrupt officials’ control of local news media.

In fact, users seem to assume that their social media is being monitored, and use it as a channel to circumvent local officials and communicate directly with the central government.

In one interesting example, the user wrote: “Billions of money went into the pockets of local officials and their business partners! President Xi, Premier Li, and Secretary Wang in the Central Discipline Inspection Department, do you read our microblogs? Can you hear our voice? Please eradicate these corrupt officials! Right now!”

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