The Internet sees censorship as data, and feeds on it
August 28, 2014 7:04 AM   Subscribe

In a scientific study of Chinese online state censorship, Harvard researchers not only gathered large amounts of social media in real time from within the country but created a large amount themselves to see what got through and what was removed. Through this method, they reverse-engineered what they describe as "the largest selective suppression of human communication in the recorded history of any country". The results, to use a popular term, will surprise you.

Most censorship is aimed at anything which hints at group action - not surprising in itself. What is more intriguing is that this censorship applies no matter whether the action is pro- or anti-government, or unrelated. Discussion is not allowed.

What is least expected is that there is very little censorship of opinion. You can be as vitriolic as you like about politicians of all ranks, and it will stand. Further, the researchers say, such opinions are welcomed by the state apparatus, which uses them to gauge the effectiveness of officials as a kind of ersatz democratic signal.

It seems that online censorship contains its own signals.
posted by Devonian (31 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite

 
opinions are welcomed by the state apparatus, which uses them to gauge the effectiveness of officials as a kind of ersatz democratic signal

I don't think the word "democratic" is being used appropriately here.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 7:15 AM on August 28, 2014


hence ersatz
posted by p3on at 7:19 AM on August 28, 2014 [21 favorites]


So this is the People's Internet, just for quite small values of “people”, then.
posted by scruss at 7:20 AM on August 28, 2014


So keep the safetly valve as open as possible, while selectively targeting only the content that actually might matter in changing the social order? It's as if the Chinese have taken to reading Marcuse's work on "repressive tolerance." For some reason, this just seems more insidious and frightening to me than if the Chinese were still taking a more ham-fisted approach.
posted by jonp72 at 7:23 AM on August 28, 2014 [14 favorites]


hence ersatz

Yeah, but it's not even that. Scruss is being too generous too.

It's not like you consider your market signals to Coca Cola democratic participation, even if they were the united nation of giving you sugary drinks.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 7:25 AM on August 28, 2014


Full text of the article via Cryptome (scroll down).

Author Gary King discussed their research on the Science podcast last week.
posted by ryanshepard at 7:25 AM on August 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


While we're arguing about the definition of "democratic" it might be instructive to review the definition of "ersatz".
-- made or used as a substitute, typically an inferior one, for something else.
posted by rocketpup at 7:32 AM on August 28, 2014 [5 favorites]


It's not like you consider your market signals to Coca Cola democratic participation, even if they were the united nation of giving you sugary drinks.

A funny example; many people consider market signals to be analogous to democratic participation, hence the phrase "vote with your wallet".
posted by Jpfed at 7:37 AM on August 28, 2014


You can be as vitriolic as you like about politicians of all ranks, and it will stand. Further, the researchers say, such opinions are welcomed by the state apparatus, which uses them to gauge the effectiveness of officials as a kind of ersatz democratic signal.

This always seemed to me to be the function of the Internet in general: let people howl and rage over whatever they want, use up their emotional energy, while nothing actually has to change, yet people feel like they've accomplished something.

It's not like you consider your market signals to Coca Cola democratic participation, even if they were the united nation of giving you sugary drinks.

You've clearly never met a libertarian.
posted by Sangermaine at 7:40 AM on August 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


With all the American social media companies tinkering with their algorithms to limit or suppress organic reach in an attempt to monetize it, we increasingly have this kind of censorship on a de facto basis in the US, too, the only difference here being that you can route around the censors to some extent if you're willing and able to pay for post boosts/freedom.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:44 AM on August 28, 2014 [4 favorites]


Reasonably Everything Happens: "hence ersatz

Yeah, but it's not even that. Scruss is being too generous too.

It's not like you consider your market signals to Coca Cola democratic participation, even if they were the united nation of giving you sugary drinks.
"

Have you been paying attention to modern Capitalism? Between the "The public demands shitty news, so we're just giving the public what they want!" CNN/FOX/BOBBLEHEAD media these days and something like Citizens United where Every Corporation is a Person-with-a-Capital-P; where money = speech (not volume)...

Surely you jest: Giving money to a corporation is a way to indicate preference between red or blue; See? Coke = Red = Leftism/Communism; Pepsi = Blue = Conservatism.

I mean, of course, if we're talking actual honest to god democracy, then of course, sure. But if we're talking American Corpo-Democracy, then China's just learning from the best while adapting it to their historical contingencies.
posted by symbioid at 7:50 AM on August 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


This always seemed to me to be the function of the Internet in general: let people howl and rage over whatever they want, use up their emotional energy, while nothing actually has to change, yet people feel like they've accomplished something.

As you inoculate the system from dissent, and co-opt the more popular ideas and turn them into your own as they work into your favor. Throw a brick to get a jade and all that jazz. What's left over can be distorted and used against the person later on. Win-win for the system that knows our most primal motivations and ticks...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 7:53 AM on August 28, 2014


I'm an American expat and have been living in China for the last six months. Everybody (expats) gets a VPN, but I didn't want to be "breaking rules" right away. Bing's servers are fast/close (and I knew Yahoo hung some dissenters out to dry a long time ago), but all things Google are compromised. I think most Americans would be surprised by how much online video content runs through Google's servers. I think nearly all of it. NY Times and Guardian are blocked, but, by far, most news is not.

I learned many natives have a VPN. Young people love The Big Bang Theory and it was recently blocked (my suspicion is gay rights) but the attitude about censored content is don't complain and watch what you want. Torrenting is common.

I've been told the censoring is a source of employment to the tune of 2 million people.

The biggest revelation, for me, was that blocking Facebook and Twitter was as much about protecting a market as "controlling" information because there are popular and ubiquitous equivalents. Amazon has its equivalent, TaiBao.

I think the article's conclusion about 'organizing' is true, but it was my experience a similar situation is true in the west. I've lived abroad since 2009, and I started qualifying the word "scrutiny" to describe life abroad. The level/type of scrutiny in the US and Britain is similar to China (and some other places I won't mention in this post) in many ways and arguably worse in others.

Consumerism and corporate enterprise trumps so much...but that's a tangent.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 7:54 AM on August 28, 2014 [14 favorites]


Surely you jest... if we're talking actual honest to god democracy

We're basically saying the same thing. I'm not confused about what "ersatz" means. I'm calling out Harvard.

I know the snark will continue to pile in:

lol.definitionofersatz
lol.consumervotewithfeet
lol.harvardisjustamouthpiece
lol.theUSisa1984

...but I would like to hold this type of research/institution to a higher standard of taxonomy. When they, however obliquely, recognize what China is doing as democracy we all fall further from people actually being involved in the forming of their society.

(anything else can probably go to my memail to avoid derail)
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 7:55 AM on August 28, 2014


...but I would like to hold this type of research/institution to a higher standard of taxonomy.

Was Vonnegut joking when he called Harvard the Ruling Class Polytechnic?
posted by lazycomputerkids at 7:58 AM on August 28, 2014


The 'ersatz democracy' phrasing is my interpretation of the Harvard paper summary, not Harvard's words. To some extent, any practical democracy is an imperfect model of the platonic ideal - thank god - so it's a spectrum rather than a binary distinction. Voting and market research are intimately related - it's your freedom to ignore the results that differs.

I think the most interesting aspect here is that it is possible to reverse-engineer mechanisms of censorship online. Divining motive and utility is a second-order effect, which is also fascinating, but not, I think, as fundamentally inventive.
posted by Devonian at 8:15 AM on August 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


Second Lazycomputerkid experiance and opinion about china censorship.
posted by thegirlwiththehat at 8:23 AM on August 28, 2014


My wife and I did a less formal exercise recently on Facebook to try to gauge our own organic reach (we are slowly ramping up a longer term PR campaign for a crowdfunded project to release and promote a novel and album and have been really struggling with how unpredictable organic reach is anymore). We asked our friends to help us by commenting if/when they saw particular posts. The results confirmed what we'd been suspecting. It's not the same internet we were working with in the 90s anymore. Not even close. It's like the powers-that-be everywhere are just insanely neurotic control-freaks intent on squeezing all potential for spontaneity and authenticity out of human society by force.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:32 AM on August 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


I think the article's conclusion about 'organizing' is true, but it was my experience a similar situation is true in the west. I've lived abroad since 2009, and I started qualifying the word "scrutiny" to describe life abroad. The level/type of scrutiny in the US and Britain is similar to China (and some other places I won't mention in this post) in many ways and arguably worse in others.

Could you expand on this? Because on its face it seems demonstrably untrue.

Here in New York I could set up a page to organize a "group action"/gathering on any topic on any platform and not be censored by the government. Not that things like the NSA programs are good or okay, but they simply aren't the same kind of content censorship.
posted by Sangermaine at 8:51 AM on August 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


they simply aren't the same kind of content censorship

You're more likely to have the NSA read your email and send an undercover operative to your demonstration than you are to have them actively censor your discussion in advance. After-the-fact chilling of speech, rather than preemptive censorship.
posted by suelac at 8:56 AM on August 28, 2014 [4 favorites]


Here in New York I could set up a page to organize a "group action"/gathering on any topic on any platform and not be censored by the government.

Officials Cast Wide Net in Monitoring Occupy Protests [NYT]:

In many cases, law enforcement officials appeared to simply assemble or copy lists of protests or related activities, sometimes maintaining tallies of how many people might show up. They also noted appearances by prominent Occupy supporters and advised other officials about what — or whom — to watch for, according to the newly disclosed documents. The files did not show any evidence of phone or email surveillance; instead, much of the material was acquired from social media, publicly disseminated information and reports by police officers or others.

Homeland Security Kept Tabs on Occupy Wall Street [Rolling Stone]:

DHS ... appears to have scoured OWS-related Twitter feeds for much of their information. The report includes a special feature on what it calls Occupy's "social media and IT usage," and provides an interactive map of protests and gatherings nationwide – borrowed, improbably enough, from the lefty blog Daily Kos. "Social media and the organic emergence of online communities," the report notes, "have driven the rapid expansion of the OWS movement."

Spying on Occupy Activists [The Progressive]:

The long-term monitoring meant police were watching Occupy Phoenix members’ Facebook conversations and personal social media use well into 2012. One member of the Phoenix Police Department seemed to do little else during the fall of 2011 and much of 2012 besides keeping tabs on Occupy Phoenix. Brenda Dowhan is with the department’s Homeland Defense Bureau and serves as a Terrorism Liaison All-Hazards intelligence analyst with the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center. Much of her work involved the monitoring of social media sites such as Facebook to track individuals connected to Occupy Phoenix. She distributed the information she gathered to other law enforcement agencies, including the FBI.

To DHS, FBI, etc., social media is a valuable form of intelligence for monitoring and suppressing civil disobedience - why would they censor it?
posted by ryanshepard at 9:15 AM on August 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


to add to the above:

Revealed: how the FBI coordinated the crackdown on Occupy
New documents prove what was once dismissed as paranoid fantasy: totally integrated corporate-state repression of dissent
posted by ts;dr at 10:08 AM on August 28, 2014 [4 favorites]


"we increasingly have this kind of censorship on a de facto basis in the US"

No.
posted by gertzedek at 11:34 AM on August 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


Well, what else do you call it when social media explicitly limit "organic reach"? You know what that is, right? It means as a matter of policy, your content is being selectively presented (censored) by default, unless you are willing to pay for access to your own network of friends and contacts. If your posts can't be seen by the people you're trying to reach unless you pay, then that's de facto censorship ("de facto" as in "for all practical purposes the same effect though not in name").
posted by saulgoodman at 12:04 PM on August 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


I mean, picture yourself as a Chinese social media user. In that case, your posts might not be presented to people in your network if the content suggests group organization of some kind (like getting a group of fans together to form a street team). In the US, if you try to use social media to organize group activity for some larger project, you're not as likely to see those posts presented to people in your network for different reasons (the commercial limits on organic reach some social media sites are now building in), but the effect is exactly the same, with the one exception being that in the US you can pay for post boosts for access to more of your own potential organic reach, and arguably, the motives are different. Functionally, the result is the same, unless you can pay.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:11 PM on August 28, 2014


In neither case are the social media sites keeping the content from being presented to everyone (outright censorship); they're just using their control over reach to keep certain posts from being seen enough to create any kind of critical mass of momentum for action. That's a little more insidious than outright censorship, but the effect is the same.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:13 PM on August 28, 2014


In neither case are the social media sites keeping the content from being presented to everyone (outright censorship)

Actually, posts on Chinese social media sites are deleted. For example, I have one friend who regularly forwards political posts on weibo. The originals are usually deleted within a few minutes, leaving the equivalent of "RT: [sorry, this tweet has been deleted]" in his stream.

Things are bad in the US, but the self-censorship, outright censorship, and blocking of websites in China is much worse.
posted by bradf at 12:34 PM on August 28, 2014 [5 favorites]


Thanks for the clarification; I guess in the Chinese case it's censorship in effect and name. And sure, I assume it really is a lot worse in China than in US, but if limits on organic reach become the norm here, then we'll be no better off in all the ways that matter.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:36 PM on August 28, 2014


People complaining about facebook squashing "organic reach" should switch to Twitter. Facebook is not the only way we have to communicate with people.
posted by chrchr at 12:37 PM on August 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


I mean, picture yourself as a Chinese social media user. In that case, your posts might not be presented to people in your network if the content suggests group organization of some kind (like getting a group of fans together to form a street team). In the US, if you try to use social media to organize group activity for some larger project, you're not as likely to see those posts presented to people in your network for different reasons (the commercial limits on organic reach some social media sites are now building in), but the effect is exactly the same, with the one exception being that in the US you can pay for post boosts for access to more of your own potential organic reach, and arguably, the motives are different. Functionally, the result is the same, unless you can pay.
saulgoodman

But that's not the US government, that's Facebook. That's a private site's policy for its own service.

In the US you're free to use some other service, like Twitter, that doesn't do this. Or conceivably start your own if you wanted. In China the government is enforcing it across everything.
posted by Sangermaine at 12:41 PM on August 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


I assume it really is a lot worse in China than in US

Quoting myself here for clarity and then I'm just going to bow out before my original more nuanced points get too far divorced from their context and blown out of proportion as badly as any random celebrity twitter post.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:49 PM on August 28, 2014


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