Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Cataloguing Internet Censorship

Note: this blog post is a republication of my recent contribution to China Outlook with permission. China Outlook is “an online, subscription-only newsletter that specialises in writing and research about China’s future. Based in Hong Kong, it is editorially independent.” It requires registration to read the original copy on China Outlook

The composition in this photo is a very visual allegory for the attitude of many citizens towards what the government wants them to believe. The photo was taken outside a disco club by the name of “Propaganda” at Wudaokou, Beijing, in 2005. This sleeper is most likely a migrant worker from the surrounding countryside. He was using his shoes as a pillow, the only comfort he could afford, while resting on the hard concrete stairs. Credit: the same as the author of this blog.
  
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.



Thursday, August 8, 2013

Q&A on Censorship with the Oxford Internet Institute

After presenting my study on China's censorship of online news at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), I had a great talk with David Sutcliffe, the editor of the OII Policy of Internet Blog, and went through the following questions. The full conversation is published on the blog post titled Uncovering the patterns and practice of censorship in Chinese news sites 
  1. How much work has been done on censorship of online news in China? What are the methodological challenges and important questions associated with this line of enquiry?
  2. You found that party organs, ie news organizations tightly affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party, published a considerable amount of deleted news. Was this surprising?
  3. How sensitive are citizens to the fact that some topics are actively avoided in the news media? And how easy is it for people to keep abreast of these topics (eg the “three Ts” of Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen) from other information sources?
  4. Is censorship of domestic news (such as food scares) more geared towards “avoiding panics and maintaining social order”, or just avoiding political embarrassment? For example, do you see censorship of environmental issues and (avoidable) disasters?
  5. You plotted a map to show the geographic distribution of news deletion: what does the pattern show?
  6. What do you think explains the much higher levels of censorship reported by others for social media than for news media? How does geographic distribution of deletion differ between the two?
  7. Can you tell if the censorship process mostly relies on searching for sensitive keywords, or on more semantic analysis of the actual content? ie can you (or the censors..) distinguish sensitive “opinions” as well as sensitive topics?
  8. It must be a cause of considerable anxiety for journalists and editors to have their material removed. Does censorship lead to sanctions? Or is the censorship more of an annoyance that must be negotiated?
  9. What do you think explains the lack of censorship in the overseas portal? (Could there be a certain value for the government in having some news items accessible to an external audience, but unavailable to the internal one?)

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