Surprise in social media findings

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 June, 2012, 12:00am


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Beijing is more likely to censor online comments that spur social movements than those that criticise the government, states a Harvard University study released this week.

The results of the study suggest that Beijing's most important objective is maintaining social stability.

'Contrary to previous understandings, posts with negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the state, its leaders and its policies are not more likely to be censored,' it said. 'Instead, we show the censorship programme is aimed at curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilisation, regardless of content.'

For example, a post on the Sina Weibo microblog that criticised government officials for having mistresses, being shameless, immoral and greedy, was not removed, nor were thousands like it.

Such posts are neither exceptions nor unusual, the researchers say, and that indicates that Beijing has no intention of stopping them. However, posts about a rumour that iodised salt would protect people from radiation exposure after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan were heavily censored, the study said.

The study claims to offer the first large-scale, multiple-source analysis of the outcome of Beijing's extensive censorship of social media.

The researchers devised a system to locate, download and analyse the content of millions of social media posts on more than 1,000 different social media websites on the mainland before the authorities could find and censor them.

Beijing routinely censors internet posts that contain sensitive keywords but mainland bloggers have invented ways to get around the censorship. With the use of analogies, metaphors, homophones, satire and other evasions, they can express sensitive meanings without touching upon sensitive keywords.

Ng Chi-sum, a veteran Hong Kong-based journalist and columnist, said: 'It's like a cat-and-mouse game. A few days before June 4 this year, the authorities even censored the word 'tomorrow'. But bloggers came up with clever expressions such as May 35, or images of tears and candles to express themselves.'

He said his Sina Weibo account had been deleted but the social network was going strong and the highly efficient nature of the internet posed a threat to Communist Party rule.

The study said there were estimated to be between 20,000 and 50,000 internet police on the mainland, plus another 250,000 to 300,000 members of the wumao dang (50 cent party) - party members paid to post favourable comments online and steer discussion away from sensitive topics. It also said that all levels of government - central, provincial and local - take part in the huge effort to censor and shape online discussion, describing this as a 'stunning organisational accomplishment' that required 'large scale, military-like precision'.