Harvard boffins 'reverse-engineer' Chinese censorship

Yes: criticise the government. No: organise protest

A group of researchers has stung China's censorship regime, building a “fake” social network to reverse-engineer the workings of the “great firewall”.

The bulk of the work from the Harvard-led group was simpler – they used anonymous volunteers from inside China to create accounts on sanctioned social media sites, and compared the posts allowed to remain to those taken down.

The actions of the censors, they argue, “leaves large footprints and so reveals a great deal about itself and the intentions of the government”.

Their study, published last week in Science (abstract here), found that criticising officials isn't a route to an automatic takedown.

As study leader Jennifer Pan explained in this story at Popular Mechanics, criticisms help leaders form their picture of what's happening on the ground, “seeing which of the roughly 50,000 local governments is being led in a way that is not satisfying people”.

Collective action of any kind, however – even in support of the government – quickly brings down the ban-hammer: “the state wants to limit people getting together outside of state control” so the government can “keep a monopoly on mass action”.

To avoid ethical criticisms, the researchers' on-the-ground assistants only created posts similar to those written by others in China. ®

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