Thursday, September 18, 2014

Censorship and being skeptical of things posted online -- an example for my class

This morning my Google Plus feed included a link to a video posted by Moshe Vardi on Chinese Internet censorship during the run up to the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations.

I am going to use it in class as an example of government censorship, but, more important, to illustrate the need to be skeptical of things one finds online.

Internet censorship in China is not exactly news, but I still wanted to check the provenance of the video. The video was produced by Vocativ.com. Going to their Chinese news page, I noted that the general tenure of the posts is negative, perhaps indicating some bias:


The Vocativ.com video presents a number of "man in the street" interviews showing people who are apathetic about or unaware of the 1989 demonstrations. At the 1:27 point in the video, a reportedly censored post from Weibo, China's version of Twitter, is displayed. The deleted post had allegedly contained a link to a Tiananmen democracy rally announcement at http://bit.ly/1kn6p3V, a URL shortened using the bitly.com service.


Following the link, I found a Weibo page with a bunch of posts, none of which seem to have anything to do with Tiananmen Square (thanks Google translate).


But, I noticed something strange. Normally, when you go to a URL shortened by bitly.com, it displays the original full-length URL in the address bar, but in this case, it displayed the shortened version, http://bit.ly/1kn6p3V.

When I refreshed that page, it went first to http://us.weibo.com/gb then redirected back to http://bit.ly/1kn6p3V.

This strange behavior indicates some sort of trickery, lending credence to the assertion that a rally announcement had been deleted.

One can not be sure, but I now have more confidence in the video, it's interview clips and the claim that over 50 people were arrested in the run up to the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen.

Shifting gears -- it was interesting to compare the Weibo site to Twitter. It is a lot busier, more colorful and loaded with ads, including animated GIFs. Definitely not a US style site.

Not only does Weibo have more ads, it has greater information density. I checked a 102 Chinese character "tweet" and Google translated it into 335 latin letters -- well over the Twitter limit. (We can re-take the advantage by attaching images of printed pages to our tweets).

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Here is the video:



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Update 2/25/2015

This is an 80 minute talk Chinese censorship of the Internet by Gary King, of the Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social Science:



King reports that China has over half a million people working on Internet censorship and that their goal is not to suppress criticism, but to head off action. (Criticism is valuable information).

The scope and methodology of this study is interesting -- big data social science – made possible by the Internet.

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Update 5/25/2016

Gary King and his colleagues have published a study in which they estimate that Chinese government workers fabricate about 488 million social media posts annually.

The workers write these posts in addition to their regular jobs and send copies to a government propaganda office.

King estimates that about one in every 178 comments on Chinese social media sites is fabricated by the government, but they are not distributed uniformly over time. As shown below, their strategy is to increase post frequency in response to specific threats or events and nearly stop at other times.