China: Open for Commerce, Closed to Opinions

The censoring of information across China continues to be an unrelenting effort targeted at disillusioning its citizens. With many aspects of country’s economy facing strict government oversight, you have to question how effective the states efforts are at suppressing diversity. Couldn’t the governments attempts be better utilized in promoting innovation and diversity, the foundation of growth, rather than suppressing change?

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article covering the new developments in tracking China’s censorship campaign. The database works by gathering user information from Weibo (Chinese version of Twitter), decipher which posts are likely to be removed, and publishes the content for all the world to see. The hope is to get the information to spread faster than the government can prevent, while monitoring the constantly evolving trends in censorship.

Research from data sources that track changes in censorship have surprisingly found that the majority of government efforts are directed at removing content that inspires collective action (protest, revolt), rather than direct defamation of policies or officials. It should come as no surprise that using exact terms, like Tienanmen Square or Chen Guangcheng (blind activist), will quickly be flagged for removal.

The database, called WeiboScope, is published by the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong. The program not only searches for content that is likely to be censored, but also tracks what information has been removed, even from a later date. This option, to track removed content, allows researchers to quantify the scope and direction of the government censorship.  The telling traits from databases like WeiboScope have shown to be fairly accurate, giving signs of upcoming changes usually 5 days before a major announcement (see below).

This great “data wall” of China proves to be as susceptible to innovation as the original wall. With the current rate of technological advancement, it is questionable as to how long the state can maintain this “cat and mouse” game of censorship. The government has even taken steps to push its domestic views into Western news outlets.

Many research institutions are hopeful to utilize programs that interpret the censoring of mass amounts of information (big data), derived from trending authors and content, to extrapolate upon future policy changes. The predictive value gained from such a product would hopefully promote the necessary awareness to pressure a government change away from such intrusive controls.