Online Surveillance as a Demobilizing Deterrent

Credit: The Syrian Free Computer Society

Mobilizing Ideas has published a number of posts on digitally enabled social activism, online censorship, the impact of online resources upon mobilization, and related issues (see here and here.) Gary King and his colleagues recently released an interesting paper that analyzes the Chinese government’s censorship of social media sites.  In a nut shell they scraped posts to over 1,300 social media sites in China and scraped them before human government censors were able to remove the posts. Rescraping the sites, they were able to determine what posts had been removed by the Chinese government.  They developed 85 topic areas, and thereby cataloged the states’ interests by comparing what was removed with what was allowed to remain posted across those issue areas.

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.

Count me among the surprised.  Instead, they report that their evidence reveals that

the censorship program is aimed at curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content. Censorship is oriented toward attempting to forestall collective activities that are occurring now or may occur in the future.

Ahhh, now that does not surprise me in the least.  Nor will it surprise Chris Sullivan, whose working paper “Organizing Oppression: Political Order, Repression and the Media,” argues that existing theoretical work

short changes attempts by state authorities to control/eliminate activity prior to the emergence of dissident collective action.

There are a number of cool things in King, Pan & Roberts’s study (and Sullivan’s as well), and I encourage you to read it (and, yes, there is plenty of room for critique as well).  I focus on one thing, and then touch on some related posts scattered about the web.

The panel above is from Figure 3 of the paper and shows the difference between the percent of stories on a topic that were censored during a burst of posts on that topic and the percent that were censored outside of such bursts.  A magnitude score of zero indicates the percentage is the same within and without bursts while positive values indicate that the topic is much more likely to be censored.  Because bursts are more labor intensive to monitor and censor, comparing those with others reveals where censors focus their energy when they are stressed and cannot allocate much time to each post.  Collective action and pornography are quite clearly the topics that are most heavily censored when labor resources are stretched thin (along with criticism of censors).  The study not only reveals theoretically interesting patterns, it also reveals new and innovative approaches to studying government coercion and repression.

That said, I wish to briefly consider the Assad government’s efforts to both censor social media activism in Syria, and use the sites to track down activists.  At the end of May the Electronic Frontier Foundation posted a story about a Trojan horse that the government apparently released disguised as a revolutionary document and distributed via skype. The Syrian Free Computer Society offers these tips (English)

Bashar is a little busy these days, so the Anonymous legion decided to bring you some tips instead. We’ll get to the tech details, but above all you must: You Must Remember You are Being Watched …because unless you’ve taken precautions, the regime records every movement you make online.

And they are also the source for that nifty cartoon at the top of this post, which I could not resist including.

1 Comment

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One response to “Online Surveillance as a Demobilizing Deterrent

  1. Pingback: Internet Censorship Bill Proposed in Russia | Mobilizing Ideas

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