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Circumvention of Censorship in China Has Increased During COVID-19 Pandemic People who broke through firewalls to seek health information also gained access to long-banned political content, study finds

By Mary Braswell

A study co-authored by Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs shows that more people in China circumvented censorship restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, opening a gateway to a trove of sensitive and long-hidden information.

Published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research identifies a spike in China-based activity on Twitter and Wikipedia, two platforms long banned by the government in Beijing.

The authors analyzed changes in the number of followers of popular accounts and traffic to certain Wikipedia pages to determine that, in addition to seeking news and information about the pandemic, users found sensitive information about China’s politics, history and human rights record.

During a crisis, the search for information increases under any form of governance, but leaders who use censorship as a tool to suppress dissent face heightened risks, said Steinert-Threlkeld, an assistant professor of public policy.

In China, the search for COVID-19-related information motivated individuals to find ways to skirt government-imposed regulations and technologies that block internet use. As a result, they gained access to censored material that government leaders perceive as damaging, he said.

“If I were one of those leaders I would find this alarming because it’s something that I can’t control.”

Researchers used Twitter to examine a sample of Chinese-language accounts whose self-reported locations are in mainland China, as well as an app-tracking service. They identified several trends, including:

  • an uptick in the number of people accessing technologies that would enable them to jump the Great Firewall, China’s network of restrictions on internet access;
  • Facebook becoming the 250th most downloaded app in China, up from the 600th, and Twitter becoming the 200th most downloaded app, up from the 575th, according to estimates;
  • a 10% long-term increase in the number of accounts from China using Twitter;
  • a greater than expected growth in followers — compared to users in Hong Kong, which was not under lockdown at the time — for accounts that tweet in Chinese, including international news agencies (31%), citizen journalists (42%), activists (28%) and pornography feeds that are generally banned in China (8%); and
  • increased viewership of Chinese-language Wikipedia pages on sensitive topics such as artist-activist Ai Weiwei and the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

The authors also uncovered nuances in Twitter usage. Their analysis of the content of the tweets alone suggested no effect — positive or negative — of the COVID-19 crisis. Digging deeper, however, they found that users who post only innocuous, nonpolitical tweets might still follow foreign news media, pro-democracy activists from Hong Kong or Taiwan, Chinese citizen-journalists or other banned Twitter accounts.

“As far as we can tell, the Chinese government has been relying on what people say to monitor the population,” Steinert-Threlkeld said. “But we show in this paper that people also reveal their sentiments by who they follow.”

The paper’s other authors are Keng-Chi Chang and Margaret E. Roberts of UC San Diego and William R. Hobbs of Cornell University.

The researchers note in the paper that Beijing’s crackdown on citizens who comment on banned platforms has become increasingly repressive over the last several years.

“While the results here do not link the COVID-19 crisis gateway effect to the political fortunes of the Chinese government, they do suggest that a country with a highly censored environment sees distinctive and wide-ranging increases in information access during crisis,” they conclude.

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