Assistant Professor of Public Policy Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld spoke to Al Jazeera about the Chinese government’s censorship of Shanghai residents’ expressions of frustration over an extended COVID-19 lockdown. “Shanghainese must realize that other countries have adopted looser approaches to COVID, especially in 2022, and probably feel there are less severe policy options available,” Steinert-Threlkeld said. Millions of people were confined to their homes in April as part of China’s “zero COVID” strategy in response to the Omicron outbreak, an approach reminiscent of the Wuhan lockdown in 2020. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has clamped down on social media posts that challenged the harsh lockdown. “The primary goal of CCP censorship is to prevent large-scale collective action,” Steinert-Threlkeld explained. “The censoring is counterproductive if one thinks the goal is to prevent disgruntlement about the lockdown from spreading, but it is productive if it prevents upset individuals from coordinating action outside of their homes.”
In an interview with Business Insider, Assistant Professor of Public Policy Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld discussed the state of misinformation in Russia. He explained that the Russian disinformation campaign works by pushing out a large amount of misinformation, some of which contains small amounts of truth. “When you control the information that people see, you control their willingness to act in certain political directions,” Steinert-Threlkeld said. “So if people learned that a train station was bombed by Ukraine by neo-Nazis as opposed to Russian military forces, then the soldier deaths that Russians will eventually learn about is justified, right? Because you’re not the aggressor, you’re the defender.” Western leaders have urged Russian citizens to access independent and verified news about the war. But Steinert-Threlkeld estimated that only about 10% of Russia’s population currently has access to virtual private networks, or VPNs, and those who do have access aren’t necessarily protected from having their location revealed.
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.
The trajectory of modern society increasingly deploys data to address equity issues around such diverse topics as housing evictions, air quality, or criminal justice reform.
Presenting UCLA’s first conference on Data-Informed Governance (DIG)
July 7, 2021
Online, starting at 8 a.m. PDT
Watch three panel discussions featuring experts and peers from the public, private, and civic sectors.
Exchange innovative, actionable approaches to real-world policy issues.
Find out why it is increasingly critical for state and local governments to become technology proficient, using data to inform critical policy decisions.
Join with participants from a wide spectrum of organizations and geographies — from local nonprofits to national research institutes, small cities to regional governing bodies.
The DIG conference is a convening of people from diverse backgrounds that aims to demonstrate the potential for structured peer-to-peer learning on this subject. This cross-section of attendee profiles encourages the advancement of data-centric solutions for public policy that are accessible, scalable, and pragmatic.
DIG is made possible thanks to the support of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, the Luskin Center for Innovation at UCLA, the College of Social Sciences, the LA Social Science Initiative, the Anderson School of Management, the Ziman Center for Real Estate, and Impact@Anderson.
Assistant Professor of Public Policy Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld spoke to Dot.LA about the role of social media platforms leading up to the invasion of the U.S. Capitol. While some mainstream social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram have made efforts to crack down on President Donald Trump’s false rhetoric, alt-right forums including Parler, Gab and theDonald.win have promoted calls for violence and rebellion. There’s been a shift away from mainstream sites like Twitter and Facebook to alt-right platforms as stronger moderation policies have been implemented, Steinert-Threlkeld explained. Over the last two years especially, supporters have turned to far-right online platforms for “tactical coordination,” he added. Steinert-Threlkeld identified similarities between the use of real-time online platforms in the organization of protests in Iran in 2009 and among Trump supporters today. He also said many supporters are probably having private conversations in closed and private groups on Facebook or through encrypted messaging platforms.
Assistant Professor of Public Policy Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld spoke to Zenger News about the growing role of social media in recent election cycles. Social media engagement with stories about Joe Biden hit a high the week the Democratic presidential candidate named Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate. Social media has become a more significant part of the political process than in previous election cycles, Steinert-Thelkeld explained. This increase in social media engagement makes it difficult to draw comparisons with Donald Trump’s selection of Mike Pence as his running mate in 2016. However, Steinert-Thelkeld highlighted the differences between the vice presidential candidates. “I think it’s more about the person that people are responding to as opposed to the four-year difference,” he said. “Pence is not that exciting. Pence is like the Biden now, and Kamala is like the Trump then.”
Super Quiz Bowl — a longstanding UCLA Luskin tradition — went virtual this year due to COVID-19, but enthusiasm remained high with nearly 250 competitors participating via home computers and cellphones in a trivia night held May 28. “From this mighty group, we had 19 faculty and staff, 110 students and 119 alumni,” said organizer Tammy Borrero, the School’s director of events. “This was our highest participation since its inception eight years ago.” Individuals and groups were able to compete simultaneously in the six-round tournament while enjoying a quick home-cooked meal or sofa snack and favorite beverage, thanks to Borrero and a team of staff and faculty who served as game hosts, co-organizers and participants. All three of the School’s graduate programs and the undergraduate Public Affairs major formed creatively named teams including PhDs in PJs, Mighty MURPs and Categorial Exemption. This year’s group prize went to a combined team of urban planners and social welfare graduate students, which evened out department standings across all years of competition, according to organizers. Plans are already underway to bring the event back under the tent next year.
Team Competition Winners
First Place: Plucky Opposers (Social Welfare and Urban Planning) Hanako Justice (SW), Julia Kulewicz (SW), Sam Speroni (UP), Arthur Sun (SW), Meagan Wang (UP)
Second Place: All Coast All Stars (Public Policy) Robert Gamboa, Brian Harris, Eric Schroer, Samuel Stalls, Sean Tan
Third Place: La Croix Taste Test (Public Policy) Adam Barsch, Jess Bendit, Rosie Brown, Dickran Jebejian, and Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld
Individual Competition Winners
First Place: Melody Wang, Urban Planning and Social Welfare
Second Place: Michael Busse, Urban Planning
Third Place: Nathaniel Singer, Undergraduate Program
Assistant Professor of Public Policy Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld was featured in a Well and Good article about the role of social media in the COVID-19 pandemic. Dwindling trust in traditional media outlets has prompted people to turn to social media for news, making it difficult to discern credible sources from non-credible sources. The WHO has described the spread of hazardous false information as an “infodemic.” Steinert-Threlkeld commented that in countries like Iran and China, where information is censored, citizens have been turning to banned networks in search of accurate information. “Because it was clear to individuals [in China] that what they were seeing was different from what state media was saying, people very quickly downloaded VPNs [to access banned sites like Twitter], which we’ve seen in past crises as well,” he explained. “What we’ve seen in a lot of provinces, especially where Wuhan is, is a tripling in the number of users accessing Twitter once the quarantine happened.”
The National Science Foundation has awarded a UCLA research team more than $944,000 to develop a framework for integrating massive amounts of data from several types of news sources. The cross-campus collaboration between the Department of Communication and the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs will produce a database that analyzes text, images, video and audio from print, television and online media. “No one has attempted to merge different sources of social and mass media data into one database,” said Assistant Professor of Communication Jungseock Joo, the principal investigator. Using cutting-edge computational methods, the team will build a system to automatically evaluate the data to identify topics, actors, events, sentiments and other large-scale patterns. The team includes UCLA Luskin’s Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld, an assistant professor of public policy who has studied vast troves of social media data in his research into subnational conflict. Steinert-Threlkeld said the new tool will enable researchers, students, policymakers, politicians and ordinary citizens to learn more about how information is disseminated. The team, which includes UCLA Communication faculty members Francis Steen and Tim Groeling, will collaborate with Stanford University’s Jennifer Pan, a specialist on social media data from China. — Mary Braswell
By Stan Paul
Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld has long been fascinated by crowd dynamics, especially among those drawn to mass demonstrations. As a Ph.D. candidate in political science, Steinert-Threlkeld knew that social media generated at protests were a rich source of data — but he could find few tools to help him analyze it.
Now, in a world awash with popular uprisings and social movements — from Tahrir Square in 2011 to the Women’s March following the 2017 presidential inauguration — the assistant professor of public policy at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs has used data generated by millions of posts on Twitter to learn more about crowd behavior and mass motivation.
Steinert-Threlkeld created a guide for acquiring and working with data sets culled from Twitter, which has more than 320 million global accounts generating more than half a billion messages every day.
His efforts culminated this year with the publication of “Twitter as Data,” the first guide in Cambridge University Press’ new Elements series on Quantitative and Computational Methods for Social Science. The series provides short introductions and hands-on tutorials to new and innovative research methodologies that may not yet appear in textbooks.
“When I was learning this as a graduate student, there was a lot of piecing together this information,” said Steinert-Threlkeld, who said he relied on sources such as Twitter documentation and online Q&A forums such as Stack Overflow. “I was able to do it, but it would have been a lot nicer if I had a textbook to show me the lay of the land.”
Steinert-Threlkeld, whose work combines his interest in computational social science and social networks with his research on protest and subnational conflict, said the book includes an interactive online version that allows users to click on links to download information and even sample data.
“It is differently comprehensive than a book,” Steinert-Threlkeld said. He described it as a “more interactive book experience — the first in social science that does this.”
In the book, Steinert-Threlkeld writes: “The increasing prevalence of digital communications technology — the internet and mobile phones — provides the possibility of analyzing human behavior at a level of detail previously unimaginable.” He compares this to the development of the microscope, which “facilitated the development of the germ theory of disease.”
He adds: “These tools are no more difficult to learn and use than other qualitative and quantitative methods, but they are not commonly taught to social scientists.”
To remedy this, Steinert-Threlkeld provides a systematic introduction to data sources and tools needed to benefit from them.
For example, people always want to know who’s protesting and how that influences others who might protest, Steinert-Threlkeld said. Most information has been restricted to surveys, which have limitations. “And so the researcher either gets lucky and happens to have scheduled a survey that occurs during a protest, but usually it’s after the fact.”
That is what’s exciting about using big data to study crowd behavior. “It’s like people always answering surveys,” he said. “Basically, every second you’re giving me survey data. Now we can tell in real time who’s protesting.”
One application of Twitter data is estimating crowd size, Steinert-Threlkeld said. In the past, he has had to rely on reports from organizers, police and the media to gauge the size of protests. “But I’m collecting tweets with GPS coordinates so I can say, ‘Oh, there are these many tweets or these many users from L.A. at this time or Pershing Square at this time, and explain whether that’s a reliable estimate or not of actual protesters.”
Twitter information can also be used to create data based on images shared from protests, Steinert-Threlkeld said. “The work I did before was all text based: What are people saying? Who’s saying it? When are they saying it? That sort of thing. But people share a lot of images online. They share more than they did three or four years ago. It’s really where the space is moving.”
Steinert-Threlkeld said that getting data into a form that a researcher can use requires a different skill set than designing and administering a survey. “But it’s still in some ways survey-like at the end of the day,” he said.
And “it’s fun,” he said. “Now we can tell in real time who’s protesting. We don’t know where the person lives, or their income, or their name. It’s still anonymous. We don’t know if the person who shares the image was there so we’re not incriminating anyone, but we can get a lot of information about protesters that we couldn’t before.”
In the final section of his guide, Steinert-Threlkeld writes: “These data are not a ‘revolution.’ Instead, they represent the next stage in the constant increase in data available to researchers. To stay at the forefront of data analysis, one needs to know some programming in order to interface with websites and data services, download data automatically, algorithmically clean and analyze data, and present these data in low-dimension environments. The skills are modern; the change is eternal.”