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.

Reber on Link Between High COVID Risk and Vaccine Hesitancy

Quartz spoke with Associate Professor of Public Policy Sarah Reber about her study finding that the political environment outside a skilled nursing facility did not strongly predict the likelihood that its residents were vaccinated against COVID-19. Politics might be expected to seep into nursing home environments, Reber said, especially because many of the residents suffer from cognitive decline and have substitute decision-makers — often adult children and other family members who live nearby — who must give consent before a resident can be inoculated. Reber said the extreme threat COVID-19 poses to older adults could be one factor at play. “It does seem like the higher the risk, the less politicized vaccination is,” she said. In an article for Brookings, Reber and co-author Cyrus Kosar of Brown University also found wide disparities in states’ effectiveness in delivering life-saving vaccines, including flu shots, to nursing home residents, but the reason for this gap is unclear.

Astor on Schools’ Role in Protecting Students, Preventing Violence

Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor spoke to the Los Angeles Times about pandemic-related factors behind reports of tension, misbehavior and violence on school campuses. Students who returned to in-person learning after a long period of isolation may have also experienced food and housing insecurity, mental health issues and other stressors, Astor noted, so schools should be well-positioned to support students on many levels. “Historically, schools have also played the role of creating a better society and a better world,” he said. “This is the right time to retreat back to that.” A K-12 Dive article on who bears responsibility for preventing violence on campus also cited Astor. He recommended that everybody — including teachers, staff, administrators, peers, parents and law enforcement — be trained to spot and properly respond to students who display red flags, including an obsession with firearms; signs of depression and suicidal ideation; having a plan to hurt themselves or others; and troubling social media posts.


Leap on Factors Fueling Spike in Violent Crime in L.A.

Adjunct Professor of Social Welfare Jorja Leap spoke to KPCC’s AirTalk about factors fueling a rise in violent crime in Los Angeles. In the wake of COVID-19, the killing of George Floyd and economic uncertainty that has put food and shelter at risk for many, “the bottom line is people feel out of control,” Leap said. “And some people who feel out of control act out of control.” A sense of hopelessness, combined with the proliferation of lethal weapons in the United States, has led to a high death count that has had a devastating impact on women and children in particular, with trauma reverberating through years, if not decades, she said. Leap said she hopes the upcoming Los Angeles mayor’s race puts pressure on leaders to come up with innovative approaches to public safety, such as expanding gang intervention and community outreach. “This is really an all-hands-on-deck problem,” she said. 

Roy on ‘Impoverishment and Abandonment’ on L.A. Streets

The Guardian, CalMatters and other media outlets spotlighted a study from the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy that gauged the death toll among Los Angeles County’s unhoused population during the COVID-19 pandemic. Between March 2020 and July 2021, nearly 1,500 people died on the streets or in outdoor spaces including freeway underpasses, parks, sidewalks, dumpsters, abandoned buildings, bus stops, tents, riverbeds, railroads and encampments, the study found. The number does not include those who died in hospitals, shelters or cars. The CalMatters piece focused on the most common cause of death: accidental overdose. The Guardian noted that the average age of unhoused residents who died was 47, a finding that II&D Director Ananya Roy found particularly disturbing. “We’ve got to get serious about using that metric to understand the levels of impoverishment and abandonment here in the U.S.,” she said. The Independent, Planetizen and Insider were among other media covering the study.


Shah on COVID-19 Vaccination Incentives That Backfire

Media outlets including the Wall Street Journal, Marketplace and San Francisco Chronicle reported on research co-authored by Public Policy Professor Manisha Shah that found that incentive programs — including the offer of money — have little impact on COVID-19 vaccination rates. The researchers randomly offered study participants, all members of the Medicaid program in Contra Costa County, various incentives: public health messages, vaccination appointments and either $10 or $50. Vaccination rates did not rise, and in some cases the offer of cash may have made some vaccine-hesitant people more distrustful. Shah, director of the Global Lab for Research in Action at UCLA Luskin, told the Chronicle that the financial incentive may have sent a negative signal, leading participants to think, “ ‘If I should trust the vaccine and get it, why do you have to pay me for it?’ ” The findings by the research team from UCLA, USC and Contra Costa’s Health Services agency were published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.


Storper on the Evolution of Cities After COVID-19

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block shared Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning Michael Storper’s research on the evolution of cities at the Milken Institute’s recent Global Conference, which convened thousands of leaders from government, health care, finance, technology, philanthropy, media and higher education to tackle urgent global economic and social issues. Building on the conference’s theme of “Charting a New Course,” Block joined several discussions with the aim of sharing lessons learned from recent social movements and the global pandemic to reimagine a more prosperous future for all. “Cities keep growing and they keep thriving, but they’re changing. We’re seeing from the pandemic something that we refer to as ‘social scarring,’ or deep psychological impact that’s not going away quickly,” Block said, pointing to Storper’s research. “It’s changing people’s behavior and how they feel about density.” The 24th edition of the Global Conference was held in Beverly Hills from Oct. 17-20.

California Latinos’ Use of Emergency Medical Services Rose During Pandemic

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Latinos in California were relatively unlikely to use emergency medical services. But during the pandemic, across much of the state, Latinos’ use of such services — specifically seeking treatment for respiratory ailments — increased more than it did for non-Latino whites, according to a new report by the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative. The report’s authors compared figures for the first six months of 2020 to statistics for the same period in 2019. They analyzed data from the California Emergency Medical Services Information System, which includes information from all of the state’s 33 local emergency medical service agencies with the exception of Los Angeles County. “Although the study doesn’t directly account for about 30% of California’s Latinos who live in Los Angeles, other studies on the impact of COVID-19 on Latinos in L.A. would suggest that the same phenomenon would hold true in Los Angeles,” said Esmeralda Melgoza, a doctoral student at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and a co-author of the report. The study’s findings suggest that emergency medical services statewide have an opportunity to improve their language and cultural literacy to better serve the needs of their Latino patients. The study identified factors that kept Latinos from using emergency services prior to the pandemic, including concerns about the costs of emergency care and fears that interaction with public safety officials could endanger their immigration status. After the pandemic began, their use of emergency services for urgent respiratory illness pointed to the toll COVID-19 took on Latino essential workers and families. — Rodrigo Dominguez-Villegas

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A Community-Building Vision for the Chicano Studies Research Center

As the director of UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center, Veronica Terriquez draws on her background as a community organizer to enhance Latino community networks and presence on campus, and further support university-community partnerships. On Sept. 24, UCLA announced steps it was taking as it seeks to achieve Hispanic Serving Institution status, and Terriquez and the center’s staff and faculty will become partial stewards of that process. The center will administer the hiring of 15 new faculty positions and 20 postdoctoral fellows whose teaching, scholarship or mentoring experience has ties to Latino experiences. “Research shows that underrepresented students fare better when they have a faculty mentor who can relate to their experiences,” said Terriquez, a professor of urban planning at UCLA Luskin. Terriquez has also expanded the Chicano Studies Research Center’s faculty advisory committee, which now includes a greater breadth of disciplinary backgrounds. And on Nov. 1, the center is planning a special virtual Dia De Los Muertos event, open to the UCLA community. “The program will feature Dia de Los Muertos-related arts and performances, but it will also feature the hard data that remind us of the devastation Latinx communities have experienced during the current pandemic,” Terriquez said. “It will be a celebration and a call to action because we can’t let this happen again.” Looking ahead, Terriquez will be working on California Freedom Summer, a project that will train and place college students as summer 2022 interns at nonprofit organizations where they will focus on voter education ahead of the fall midterm elections. — Jessica Wolf

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Grant to Support LPPI Research on Strengthening Latino Workforce

The UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative (LPPI) has received $750,000 from The James Irvine Foundation to support data collection and research on the impacts of COVID-19 on Latino workers in California. The grant will also support the development of a policy toolkit to improve the capacity of California lawmakers, business leaders and advocates to champion recovery efforts that strengthen the state’s core workforce. “Latinos are the current and future workforce of California and the road to prosperity runs through them. Yet we often lack the data necessary to make the best policy decisions and targeted investments to uplift Latinos,” LPPI Executive Director Sonja Diaz said. “Opportunity and economic mobility for California’s Latinos is necessary for us all to thrive now and far into the future.” Latinos are the largest ethnic/racial group in the country, and a plurality in California, so understanding their contributions to the nation’s social and economic fabric is imperative, Diaz said. She added that providing opportunities to make a living wage and build new skills in a changing economy is critical to a strong recovery in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Irvine Foundation grant will support data collection focusing on eight areas: demography and population change; climate change and the environment; economic opportunity and social mobility; education; health; housing;  child welfare;  and voting rights and political representation. “We know that Latinos are essential to California’s future,” said Virginia Mosqueda, senior program officer at the Irvine Foundation. “Supporting UCLA LPPI helps ensure our state leads the nation in offering Latino workers access to economic opportunity.”