Researchers reverse-engineering China's online censorship methods reveal government's deepest concerns

August 22, 2014 by Bob Yirka report
Researchers reverse-engineering China’s online censorship methods reveal government’s deepest concerns
The Chinese censorship decision tree. The pictures shown are examples of real (and typical) websites, along with our translations. Credit: Science 22 August 2014: Vol. 345 no. 6199. DOI: 10.1126/science.1251722

A trio of researchers, two from Harvard University and one from the University of California has used two broad techniques to better understand how online censorship works in China. In their paper published in the journal Science, the team describes how they set up their own Chinese web site in one part of their study and engaged in massive posting in the other, and what they learned as a result. Mara Hvistendahl offers an in depth perspective piece on the work by the trio in the same journal issue.

In the first part of the study, the researchers set up a web that allowed visitors to post comments about a wide range of topics. The site was created using Chinese addressing, hosting services, , etc., making it a truly Chinese site. The team even ordered the same software that other site owners use to censor posts, which allowed for study of criteria used for automatic blocking of posts.

In the second part of the study, the researchers, with the assistance of volunteers, created accounts on hundreds of Chinese social media sites and then began posting messages to see which types get blocked, which get removed and which are allowed to stay.

In analyzing what they learned from both parts of the their study, the researchers came to see that the people in charge of censoring their own social media web sites, are far more concerned about messages calling for mass action, than they are about comments that are more general, including those that might be critical of . The software used to help censor comments tended to reject those that had phrases such as "go on the streets" or words such as "demonstration" while comments created by the team that criticized local government officials by name tended to not only get posted, but were left as written.

The team suggests that their research shows that that main reason for online censorship in China is to prevent the kind of dissent that can lead to people banding together to object to things they don't like. Criticism of local policies or officials on the other hand seems to help those higher up the chain determine who is doing a good job of suppressing dissent at the local level and who is not—which makes it easy to see who to keep and who to replace.

Explore further: US social media account in China disappears

More information: Reverse-engineering censorship in China: Randomized experimentation and participant observation, Science 22 August 2014: Vol. 345 no. 6199. DOI: 10.1126/science.1251722

Related Stories

US social media account in China disappears

July 13, 2012

(AP) — A widely read microblog written by the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai and known for its sometimes tongue-in-cheek comments about China's social and political issues was inaccessible Friday.

China pays two million to monitor Internet

October 6, 2013

China is employing two million people to keep tabs on people's Internet use, according to state media, in a rare glimpse into the secret world of Beijing's vast online surveillance operation.

Iran president vetoes WhatsApp ban: reports

May 7, 2014

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani has vetoed a plan to ban WhatsApp, following a row over censorship of the popular messaging application, media reports said Wednesday.

Should universities censor students on social media?

June 25, 2014

Huge increases in the use of social media by students have posed difficult ethical questions for Universities. Comments posted on sites such as Facebook are often 'stream of consciousness' thoughts, expressed with little ...

China tightens controls on Internet messaging apps

August 7, 2014

China is banning users of Internet messaging services from posting political reports without permission, and demanding they promise to "uphold the socialist system", state media said Thursday.

Recommended for you

Smart home heating and cooling

August 28, 2015

Smart temperature-control devices—such as thermostats that learn and adjust to pre-programmed temperatures—are poised to increase comfort and save energy in homes.

Smallest 3-D camera offers brain surgery innovation

August 28, 2015

To operate on the brain, doctors need to see fine details on a small scale. A tiny camera that could produce 3-D images from inside the brain would help surgeons see more intricacies of the tissue they are handling and lead ...

Team creates functional ultrathin solar cells

August 27, 2015

(—A team of researchers with Johannes Kepler University Linz in Austria has developed an ultrathin solar cell for use in lightweight and flexible applications. In their paper published in the journal Nature Materials, ...

Interactive tool lifts veil on the cost of nuclear energy

August 24, 2015

Despite the ever-changing landscape of energy economics, subject to the influence of new technologies and geopolitics, a new tool promises to root discussions about the cost of nuclear energy in hard evidence rather than ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (6) Aug 22, 2014
Would be interesting to see a similar study done here.
4.7 / 5 (3) Aug 22, 2014
Nice reverse social engineering.
'Fuzzing' censorship mechanisms to see what people are trying to hide - I like it.
5 / 5 (2) Aug 22, 2014
i wonder if the results of their study would be censored by government software as well.
3 / 5 (1) Aug 23, 2014
Wouldn't it have been easier to simply ASK a Chinese computer scientist, programmer, or even blogger? I'm sure most Chinese who post online are aware of how their government censors them!
not rated yet Aug 23, 2014
'Fuzzing' censorship mechanisms to see what people are trying to hide - I like it.
This research has some tradition already. The Soviet research of nuclear bomb has started just after when physicist Georgy Flyorov noticed that in spite of the progress German, British and American physicists had made in research into uranium fission, scientific journals had ceased publishing papers on the topic. Flyorov deduced that this meant such research had been classified, and wrote about it to Stalin in April 1942. The importance of many findings of last decades can be deduced just from the way, in which they're ignored with mainstream journals. I'm monitoring many research topics in similar way - for example during this year only two new publications appeared at the library of cold fusion articles - why?
3 / 5 (2) Aug 23, 2014
Who said China was a good example for the world to follow?
Wasn't it Toiea?
not rated yet Aug 23, 2014
@Gimp I assume you are a US citizen, I'm European. I don't think that you get censured in our countries, you just get ... spied...
not rated yet Aug 23, 2014
Chinese people can write the most vitriolic blog posts about even the top Chinese leaders without fear of censorship, but if they write in support of or opposition to an ongoing protest—or even about a rally in favor of a popular policy or leader—they will be censored
Apparently they afraid of emergent synergies leading from concentration of multiple people at single place. The crowds are difficult to control and they tend to live their own lives. This is particular significant in densely populated China. I dunno, if the Chinese leaders support the dense aether model or not, but they already utilize its principles well. At any case, this research throws somewhat different light to allegedly non-liberal Chinese leaders.
not rated yet Aug 23, 2014
Who said China was a good example for the world to follow? Wasn't it Toiea?
Nope, he wasn't. I just noted, that China converges to social arrangement balanced between conservatism and progressivism (or capitalism and socialism) in similar way, like the western democracies - just from opposite direction. IMO the politbyro of China is not so different from oligocracy of USA, which is based on alternation of few leading political dynasties. The concentration of power in hands of few people is always dangerous, but it can maintain the responsiveness and willingness to activity, which wider democracy lacks. For example the wide government of EU is very indecisive regarding the sanctions against Russian annexation of Crimea and every decision is kinda slow in the Europe. The wider democracy is good in times of political stability and growth, but when the things get into troubles, then it becomes suboptimal.
not rated yet Aug 23, 2014
My stance regarding censorship is otherwise strictly dismissive. IMO its level actually indicates the distance from ideal world. Which is important criterion under the situation, when no one knows, how the ideal world should look like. IMO when some classification or censorship gets applied, it always smells with something - no matter whether internal or external affairs are involved. The information just wants to spread into outside as smoothly as possible due to entropy laws.

This doesn't say, that the cancellation of censorship and classification of information in contemporary society is possible or even reasonable, when the people and their civilization aren't mature enough for it. It just shows the way, how to indicate the progress toward ideal society - and possibly one of ways, how to achieve it too. But the best indicator may not be the best tool here, as the example of scientific journal impact misuse illustrates. The canceling of censorship will not make us better by itself.
not rated yet Aug 23, 2014
it appears that criticism on the web, which was thought to be censored, is used by Chinese leaders to determine which officials are not doing their job of mollifying the people and need to be replaced
This is another interesting memo: the mechanism of negative feedback of democracy (which is still not direct, though). The contemporary election system has a problem, it enables only to introduce the politicians to the scene - but not to remove them. Voters have no veto privilege, so that they can be only partly responsible. It gradually introduces a bias into political scene from long term perspective, as it leads into high degree of populism on the side of politicians and to ignorance and lack of interests about negative aspects of politics at the side of publics. Even morally controversial politicians may become successful in such system, when they're is sufficiently active in another areas, i.e. in self promotion of personality cult in particular.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.