Digital Media & Repressive Regimes: Media Tactics

The second panel focused on the media tactics of regimes and opponents. Xiao Qiang gave the first presentation which addressed Chinese digital media controls and access to public expresssion. Rebecca MacKinnon presented the findings of her research on China’s censorship 2.0: how companies censor bloggers. The third talk, by Mahmood Enayat, focused on resistance 2.0: power and counter-power in Persian websphere.

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“In china,” says Xiao, the digital battle “is about controlling information space, both via censorship and propaganda.” The Internet is not just a medium, it’s a social space where netizens organize into communities, share, etc. The Chinese government seeks to control the “main melody” via censorship and disinformation. So Chinese cyberspace is a control space.

How do some Chinese seek to circumvent this control? A number of official Chinese journalists actually lead double-lives; working for the state-controlled media during the day, and blogging or participating in BBS forums at night. Political satire (“eGao”) is also used in response to Chinese media control. There is also an important gap in control between local and central authorities in terms of implementing censorship rules; there is also a timing factor that contributes to the control gap.

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Rebecca MacKinnon is a leading China expert, having been posted with CNN in Beijing for 9 years and now teaches in Hong King. “There are different kinds of Internet censorship,” says Rebecca, reminding us as well that the Great Firewall of China which filters websites outside China was coind by bloggers. In addition to filtering, Chinese authorities are known to delete websites, shut down domestic sites as well as data centers. Multinational Companies are complicit in Chinese internet censorship.

Rebecca and her team decided to test just how censored China’s different blogging websites really are. Using paragraphs with sensitive political language, they manually tested 15 blog hosting websites to test what content  were being filterred. The team used 108 different types of content and found huge variation in blogging platforms censoring, from one site filtering 56% content to another filtering only 0.9%; of the same content. There is also evidence that the filtering is not always automatic and indeed includes manual intervention.

In one interesting example, Rebbecca mentions a blog post by a former high-level Chinese political adviser. The post, entitled: “Letter to my Son: wishing for multiparty democracy in China.” The blog was highly political but did not use inflammatory language and therefore was not filtered. Out of curiousity, Rebecca copied and pasted articles from the main state-owned media, Xinhua, and found that some of the state’s own articles would get censored!

So why do we see so much variation in Internet filtering within China?

  • Instructions to companies from city or provincial state council inforation office internet section, interpreted diffently;
  • Different methods desvised for implementation;
  • Relationship between company management, investors and regulatory bodies;
  • Manager/editor’s relationship with local state council;

In conclusion, the Great Chinese Firewall is only part of Chinese Internet censorship. Domestic censorship is not centralized. Domestic web censorship is outsourced by government to the private sector. Censorship is inconsistent and it is usually possible to post your content on one platform, for at least a while.

What are the implications of this study? We need larger scale studies of domestic web censorship (including chat rooms, social networking sites, instant-messaging, mobile services, etc.). Unlike automated filtering tests, these tests require manual testing and constant analysis by Chinese speakers with contextual knowledge. We need surveys of web service company employees; also of users and bloggers about their experience.

Implication for activism: circumvention is important but its not the solution to the whole censorship problem. We need to educate bloggers and netizens about strategies to deal with censorship.

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Mahmood Enayat from the Oxford Internet Institute gave an entertaining presentation on the use of digital media in Iran. (NB: my notes for this section self-deleted, don’t ask). In any case, Mahmood’s presentation was engaging. He discussed the role of underground music one the one hand and the use of YouTube. My apologies to Enayat for this being so short.

Patrick Philippe Meier

2 responses to “Digital Media & Repressive Regimes: Media Tactics

  1. Hi Patrick
    Great summary! Thanks for a very interesting presentation.
    – Lars

  2. Pingback: Links om Digital Media konferencen « Whiteberg’s Digital Memory

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