Posting rants is OK, just not getting together with other ranters. Photographer: ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images
Posting rants is OK, just not getting together with other ranters. Photographer: ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

While living for more than a decade in China, and using its thriving social media, no question came to mind quite so often as this one: “Who is the idiot who just censored that online post, and what on Earth was so dangerous about it?”

Needless to say, I was hardly alone in my frustration. While online social media has transformed civil society in China, creating an outlet for anyone with a computer to share views on entertainment (the most popular topic), sports and of course politics, most users have at one time or another come up against the limits of free expression on the mainland. The one impediment to Chinese people connecting as a whole for the first time was, and is, their own government.

As a group of Harvard University researchers show in a study published in this Friday’s issue of Science, however, responsibility for this state of affairs rests with social-media platforms as much as the Chinese regime. Censorship in China has evolved into a kind of private-public partnership, with the government setting the parameters, and Internet companies free to “innovate” in finding ways to meet them -- at their own expense. The system is a perverse form of blackmail: If the companies don't play ball, they risk attracting users who defy the state's edicts on information.

The Harvard group used subterfuge to conduct their study, setting up their own Internet bulletin board (BBS) in China where users could foster and engage in online discussions. The software to run the board didn’t include censoring tools (necessary if you don’t want to be shut down). So the researchers reached out to their Web hosting company and found them “forthcoming when we asked for recommendations as to which technologies have been most useful to their other clients in following government information management guidelines.”

The researchers found that most Internet companies censor posts by curating sets of sensitive keywords (provided by government agencies, officials and common sense), which are fed into software that matches them to actual usage. Posts which don’t trip the keyword search are approved automatically; those that do are held for review (users are sometimes informed of this fact), or simply disappear. Similar filtering can be done by user, or other criteria.

Not all of what the study discovered is new. In 2009, guidelines for Internet monitoring and censorship that paralleled much of what’s in the Science paper leaked from Baidu, China’s top search engine. More significant, in 2013, Chinese state media reported that about 2 million people were employed in China as “Internet opinion analysts” -- monitoring social media and reporting their findings to superiors. Though these analysts supposedly weren't involved in censoring posts, it’s unlikely that such a large army would be recruited for the purpose of passive observation alone. At a minimum, paying all these moles adds up to a serious expense for Chinese Web companies.

In the end, what is actually censored? To answer this question the paper’s authors devised a means to view posts before they were eliminated. What they found is surprising: Posts critical of the government were no more likely to be censored than those supportive of it. Of course, this would be obvious to anyone who spends time on Chinese social media, where rants against the government are rife.

However, posts that hint at “collective action” -- meaning, mass demonstrations, online campaigns and similar group political activity -- were 20 percent to 40 percent more likely to be censored than any others. Social media platforms are happy to provide a forum to talk about the government. But they'll shut you down the moment you try to organize a get-together with any like-minded individuals. And if you don’t like it? Call customer service.

The result is a digitally connected China where communications are both hyper-modern and co-opted by the government. For a Communist Party interested primarily in the perpetuation of its own power, the situation is ideal. But it means that Chinese social media is doomed to remain compromised, suspect and, outside of China's borders, all too irrelevant.

To contact the author of this article: Adam Minter at shanghaiscrap@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net.