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China's Precision Censorship Machine Allows Some Controversial Keywords, But Blocks Combinations Of Them

China’s censorship of the Internet is both impressively thorough, and yet surprisingly subtle at times. For example, we’ve already written about ways in which the boundary between censored and non-censored is often vague, which paradoxically encourages people to be even more cautious than they would be with well-defined limits. But hidden among all the uncertainty, are there perhaps some fixed rules about when posts will definitely get censored?

A team of researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab decided to find out by investigating one of the topics considered most controversial by the Chinese authorities, the so-called “709 Crackdown.” This refers to a major government clampdown that began on July 9 in 2015, when more than 250 Chinese rights lawyers, law firm staff, activists, and their relatives were detained by public security agents across China. Internet users are understandably keen to discuss this important event, and many of those conversations take place on the main blog site in China, Weibo, and using the messaging service WeChat, which is even more popular. But as the researchers discovered, those online conversations were subject to subtle but consistent interference:

as our experiments show, a good portion of that discussion fails to reach Chinese users of WeChat and Weibo. Our research shows that certain combinations of keywords, when sent together in a text message, are censored. When sent alone, they are not. So, for example, if one were to text Mainland China or Wang Quanzhang’s Wife or Harassment on Relatives [all written in Chinese characters] individually, the messages would get through. Sent together, however, the message would be censored.

Moreover, for the first time the researchers discovered censorship not just of text, but of images too:

In addition to a large number of censored keyword combinations our tests unearthed, we also discovered 58 images related to the 709 Crackdown that were censored on WeChat Moments for accounts registered with a mainland China phone number. (For accounts registered with a non-mainland China phone number, on the other hand, the images and keyword combinations go through fine).

Neither of these observations is earth-shattering in itself, but they do add usefully to our knowledge of the intricate clockwork of China’s mighty censorship machine.

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Author: Glyn Moody

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