Researchers Built a Fake Social Network to Figure Out How Censorship Works in China

Censorship is a big part of the Internet world in China

A bunch of researchers from Harvard and the University of California San Diego took on a rather interesting project recently, namely to create a fake social network in the effort to infiltrate China’s Internet censors.

The fact that China censors the Internet is not exactly a secret to anyone. What people didn’t know up until now is how the system worked, and that’s what the researchers set out to figure.

Gary King and his team started creating dozens of accounts and posted hundreds of messages on the most popular social networks in China, trying to figure out how each of them would be filtered.

This was just the first step, however, as the team then took another step and created its very own fake social network in order to gain access to the programs used to censor content in an effort to reverse-engineer the system.

They purchased a URL, rented server space, contracted with one of the most popular software platforms to create these sites which were then submitted. According to a study published in Science Magazine, the researchers started making posts, reviewing them through the automatic system and then started censoring the submissions.

"We had complete access to the software, documentation, help forums, and extensive consultation with support staff; we were even able to get their recommendations on how to conduct censorship on our own site in compliance with government standards," King said about the project.

The conclusions of the research were surprising to King and the other researchers in his team because it seems that the censorship guidelines allow citizens to criticize the government. The line is drawn, however, at inciting others to act upon this. Therefore, at least via the online medium, the government wants to make sure that people don’t organize uprisings and protests.

The posts that get censored in China are apparently flagged by an automated keyword filter, but manual censors are also sometimes involved in taking down problematic posts. Not only can the system make posts disappear, but it can also ban IPs and users.

King claims that the Chinese government doesn’t have a problem when people criticize local leaders in the online medium. The information can then be used to replace employees, to bring new leaders in and so on.

The purpose of it all is to maintain stability within the country by avoiding uprisings, calls to take to the streets or to demonstrate against the government.

“We conclude that the government is (perhaps intentionally) promoting innovation and competition in the technologies of censorship. Such decentralization of policy implementation as a technique to promote innovation is common in China,” King said.


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