QSS Postdoctoral Fellow Blake Miller
A large body of literature devoted to analyzing information control in China concludes the state has adopted a narrow strategy for information control and is deliberately selective about the content that it censors. While some claim that the state limits its attention to the most categorically harmful content—content that may lead to mobilization—others suggest that the state limits the scope of censorship to allow space for criticism, providing valuable information about popular grievances or badly performing local cadres.
In contrast, I argue that the Chinese state employs a broad strategy for information control. The state is intolerant of government criticisms, discussions of collective action, non-official coverage of crime, and a host of other types of information that may challenge state authority and legitimacy. This strategy still produces incomplete censorship because the state prefers to implement it covertly, and thus, delegates to private companies, targets repression selectively on influential social actors, and engages in widespread government astroturfing to reduce the visibility and disruptiveness of information control tactics. This both insulates the state from popular backlash and increases the effectiveness of its informational interventions.
I test the hypotheses generated from this theory by analyzing a comprehensive set of logs of government censorship directives taken by popular social media company, Sina Weibo. This custom dataset measures the government’s intent about which content should and should not be censored. A systematic analysis of content targeted for censorship demonstrates the broadness of the government’s censorship agenda. These data also show that delegation to private companies softens and refines the state’s informational interventions, making information control less visible. This ensures the government’s broad agenda is maximally implemented while minimizing popular backlash that would otherwise threaten the effectiveness of its informational interventions.
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