The Censorship Effect

Editor’s note: Lydia Laurenson is a writer, researcher, and communications professional fascinated by social media and community dynamics. Lydia also served in the U.S. Peace Corps, working with the HIV program in Swaziland, Africa.

The 29-year-old founder of VKontakte, Russia’s largest social network, just got “fired” and left the country. That is, Pavel Durov described himself as fired, although there were previous rustlings of resignation.

Durov’s departure was accompanied by much commentary about the censorship climate in Russia. He himself announced that he plans to create a new social network, and that he moved because “the country is incompatible with Internet business at the moment.” This comes right on the heels of the U.S. IPO for Sina Weibo, a social platform that’s sometimes called “China’s Twitter.” Mashable recently reported that when Sina Weibo filed its IPO, it described Chinese censorship specifically as a risk factor.

How much does censorship affect digital media from a business perspective? I’ve recently been researching cross-cultural social media while working on some articles for O’Reilly Media. Unsurprisingly, it’s clear that censorship has a huge impact on how social platforms develop and on how individuals use them. Some of the specific effects of censorship can be surprising, though.

Strengthening Social Ties …

“In China, the Internet plays a much deeper role in society because all the normal media is propaganda. You know that what’s appearing in state-run media is not objective, but something on the Internet might be.” — Thomas Crampton global managing director, Ogilvy & Mather.

Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, and other experienced commentators have argued that censorship can actually strengthen dissent when very popular sites get taken down. For example, a person who only visits YouTube for cat videos will be alerted that something big has gone wrong if YouTube is blocked, even if that person wouldn’t normally pay attention to the news.

I’ve also heard tales of how censorship and its pal, propaganda, strengthen social media ties. “In China, the Internet plays a much deeper role in society because all the normal media is propaganda. You know that what’s appearing in state-run media is not objective, but something on the Internet might be,” says Thomas Crampton, the global managing director for international marketing agency Ogilvy & Mather.

This is supported by other marketing reports like this one from management consulting firm McKinsey, which notes that Chinese consumers value the brand recommendations of friends, family, and social media influencers far more than American consumers do.

… But Censorship Weakens Social Ties, Too

However, there are plenty of situations where social media platforms are decimated by censorship. Some data crunching by the Telegraph in the U.K. showed clearly that last year’s Chinese “war on rumors” — and more importantly, the war’s associated arrests — caused Sina Weibo usage to drop off a cliff. No wonder Weibo called censorship a “risk factor” in its IPO.

The writer and anthropologist Sarah Kendzior, who researches authoritarian states in Eastern Europe, has written that “In authoritarian states, the circulation of state crimes often serves to confirm tacit suspicions, and in some cases, to reaffirm the futility of the fight. Fear, apathy, cynicism and distrust are as common reactions to these quasi-revelations as are outrage and a desire for change.”

“What I think is interesting is how much of the authoritarian state mentality people take when they leave the country,” Kendzior tells me. “I see the same fear and wariness about social media from people who have fled Uzbekistan, as people who are still there. It’s very hard to shake off self-censorship.”

Kendzior also mentions a case from 2011 where someone, probably the Uzbekistan government, created a fake activist who only existed on social media. Then they spread the news that the activist committed suicide. This was an effective strategy to weaken ties by spreading fear, anxiety and distrust.

“It means everyone’s suspicious of everyone else,” explains Kendzior. “It makes everyone wonder: Am I talking to a real person?”

Protectionist and Popularization Side Effects

 “Google Reader was really popular in Iran. The reason for that was that it enabled people to read blocked websites. You can’t easily block one Google service without blocking all of them.” — Jillian C. York, director for International Freedom of Expression, EFF

China’s blockade on Facebook, Twitter, Google and other high-profile American platforms has arguably had some protectionist side effects for local industry. I’ve often heard China’s social media landscape compared to the Galápagos Islands — Darwin’s closed-off archipelago, which famously evolved many unique animal species due to its isolation. In other words, when China blocked most major U.S. social platforms, its government created an ecosystem where local platforms that came later to market could flourish.

Censorship can carry other unexpected popularization effects, too. “Google Reader was really popular in Iran,” Jillian C. York, the director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, tells me. “The reason for that was that it enabled people to read blocked websites. You can’t easily block one Google service without blocking all of them, so people in Iran could use Google Reader to read blogs that they couldn’t normally get because of censorship.”

On the other hand, China’s fencing-off of American digital services has also fenced off sites that use them for account authentication. For instance, a given site may not actually be blocked in China, but it will be effectively blocked if its users have to log in via Facebook.

What Do Censors Want?

It’s rarely easy to figure out censors’ goals and methods, but in 2013, three Harvard researchers published some work on the problem (here’s the full PDF of the study by King, et al.). They managed to gather millions of posts on Chinese social media before the government reached them, and then they analyzed which ones were censored.

Their primary finding was that the Chinese government doesn’t appear to censor criticism on social media, but it does censor social media posts encouraging collective action. In fact, the government even censored stuff that could encourage collective action around figures who the government supported!

This analysis implies that the Chinese government will happily track open criticism, and that it will closely observe dissidents’ connections to each other but crack down on anyone who tries to build a power base that it can’t control. That makes some sense — although it’s worth noting that the study was published in May 2013, which was before the June “war on rumors” smack down and the subsequent arrests that eviscerated Sina Weibo’s user base.

A lot of people, especially Americans like me, have strong emotional reactions to censorship. But whatever our feelings, we need to put them aside long enough to understand how and why censorship happens, especially those of us who work in the global media. We’ll see how the situation continues to develop — and how journalists, brands, and platforms adjust to it.


Image by Ruggiero Scardigno/Shutterstock