[Busec] busec this week: Molly Roberts on Chinese Censorship (Monday 11am)

Sharon Goldberg goldbe at cs.bu.edu
Sun Nov 24 08:25:32 EST 2013

At our seminar this week, Molly Roberts from Harvard's Department of
Government will tell us about her work on reverse engineering censorship in
China. (A similar version of this talk was given by Gary King in the CS
department at Harvard a month or so ago, to a standing-room only crowd.)

Due to Thanksgiving, our seminar will *unusually* be on Monday at 11am and
be joint with the networking group.  Lunch will be provided and abstract is


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Reverse Engineering Chinese Censorship
Speaker: Molly Roberts. Harvard (Department of Government).
Mon Nov 25, 2013 11am – 12pm
MCS148, 111 Cummington Mall, Boston, MA 02215

Chinese government censorship of social media constitutes the largest
selective suppression of human communication in recorded history. In three
ways, we show, paradoxically, that this large system also leaves large
footprints that reveal a great deal about itself and the intentions of the
government. First is an observational study where we download all social
media posts before the Chinese government can read and censor those they
deem objectionable, and then detect from a network of computers all over
the world which are censored.  Second, we conduct a large scale randomized
experimental study by creating accounts on numerous social media sites
spread throughout the country, submitting different randomly assigned types
of social media texts, and then detecting which types are censored. And
finally, we supplement the current approach of conducting tentative
confidential interviews with insiders via a participatory study, by setting
up our own social media site in China, contracting with Chinese firms to
install the same censoring technologies as existing sites, and reverse
engineering how it all works. Our results demonstrate, contrary to prior
understandings, that criticism of the state, its leaders, and their
policies are routinely published whereas posts with collective action
potential are much more likely to be censored (regardless of whether they
are for or against the state). We are also able to clarify the internal
mechanisms of the Chinese censorship apparatus, and show how changes in
censorship behavior reveal government intent by presaging their action on
the ground.

This talk is based on two papers, joint with with Gary King and Jennifer
Pan, available at http://j.mp/ChinaExp and http://j.mp/ChinaObs.

Short bio: Molly Roberts is a 5th year PhD student in the Department of
Government at Harvard and a member of the Institute for Quantitative Social
Science.  Her research interests lie in the intersection of political
methodology and Chinese politics, with a specific focus for methods of
automated content analysis and the politics of censorship in China.
Molly's research has appeared in the American Political Science Review and
is forthcoming in the American Journal of Political Science.  In the fall,
she will be joining the Political Science faculty at the University of
California, San Diego.
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