China is weaponizing online distraction

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
October 1, 2018

Margaret E. Roberts is an assistant professor at the University of California at San Diego and the author of “Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall,” a book about the new techniques that authoritarian governments like China are using to censor content. I asked her questions about her book.

HF: People are familiar with “fear” based censorship, where people are punished harshly for saying things that a regime doesn’t like. Yet “friction” and “flooding” are becoming more important. How do they work?

MR: “Friction” and “flooding” are both methods of censorship that reroute users on the Internet without making it obvious that they are affected by censorship. “Friction,” or censorship through inconvenience, uses technology to make information more difficult to find by throttling or blocking websites, removing social media posts, or rearranging search results. Similarly, by “flooding,” or censoring through distraction, governments use armies of people or bots to overwhelm social media platforms with posts that distract from current events. The idea behind both friction and flooding is that because Internet users are for the most part impatient, making certain information slightly easier to access and others slightly more difficult can have a big effect on what users read.

HF: Your experiments suggest that obvious censorship of content available to ordinary members of the public can backfire. Why is this so?

MR: Generally, people don’t like being censored. Visible censorship signals that the government is trying to hide something and can therefore draw people toward the banned information rather than away from it, something commonly known as the “Streisand effect.” Obvious censorship can also incentivize people to find ways to circumvent censorship, a pattern that Will Hobbs and I describe in our recent paper on the Chinese block of Instagram, where many people who had not previously jumped the firewall chose to do so after the government blocked Instagram. Of course, visible censorship can and often does produce chilling effects, but the government has to weigh these effects with the possibility of backfire.

Read the full piece at The Washington Post