Beyond The Wall: Mapping Twitter In China

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Beyond The Wall: Mapping Twitter In China

Sonya Yan Song

Quello Center for Telecommunication Management and Law; Michigan State University

Robert Faris

Harvard University – Berkman Center for Internet & Society

John Kelly

Harvard University – Berkman Center for Internet & Society

November 1, 2015

Berkman Center Research Publication No. 2015-14


In this paper, we map and analyze the structure and content found on Twitter centered around users in mainland China. This study offers a rare look at the activity of Chinese Internet users on a platform that is largely unregulated by the state and only reachable through the use of tools that circumvent state-mandated Internet filters. For Internet users that reside in mainland China, Twitter offers access to news from around the world and a wealth of ideas and perspectives that might otherwise be unavailable there, as well as a platform for building online communities that is not under direct control of the government. This study of Chinese Twitter — to our knowledge the first such study — offers a unique window into the online activities and global connections of Chinese Internet users who actively circumvent content restrictions. Based on a mixed-methods approach, combining social network analysis and a qualitative review of the content and activity of Chinese Twitter, we are able to map and provide detailed accounts of the topically based clusters that form among these networks. We identify 36 clusters that focus primarily on three areas: politics, technology, and entertainment. From one perspective, the discourse in the politically engaged portions of Chinese Twitter suggests that Twitter serves an alternative public sphere. The political group is formed of journalists, lawyers, human rights activists, and scholars, who are free to discuss topics typically not permitted in China, such as the Tiananmen Square protests, Tibetan and Uyghur issues, political scandals, and pollution. Yet China’s Internet repression is clearly succeeding. Chinese Twitter falls well short of supporting a broadly accessible networked public sphere. The proportion of the Chinese populace with direct access to the debates, communities, and shared resources on Twitter is relatively small, and the avenues by which such discourse might find its way into mainstream political discussion are severely constrained. The firewall between Twitter and the much larger social media platforms in China remains a formidable barrier.

Beyond The Wall: Mapping Twitter In China – Introduction

China has long been the epicenter of technological battles over Internet freedom. For the better part of the last two decades, the Chinese government has used a wide variety of strategies and tools to restrict Internet content, while technologists have built tools designed to thwart Internet filters and allow Chinese Internet users access to information blocked by government censors. In this study, we map and analyze the content and structure of user communities on Twitter centered on users in mainland China. Given that the popular microblogging platform has been blocked for approximately five years, studying Chinese Twitter offers a window into the actions of Chinese Internet users who actively circumvent content restrictions. While others in the past have sought to estimate the number of circumvention tool users in China as a rough measure of the impact of these tools, in this study we are able to describe in detail the nature of activity and discourse carried out by Chinese users on an open and public platform beyond the reach of government regulators.

This alternative venue is enjoyed by various groups of people with diverse shared interests that gravitate towards three main areas: politics, technology, and entertainment. The political group is formed of journalists, lawyers, human rights activists, and scholars, who express their opinions on topics considered taboo in China, such as the Tiananmen Square protests, Tibetan and Uyghur issues, political scandals, and pollution. A technology group is focused on less sensitive topics, and its members often follow software developers, tech entrepreneurs, and Internet freedom advocates in the United States. The entertainment group is divided between ACG (anime, comics, and games) lovers and users interested in broader topics, such as fashion, food, and photography.

The overarching question in this study is to what extent Twitter represents an alternative public sphere for Chinese users: whether Twitter constitutes an alternative arena for discussion and sharing of news and information outside of the bounds of traditional media controls. We also begin to offer answers to several key questions in the field: how effective are government actions in restricting online discourse, why do Chinese users seek to get around the Great Firewall, what is the impact of the development and distribution of circumvention tools, and to what extent are Chinese Twitter users engaging with international communities and discussions?

Internet Restrictions In China

The Chinese government is often described as employing the most sophisticated Internet content control regime in the world.1 At the core is the so-called Great Firewall, a national filtering system that blocks access to a large number of websites that include content deemed objectionable by government censors. This includes a range of political, social, and religious topics such as Tibet independence movements, the Falun Gong (a banned religious group), and the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. National filters use a variety of technical filtering approaches. They block IP ranges, tamper with the domain name system (DNS), and employ a system that breaks Internet connections when a sensitive word, phrase, or URL is encountered. Search engines in China are required to remove sensitive websites from search results. China employs a number of other strategies to rein in free expression online, including distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, cyberattacks, real-name registration policies for Internet users, licensing and legal requirements for Internet platforms and publishers, and surveillance and monitoring of Internet users, which at times leads to arrests related to online activities. The government is reported to engage in counter speech and information campaigns; users who are putatively paid to offer pro-government opinions in various forums online are commonly referred to as the “50 cent party.”

Among the countries that aggressively block Internet content, China stands apart in its ability to selectively block social media content. This has been achieved by blocking external social media platforms while locally based alternatives have become established. The most popular international platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, are blocked in China. Chinese Internet users have access to a range of popular domestically hosted alternatives. For instance, Youku Tudou and other video streaming services fill the gap left by YouTube. Chinese social media serve the largest Internet market in the world. Sina Weibo and Tencent WeChat, in particular, each saw over 100 million active users on a daily basis in 2014.

Social media monitoring and filtering was initially applied to blogging platforms by requiring the platforms themselves to police content.2 This system has been expanded to the full range of current social media platforms visited by a large and growing number of users. Social media companies combine automated review mechanisms and human review to examine the many millions of posts every day. By some estimates, Chinese social media companies employ tens of thousands of people to monitor and selectively block social media content.3

Jumping The Wall

There are many options for Internet users who wish to get around government filters, an activity colloquially known as “jumping the wall” in China. These include simple proxies, which are easily added to blocking lists when discovered by the government, and more sophisticated tools designed specifically to avoid detection and resist blocking. Virtual private networks (VPNs), which are a standard tool for businesses to ensure the security of online transactions, are also commonly used to get around Internet filters. The Chinese government typically blocks a broad range of proxies and circumvention tools and engages in a technological battle with circumvention tool developers. The government has never succeeded in blocking all circumvention tools, and doing so would be harmful to online commerce, a situation the Open Internet Tool Project (OpenITP) dubbed “collateral freedom.”4 The end result is that Internet users who are intent on circumventing Internet filters are able to do so. However, jumping the wall entails investing time to identify and install tools that work and requires a level of technological sophistication. Moreover, using circumvention tools often slows down connectivity speeds. Circumventing Internet controls also implies a willingness to defy the government standards for acceptable speech and to take on any perceived risks associated with using circumvention tools.

The implicit tradeoffs made by government regulators between information control and economic growth shift over time and changes in the regulatory climate and technological controls often mean that certain circumvention tools and strategies no longer work. For example, after the OpenITP report, the Google App Engine, crucial infrastructure for e-commerce, was blocked in 2014, and circumvention tools that operated through this platform stopped working. In 2015, various VPN providers reported being blocked as well.

China Twitter

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