Social Monitoring

There are over 2,620,000,000 active social media users worldwide (Statista, 2019). Why? Because social media has become the one-stop shop for human interaction (the comments section), people-watching (Instagram and Snapchat), keeping up with the lives of family and friends (Facebook and Instagram), entertainment (YouTube), and news and information. Social media is a big deal and has become increasingly popular in the last decade with the advancement of technology—especially among the Chinese. Over a third—or 738,000,000—of the total worldwide users are Chinese (Silverman, 2012; citing Statista). That’s a lot! But, objectively, they are having a much different experience than we are here in the United States—and that is because of censorship.

In the United States, our social media experience is brought to us by the Constitution a la our Founding Fathers. Not literally—but in a roundabout way. The right to free speech under the First Amendment of the United States is what I am referring to. Yes, the First Amendment only applies to government censorship; and yes again that American social media platforms are private companies and can do what they want. But, its growing prevalence in public discourse and its use by American presidents, politicians, government agencies, nongovernmental agencies, news agencies, corporations, private citizens, and so on has allowed the First Amendment protection to keep censorship at bay. So long as it does not violate a social media platform’s community standards (e.g. no bullying, harassing, promotes violence, etc.), anyone—and I mean anyone—is allowed to post whatever they want and say what they want—sometimes to the void, sometimes to a massive following—for community consumption. And if it does happen to get censored by the social media network, as has been the topic of debate as of late, then they are skewered in the court of public opinion for stifling free speech. Here in the good ole U S of A we have access to a virtually unfettered free flow of information, thoughts, and opinions.

This is not the case in China. Since China is a communist nation, its government is naturally authoritarian. That is, the people have limited individual freedoms, but they are scrutinized by the government. Chinese citizens are “free” to have social media, but what they are exposed to on those platforms is subject to the government approval—“China blocks foreign social networking sites and censors posts on domestic social networks” (Lorentzen, 2013). That means, the government is always watching what you are posting. If it does not approve of a post, or it does not like what people are saying, or it thinks a particular publication could result in counterproductive behavior, it simply censors it. However, when the Chinese government thinks a particular social media profile could lead to a subversion of their authority, they do not just shutter the profile, they also jail them (Council on Foreign Relations, 2014). This kind of police monitoring ensures that the laypeople of China are only seeing what their government wants them to see. Authors Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret Roberts (2017) refers to this police-style of monitoring and censorship of social media as “strategic distraction”—it’s one way to shape public opinion in favor of the regime while at the same time keeping them completely in the dark about what is really going on. The authors continue by describing how social media monitoring and censorship is meant to change the subject and steer users towards profiles and posts that “cheerlead[] for China, the revolutionary history of the Communist Party, or other symbols of the regime” (King et al., 2017). This doesn’t seem right, does it?

This begs the question: How widespread is government censorship? A study conducted by Bamman et al. (2012) randomly selected 1,300,000 of 56,000,000 social media posts and concluded that 212,583 (or 16%) had been deleted by the Chinese government because they were flagged as political. Moreover, another study concluded that of 1,040,000 posts from 4,000 public accounts, 11,000 had been deleted by the Chinese government (Zhou, 2019). Although the government hired itself to monitor and censor social media, it is not the only one to do it. Rather, each of the social media companies have teams of people whose only purpose is to delete posts that have specified keywords (TranslateMedia, 2019). However, if the government does not believe their teams are performing poorly, they will bust down the doors and start arresting the people. In 2012, the Chinese government arrested six people and shutdown sixteen websites for “spreading false rumors on the Internet” (TranslateMedia, 2019).

This cannot be allowed to ever happen in the United States. When the government has the ability to control the information being proliferated to its people, it has the power to disseminate false information to its people. Moreover, when the government can arrest people who are, more likely than not, spreading the truth about a matter, they are tyrannical.

Thank the heavens that we live in a truly free society where our government is not actively keeping us in the dark. And thank the heavens again that our country values the free flow of information between people. It makes you think, how corrupt is the Chinese government? I mean, c’mon. Any regime that dedicates so much time, energy, and manpower to monitoring the Internet for dissenting keywords and censoring social media posts has something to hide. In my opinion, it is something sinister. The Chinese government, in the same way that North Korea does, blocks all outside media so that they can control the narrative. Ye who controls the narrative controls the culture—and the communists in China are definitely winning the culture war. Could you imagine if I posted this on any Chinese platform? It would be taken down in a heartbeat. This begs another question: Are the laypeople of China aware of this? They have to, right? What happens when they are traveling, as they do, and discover conflicting information? Who, in their opinion, is lying? In any case, I look forward to watching the evolution of social media monitoring in China to see if anything Westernizes.

Works Cited

Bamman, David, et al. “Censorship and deletion practices in Chinese social
     media.” First Monday, vol. 17, no. 3, 5 Mar. 2012. University of Illinois
     at Chicago University Library, doi:10.5210/fm.v17i3.3943. Accessed 4 Apr.

King, Gary, et al. “How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for
     Strategic Distraction, Not Engaged Argument.” American Political Science
     Review, vol. 111, no. 3, Aug. 2017, pp. 484-501. Cambridge Core,
     doi:10.1017/S0003055417000144. Accessed 4 Apr. 2019.

Longley, Robert. “Totalitarianism, Authoritarianism, and Fascism.” ThoughtCo,
     Dotdash, 24 Feb. 2019,
     totalitarianism-authoritarianism-fascism-4147699. Accessed 4 Apr. 2019.

Lorentzen, Peter. “China’s Strategic Censorship.” American Journal of Political
     Science, vol. 58, no. 2, 8 Oct. 2013, pp. 402-14. Wiley Online Library,
     doi:10.1111/ajps.12065. Accessed 4 Apr. 2019.

Silverman, Matt. “China: The World’s Largest Online Population.” Mashable,
     Mashable, Inc., 10 Apr. 2012,
     china-largest-online-population/#V7.5TX2mXsqR. Accessed 4 Apr. 2019.

Statista. “Number of social media users worldwide from 2010 to 2021 (in
     billions).” Statista, 2019,
     number-of-worldwide-social-network-users/. Accessed 4 Apr. 2019.

TranslateMedia. “China Social Media.” TranslateMedia, 2019,
     Accessed 4 Apr. 2019.

Xu, Beina. “Media Censorship in China.” Council on Foreign Relations, 25 Sept.
     Accessed 4 Apr. 2019.

Zhou, Christina. “WeChat’s most censored topics in 2018 include US-China trade
     war, Huawei CFO arrest.” ABC News, ABC, 19 Feb. 2019,
     2019-02-20/wechat-most-censored-topics-in-2018/10824852. Accessed 4 Apr.