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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A couple decades ago, technology enthusiasts and freedom of speech activists hailed the promise of the Internet. One thing they often said was no one can censor the Internet. Freedom. The government of China soon had a reply: Yes, we can censor the Internet.

Today, we're going to look at how the Chinese censorship machine works. And to tell us about it, we're joined by NPR's Shankar Vedantam, who comes by regularly to share social science research.

Welcome back to the program, Shankar.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Happy to be here, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. So who is it that's been researching what it is the Chinese do online?

VEDANTAM: It's a researcher at Harvard University called Gary King, Steve. And he has been analyzing how the Chinese censorship machine works. He recently analyzed 11 million posts across more than 1,400 websites in China, and his findings, the data, contradict many of our intuitions. Here he is.

GARY KING: What everybody previously expected about censorship is that this Chinese government would be censoring criticisms of the government, of the leaders, and of their policies. Turns out, that's not true at all. What they're after is any attempt to move people, any attempt to have collective action.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. This is saying Chinese people are free to denounce the government, but they can't call for collective action, like Tiananmen Square, the uprisings in 1989.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. King says there's often vitriolic criticism of the government that's widespread across social media sites in China. But the censors crack down on any attempt at social mobilization, the things that actually get people onto the streets.

Let me give you a couple of examples. There was a local official who was apparently holding a group of schoolgirls in his hotel, and the mother of one of these girls shows up outside the hotel, holds up a placard saying: Let the girls go. Take me. Here's my phone number.

INSKEEP: Wow.

VEDANTAM: And this became a meme on the Internet, with hundreds of people posting messages saying let the girls go, take me, and here's my phone number. But there was only one person who was physically on the street, this mother. Everything else happened online, so the censors left it alone completely. Here's the counterexample: right after the Fukushima earthquake, there was a run on salt, because many people in China believed that it would protect them against radiation sickness.

INSKEEP: Because they were fearful that radiation would come over the ocean, over the sea from Japan, basically.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. Now, this had nothing to do with being pro-government or anti-government, but it got people on the streets. It got people mobilized, and there was a lot of social media chatter about it, and the censors immediately cracked down on that chatter. King told me he also looked at what happens specifically when you had pro or anti-government mobilization efforts.

KING: If you go and you say, hey, let's go protest and, you know, have a whole bunch of people march on some government office, it'll be censored. But at the same time, if you say let's have a big party for the government officials who are doing such a great job, and you're able to move people, then you'll also be censored.

INSKEEP: They are worried about a crowd, period.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. Now, King realized that tracking these posts on the websites is potentially unreliable, because if you don't see something on a social media site, are you not seeing it because it's being censored, or because it wasn't posted there in the first place? So he decided to conduct a field experiment inside China. He used extraordinary secrecy. He set up accounts at the hundred most popular social media sites in China and posted hundreds of messages. Some were pro-government. Some were anti-government. And he found the same thing again: The government cracks down on any attempt at mobilization, but it does not crack down on criticism.

INSKEEP: OK. I think I understand why the government would be so anxious about a crowd, even a supposedly friendly crowd. It can be very unpredictable. But let's talk about the other part of that. Why would the government be so seemingly loose in allowing people to denounce even the Chinese government or the Communist Party itself?

VEDANTAM: You know, I spoke with Susan Shirk. She's a researcher who is an expert on China at UC San Diego. She pointed out something interesting. In an authoritarian state, the leaders often don't have a very good sense of what the people are thinking, because there haven't been any elections. You don't have a gauge of public sentiment. So for the leaders in Beijing, having people voice criticism is actually a very useful intelligence-gathering tool. So if they're reporting about a local public official who's corrupt, for example, the people in Beijing can step in and remove the public official, which is why local officials in China are often very unpopular, but the central government is extremely popular, according to Shirk.

King told me there was only one form of criticism that actually was censored. Can you guess what it is?

INSKEEP: Does it have to do with Falun Gong, the religious organization...?

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: Unfortunately not, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK.

VEDANTAM: Apparently, the censors remove any criticism of the censors.

INSKEEP: Oh, I should've guessed.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: I should've guessed. OK.

VEDANTAM: And King thinks this might actually not be the official policy for the hundreds of thousands of people who make up the censorship machine in China. This might actually be personal.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: I imagine so. Well, Shankar Vedantam, I had one more question for you, but I believe it's been censored. So thank you very much.

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Shankar Vedantam joins us regularly to talk about social science research. You can find him on Twitter @HiddenBrain. You can find this program @MORNING EDITION, @nprgreene and @nprinskeep.

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