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Much research has been done studying the relationship between media control and authoritarian regime durability.
After performing a systematic collection of tens of thousands of We Chat public posts, we analyze the types of content removed by We Chat on its public accounts (also known as “official accounts”) platform.
Overall, this collection of deleted posts serves as another set of data points in the ongoing goal to explicate the motives behind online censorship in China.
Though our data indicates a lower percentage of posts were being censored compared to other research into Chinese social media censorship, we emphasize that the set of posts collected is not a random sample and there are challenges with comparing our results to other studies.
With that caveat in mind, despite this limitation, we are still able to capture a sizable number of censored posts and perform analysis on them.
In our set of censored posts, in addition to the categories of posts past researchers have identified as targeted for censorship on Chinese social media (particularly articles related to collective action, censorship, and pornography), we find numerous posts which relate to government policies and news—with particular emphasis on corruption—categories which King, Pan and Roberts found not to be substantially censored across various Chinese social media platforms.
On the one hand, regimes—particularly of the one-party kind—with a long experience of managing the media through well-institutionalized “departments of propaganda” have recognized that the web can be a source of regime legitimation, to their population.
On the other hand, the corrosive political impact of uncontrolled and decentralized information is evident when web-activism turns into a social movement or helps diffuse information to the population.
When confronted with major political challenges, autocrats have gone so far as shutting down all Internet services, as in Egypt during the demonstrations leading to the downfall of the Mubarak regime, or in Xinjiang when the regional authorities shut both the Internet and cellular phone service for months after ethnic riots in Urumqi erupted in July 2009.
More targeted responses by authorities in China include building the so-called Great Firewall to deny mainland users access to certain foreign websites, among others.
This finding may be an indication of We Chat’s exceptionalism, reflective of a shift in official censorship mandates, or other reasons, including strong automatic review filtering mechanisms preventing certain types of content from being published in the first place.
Furthermore, among the commonly deleted posts are numerous ones that can be categorized as rumors, fake news, and superstitions.
Compared to collective action events, violent threats, pornography, or criticism of the Communist Party of China (examples of which are also among the deleted posts), one might assume these kinds of rumors—some of which seem silly and harmless relative to other kinds of sensitive content—would be of lower priority for censorship.