February 6, 2023

The protests stretch China’s censorship to its limits

In one video, a man sarcastically sings a patriotic song. In another, a group of protesters hold blank pieces of paper and chant in unison. In a third clip, a group of mourners light candles for those who died in a fire while in lockdown in western China.

Signs of organized dissent are relatively rare in China; and their survival in the country’s digital space. China’s censorship apparatus – one of the most sophisticated in the world – has hunted down and deleted countless posts on social media showing protests and outbursts of anger at the government. On Wednesday, the extent of the protests due to censorship was unclear, but New videos of the clashes have surfaced The previous night in the southern city of Guangzhou. Workers and residents protesting a Covid lockdown in an industrial district tore down barricades and threw bottles at riot police.

Over the past few days, videos of marches and rallies have continued to appear on Chinese platforms such as WeChat, chat app and short video sharing app Douyin, as Chinese people have taken to the streets frustrated by strict Covid lockdowns. . Experts say the sheer volume of video clips could have overwhelmed automated software and censorship forces set up by China to monitor the Internet.

“This is a decisive breach of the great peace,” said Xiao Qiang, a researcher on internet freedom at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Once the anger spreads to the street, it becomes much harder to censor,” he added, adding that hundreds of demonstrators and bystanders posting videos from different angles are more difficult for an algorithm than a single viral video.

Internet users flip through videos on their page, apply filters on them, or record videos of videos — creative tactics that have prompted algorithms designed to flag content. Adding to the challenge for Chinese censors, the protests show a growing number of Chinese are using the software to access sites like Twitter and Instagram, which are banned in China. Such foreign sites are beyond the reach of China’s authorities and can act as repositories for videos, allowing them to be re-downloaded and re-posted after they have been removed from the Chinese internet.

The scale of the footage speaks to a deep well of anger in China against the country’s exceptionally harsh Covid policies, which have affected hundreds of millions of people, especially in the past year. If China wants to scrub content entirely, it needs to hire more people and develop much better mechanisms, says a former auditor and Internet control expert.

China’s ruling Communist Party has long relied on a playbook of arrests, surveillance and censorship to quell dissent and exert its control over the population. Security officials identify and round up those they consider to be instigators or leaders, monitor the movements of would-be critics, and clean up public spaces where they encourage others. The faltering of its censorship system signals a new challenge for the party as it faces more open opposition than it has in a generation.

Even before this week’s protests, China’s web controls have come under pressure. Internet sites and their government overseers struggled to contain an outpouring of anger during a two-month lockdown in Shanghai this spring and after a bus crash in the fall that killed 27 people while being transported to an isolation facility.

This time, the immediate trigger for the protests was a fire in western China that killed at least 10 people in the city of Urumqi. Many suspected the lockdown had hampered rescue efforts or trapped victims, though officials denied that.

A Berkeley expert on auditing, Mr. Xiao said it would be easy for China to remove the “April Voices” video from the Internet. Number of lockdowns in Shanghai This time it was widely shared rather than censoring the videos. “They’re overwhelmed by the huge amount of content coming from everywhere.”

To truly deal with the flood of videos, sites like WeChat and Douyin would need to hire ten times the number of staff they have, estimated one former censor, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals.


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Auditors use artificial intelligence to screen videos, he said, a system that better identifies specific videos or objects such as candles or tanks that represent protest. But it often breaks down when trying to identify common categories of video. Tricks like editing multiple videos together make the software even more powerful. Creating a new mechanism in any situation — like the weekend protests, which featured images of crowds of people holding pieces of paper — would be time-consuming and expensive, he said.

Several accounts on Twitter have collected and posted videos of unrest from people behind China’s Great Firewall. They may be brought back onto the Chinese Internet if they are later censored. A popular Twitter account, “Teacher Li is not your teacher,Has more than 700,000 followers. In the past week, it has received more than a thousand submissions a day from China, with an account managed by a painter in Italy who gives only his last name, Li.

“About a dozen messages arrive in my inbox every second,” says Mr. Li said in an interview. “Information published in China is deleted very quickly, so people have no choice but to come to me.”

After his account on Weibo, a Chinese platform similar to Twitter, was deleted dozens of times by censors, Mr. Li began actively using Twitter five months ago. On Weibo, Mr. Li publishes content submitted from followers. He decided to continue on Twitter.

His reposted videos have increasingly attracted viewers as discontent over Covid policies has grown in recent weeks. He tried to authenticate different videos of the same event by cross-referencing them, but also admitted that he had limited expertise.

Exposure has also brought anxiety. On Monday, after her number of followers grew to half a million, she faced an onslaught of reports for inappropriate content, a common tactic used by Chinese nationalist and pro-government accounts to silence critics on Twitter.

Twitter is more relevant inside China than it has been in years, and other campaigns have targeted the spread of information there. In recent days, a large volume of spam, often featuring obscene photos and videos, has clustered around hashtags related to Chinese cities, some of which have been the sites of protests. A preliminary experiment by an independent auditor. While it is unclear who is behind the spam, campaigns to dilute politically sensitive posts and make them harder to find are a common feature of Chinese foreign information campaigns.

Within China, the videos have helped draw opposition. A former journalist in Shanghai said he first stumbled upon it during a vigil on the city’s Urumqi Road on Saturday, but went on to attend another protest the next day after seeing videos on WeChat from his friends at the crowd.

He also shared videos of the protest on WeChat, although he deleted them after 24 hours in an attempt to avoid authorities who began following some demonstrators. After a while, his videos changed the minds of two people he thought were unacceptable: his parents.

“My parents, like many Chinese parents, think what I’m doing is pointless and childish, but they’ve changed dramatically in the past two days,” Mr. Gu said. His parents now understand why he participates in such gatherings, he said, perhaps in part because they too have struggled under Covid restrictions.

Despite the improvements, some warned that censors could soon strike back and regain control of public opinion. Han Rongbin, a professor of media and politics at the University of Georgia who studies Chinese censorship, said that while he acknowledged that censorship boards have become overcrowded, their work has been very successful in reducing large numbers of recordings and videos. .

The goal of China’s censors is not to keep everyone in the dark, just enough people to prevent the spread of dissent. “I still think it’s very effective, and there’s still a lot of people who aren’t sure what’s really going on,” he said.

After widespread demonstrations over the weekend, gatherings have been much smaller this week as authorities crack down on potential sites with tight security. The question is how effective the censorship and other measures will be in preventing more protests in the coming days and weeks.

Video production by Don’t put the axle on And Muay Thai.