About 13 percent of all social media posts were censored. "We had thought certain topics would always be censored, but censorship didn't occur by topic," said Jennifer Pan, the study's co-author and a Ph.D candidate at Harvard, in an interview. Instead, censorship was focused on what the study calls posts with "high collective action potential" -- that is, posts that "represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content." MacKinnon concurs: "The censorship that takes place, it's less about trying to catch every little thing, because they can't catch every little thing. The priority is placed on people using the social networks to organize."
The Harvard paper describes several thousands of posts they found containing scathing critiques of China, the one-child policy, the country's failure to democratize, condemnation of local officials by name, and references to the 1989 Tiananmen protests, which were not deleted. By contrast, during the arrest of Ai Weiwei, the Inner Mongolia protests, and the Fuzhou bombings, 80 percent of posts alluding to those events were deleted, likely due to fears of collective action such as solidarity protests.
The government fear of organized protest also jibes with the uneasy status that NGOs have in China. They are viewed with suspicion by the government; indeed, the very phrase "non-governmental organization" reads like a description of everything the Party fears.
4. Internet censorship is carried out in a blanket fashion.
Unlikely. When the New York Times website was blocked in China in October after publishing an article on the $2.7 billion amassed by the family of then-Premier Wen Jiabao, the online chatter was uncertain as to what actually happened. This kind of confusion often occurs in discussions of China's Internet blocks because the censorship employs a variety of different methods. These include connection resetting (which returns an error message that usually occurs when a site is down or has moved to a different address); redirection to China (typing in Skype.com from within China will take you to Skype.tom.com, its local partner which is subject to Chinese regulations); DNS poisoning (wherein the Internet service provider changes the DNS record of the blocked site, taking one to a dummy web server hosting a block page, which could contain malware); throttling (severely slowing down a site in lieu of blocking it outright, often done to Gmail in China); and timing out (when the site tries to load for so long that the browser gives up; indistinguishable from a genuine technical problem).
Content providers also employ a variety of techniques. Sina Weibo users can post anything they like, and often sensitive posts will even appear in their personal feed, but the post is blocked from search results. In other words, a user might have no idea their post has been "disappeared" and their friends and other users can't see the post in their feeds. After a term has been unblocked, it quietly reappears in users' feeds and search results.
None of this means that a country-wide "kill switch" isn't possible -- there are only a few tubes into China and, though hard to imagine, it would be easy to black out the entire country very quickly. Internet in Xinjiang, China's largest region geographically, with a population of 21.8 million, was almost entirely shut down for 10 months from July 2009 to May 2010 after riots in Urumqi, the provincial capital, left what state media estimated at 197 dead. Text messaging and international calling were also blacked out for six of those months. And parts of Tibet are still currently blacked out.
5. The Internet will lead to democracy.
Dream on. In his 2007 book The China Fantasy, journalist James Mann devoted an entire chapter to refuting an idea he called "The Starbucks Fallacy" -- the belief among Westerners that exposure to icons of Western capitalism like Starbucks and McDonald's would inevitably lead to democracy.
Today, post-Arab Spring, we might be in the middle of a Facebook Fallacy. After the resignation of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, activist and Google executive Wael Ghonim said, "If you want to liberate a society just give them the Internet." But the Internet is not enough in the absence of the right political, social, and economic factors. And tools of free speech can be tools of surveillance. VPNs, so widely used to circumvent censorship, are easily blocked and monitored. "There are a lot of people in China who are signing up for random VPN services, but have no idea who's running them and what relationship they might have with what government, or what companies," said MacKinnon. "A VPN is only as secure as the people running the VPN."
But, as Ng put it, "China has the world's biggest nail gun."