Jeffrey Shen ’19 and Miles McCain ’19 Track Digital Censorship in Independent Project

Alhough 13 percent of posts are censored on Weibo, a Chinese social media outlet similar to Twitter, little is known about the nature of the posts that are removed. Miles McCain ’19 and Jeffrey Shen ’19 analyzed this topic in their Independent Project (IP) on digital propaganda and censorship.

McCain and Shen divided their project into two parts, first focusing on China and then on Russia. They presented the first part of their research on Wednesday from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. in the Underwood Room.

“Our IP, broadly, is centered on digital propaganda and censorship. We divided our project into two units: one on China, one on Russia. China conducts really stringent censorship domestically. Russia, meanwhile, is conducting a global disinformation campaign. So there’s an interesting juxtaposition between the two countries,” said McCain in an interview with The Phillipian.

In their research, McCain and Shen highlighted a common misconception of Chinese censorship, which focuses more on shaping public discourse than suppressing political dissent.

“The most interesting finding and what often people misunderstand about Chinese censorship is that it’s not actually about preventing any negative content about the Chinese government from appearing online. Instead, it’s much more focused on reshaping the narrative so that topics that are uncomfortable for the government simply don’t even reach critical mass. They don’t become discussed. It’s really less about hiding individuals and their content but more about shaping the narrative as a whole,” said McCain.

Skylar Xu ’20 says she attended the presentation because censorship in China hits close to home, as she lives in that narrative. Xu said she has always been interested in how the censorship system worked.

“I really liked how they outlined motives for the Chinese government to censor online content. They separated it into economic, moral, and political goals. My biggest takeaway [from the presentation] would be that the censorship aims to eliminate discussion around sensitive topics and not necessarily to eliminate negative opinions of the government, which I think many people might assume,” said Xu.

Shen was surprised by the seemingly indiscriminate nature of Chinese censorship patterns. He noted the possibility of experiencing censorship merely for mentioning a controversial location in a post.

“I was just struck by the scale and the not really irrationality — because there definitely is a predictable pattern by which they censor — but how haphazardly they censor. If you were tourist and you go to Tiananmen Square, your post could get censored for unknown reasons, and that’s just a fact,” said Shen in an interview with The Phillipian.

Shen also considered the ethical implications of their work, taking into account his personal connection to China. He and McCain sought to balance insight and depth with caution, given the political reality of the topic.

“I guess from a philosophical standpoint, I’m Chinese myself, and there were a lot of ethical questions we had to navigate around, specifically with how do we approach this in a way which is both academically significant but also not putting ourselves out in danger. I don’t want to be banned from China — I have family in China. But also for the sake of academia, I need to put my name out there so that it’s trusted, reputable work, so navigating how to do this in sort of an open but also responsible way,” said Shen.

Eli Newell ’20, an attendee, thought that Shen and McCain presented a compelling marriage between technology and the political motivations behind censorship in an impressive and engaging way.

“Largely unregulated social media platforms like Twitter in the U.S. have become widely used platforms for activism, exchange of opinions, and general civil discourse, so I was interested to see what Jeffrey and Miles found when restrictions go beyond a character limit and actually censor content on Chinese platforms like Weibo and what sort of trends lie in that censorship,” said Newell.

According to McCain, the hardest part of their project has been studying methodology and finding chunks of time when they can meet to work.

“The way Jeffrey and I work is in bursts, so what we’ll do is we’ll get together on a Saturday and we will hack on this project for hours at a time. The hardest part of the project has really been just finding chunks of time where we can really devote ourselves to uncovering Chinese censorship, and now we’re moving more into our Russia unit, into dissecting Russian disinformation,” said McCain.

Throughout the process, McCain and Shen were guided by Head of School John Palfrey P’21; Michael Barker, Director of Academy Research, Information, and Library Services; and Malgorzata Stergios, Assistant Director of Institutional Research.

According to Barker, McCain and Shen exceeded his expectations with their research.

“I actually thought that the project was a little too ambitious at first, and even not understanding all the plumbing underneath… [I was] just learning myself. I thought it was quite ambitious, and yet they kind of exceeded even that,” said Barker.

McCain and Shen are now tackling censorship in Russia. They will present on this topic during Winter Term.

Shen said, “We were aware that the methodologies were very different in terms of how China and Russia censor. But in terms of the actual motives for censoring, both China and Russia attempt to regulate themselves internally, and externally, they seek to influence public perception in their country and outside their country.”

Editor’s Note: Jeffery Shen ’19 is a Digital Editor for The Phillipian.

Skylar Xu ’20 is an Associate Multilingual Editor for The Phillipian.