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Authoritarian governments around the world are developing increasingly sophisticated technologies for controlling information. In the digital age, many see these efforts as futile, as they are easily thwarted by savvy Internet users who quickly find ways to evade and circumvent them. In this talk, Professor Roberts demonstrates that even censorship that is easy to circumvent is enormously effective. Censorship acts like a tax on information, requiring those seeking information to spend more time and money if they want access. By creating small inconveniences that are easy to explain away, censorship powerfully influences the spread of information and, in turn, what people know about politics. Through analysis of Chinese social media data, online experiments, nationally representative surveys, and leaks from China’s Propaganda Department, Professor Roberts find that when Internet users notice blatant censorship they are willing to compensate for better access. But subtler censorship, such as burying search results or introducing distracting information on the web, is more effective because users are less aware of it. Roberts challenges the conventional wisdom that online censorship is undermined when it is incomplete and shows instead how censorship’s porous nature is used strategically to divide the public and target influencers.
Margaret E. Roberts is an Associate Professor at the U.C. San Diego Department of Political Science. Her research interests lie in the intersection of political methodology and the politics of information, specifically focused on automated text analysis and understanding censorship and propaganda in China. Her work has appeared in venues such as the American Journal of Political Science, American Political Science Review, Political Analysis and Science. Her recent book Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall was listed as one of the Foreign Affairs Best Books of 2018, was honored with the Goldsmith Book Award, and has been awarded the Best Book Award in the Human Rights Section and Information Technology and Politics Section of the American Political Science Association. She received her Ph.D. from Harvard University, an M.S. in statistics from Stanford University, and a B.A. in Economics and International Relations from Stanford.
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This event is part of the 2020 Winter/Spring Colloquia series, The PRC at 70: The Past, Present – and Future?, sponsored by APARC's China Program.