censorship and repressing social movements
Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret Roberts have an interesting working paper about the kinds of online content censored by the Chinese government. The big insight is that it’s not dissent that gets you censored in China, it’s efforts to mobilize collective action. From the abstract:
Contrary to previous understandings, posts with negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored. Instead, we show that the censorship program is aimed at curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content.
I think this is an illustration of how governments repress social movements in the age of online media. The tactic may be new, but government repression is most certainly not. Repression has long been considered one of the main components of the political opportunity structure. Challengers who face more repression are less likely to mobilize and form a real movement. I think censorship represses in at least two ways. First, it increases the costs of mobilizing, simply by making it more difficult to transmit information, create free spaces, etc. But second, and perhaps just as important, it sends a clear signal to would-be activists that the government will take action against mobilization efforts. This signal aspect of the opportunity structure creates fear among challengers and hurts their morale. (For further reading about signals as a mechanism of the political opportunity structure, I recommend Meyer and Minkoff  and Cornwall et al. ).
Along these same lines, I encourage you to read this online excerpt from William Dobson’s book, The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy. Dobson writes about the Chinese government’s attempt to stifle even the most subtle and symbolic efforts by challengers to instigate collective action in remembrance of the Tianenmen Square massacre. Since I’m handing out reading assignments, let me also recommend Eugene Morozov’s The Net Delusion, a critique of the idealists who see online activism as the new democratizing force of society. Although Morozov’s arguments have been somewhat muted by the success of the Arab Spring, he makes an excellent point that dictators and authoritarian governments can also use the Internet against activists, potentially invading their privacy and initiating repressive counter-tactics. It’s a provocative read.
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