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 [2004] and Cornwall et al. [2007]).

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.


Written by brayden king

June 14, 2012 at 5:35 pm

3 Responses

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  1. At the risk of promoting colleagues, this post reminds me of Paolo Parigi’s new book, “The Rationalization of Miracles.” He looks at the reconstruction of the canonization process during the counter-reformation, and he argues that the Church put together a process for recognizing saints that was concerned less with the content of the claimed miracles than with the extent of social mobilization by the candidate’s acolytes. Mobilizations that bridged class and other social boundaries were favored. This was a Church, remember, that the reformation had painted as cut off from the common people and operating in parallel to the lived religion of the masses and lay clergy.

    The difference between the two cases, obviously, is that the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century RC hierarchy was interested in fostering collective action, while the Chinese state today is interested in repressing it. But in both cases we can understand the governing body’s actions toward the mobilizers more in terms of the mobilization than the ostensible goal of that mobilization.


    JP Ferguson

    June 18, 2012 at 5:32 am

  2. Thanks for pointing out Paolo’s work JP. I’ll have to check out his book when it comes out.


    brayden king

    June 18, 2012 at 12:21 pm

  3. […] censorship and repressing social movements ( […]


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