The question then was: what was it about the “disappeared” posts that had led to them being censored? And at that point the experiment became very interesting indeed. First of all, it confirmed what other researchers had found, namely that, contrary to neoliberal fantasy, speech on the Chinese internet is remarkably free, vibrant and raucous. But this unruly discourse is watched by a veritable army (maybe as many as 250,000-strong) of censors. And what they are looking for is only certain kinds of free speech, specifically, speech that has the potential for engendering collective action – mobilising folks to do something together in the offline world.
“Criticisms of the government in social media (even vitriolic ones) are not censored,” King et al reported, “whereas any attempt to physically move people in ways not sanctioned by the government is censored.” And the strange thing is that “even posts that praise the government are censored if they pertain to real-world collective action events”.
The fact that an authoritarian regime allows vitriolic criticism of it in social media may seem paradoxical, but in fact it provides the most vivid confirmation of the subtlety of the Chinese approach to managing the net. “After all,” observes King, “the knowledge that a local leader or government bureaucrat is engendering severe criticism – perhaps because of corruption or incompetence – is valuable information. That leader can then be replaced with someone more effective at maintaining stability and the system can then be seen as responsive.” The internet, in other words, is the information system that enables the system to keep a lid on things.