Interview: Researcher Sonya Yan Song on Censorship in China

Photo by Sonya Yan Song via Flickr, used with permission.

Photo by Sonya Yan Song via Flickr, used with permission.

Sonya Yan Song is an academic researcher working on news censorship in China. She is currently a PhD candidate at Michigan State University and an Open News Fellow. Originally from China, Sonya is a programmer and an academic researcher. Rising Voices editor Laura Morris interviewed her about her work and thoughts on recent trends in China's censorship regime.

Tell me about your work as an Open News Fellow.

[The program] is about bringing technology to newsrooms, trying to help newsrooms take advantage of cutting edge technology to present news in different ways, and to adapt…I've been attending hackathons as well, because I think that's where journalists, graphic designers, coders and activists [can] meet together and try to come up with something.

Can you tell me about the recent paper you published, and your research on censorship in China?

I started [the project] out of personal curiosity, because as I'm from China, I was still reading Chinese news everyday. And, it's not very surprising to find news stories deleted quite regularly. I had this question – how many news stories are deleted everyday?

I wrote a very short program to collect news stories and to find if some stories are deleted. I found that two or three news stories are deleted everyday… [I] monitored three websites. Two websites in China and one overseas branch that's also uploaded under a Chinese website. It's called Sina Beijing and Sina California, and the other is called NetEase, published in Guangzhou, south China… I realized that two branches (the two newsrooms in China) censor content everyday – whereas the overseas branch doesn't.

First, I asked coders to categorize news stories… Is [the story] about business, entertainment, sports, culture? I ran a statistical analysis to see which aspect would be more correlated with censorship. In the end I realized a negative story was definitely more likely to be censored… political news, foreign affairs, military, food safety and drug issues were more censored in China. It's consistent with people’s impression of censorship. But, I think there is something original; it's the first time we can actually quantify censorship.

Censorship is in the “black box”. We are not censors and we are not working for the Chinese central government – so what we can get is only the evidence… If you correlate them together you have a more comprehensive image of what's happening in China, and of what the government wants to control.

You mentioned in an earlier interview that one of the reasons that news is censored less than social media is because the mass media self-censors, knowing what topics and words to avoid that would lead to censorship. Can you tell me a bit more about this?

For news media, [the rate of censorship is] less than one percent, but for social media, [it] is sixteen percent. But journalists are not going to publish sensitive content to begin with. First of all, the media institute is licensed in China. If you do anything that is against the wheel of the government, you will get your license withdrawn, and then you would become illegal.

What do you think about the current Chinese government campaign against “online rumors,” which has led to not only Internet deletions, but also arrests?

I think that's one way to suppress people's speech, for sure. It’s ongoing, and we don't see any sign of the end. Some of [these people] have been arrested for all kinds of reasons. If you say something on Weibo and it's read by 5,000 people, or has been re-tweeted by 500 people, you could be charged for spreading a rumor.

After the Tiananmen Square protest a [Western] TV station interviewed a random guy on the street. [They asked] “what did you see during the protest on June the 4th?” “I saw many people were shot, and the soldiers were shooting at people, and many people were killed, and the streets were totally covered by blood.” After that, the Chinese [government]….asked him to admit that he spread the rumor. This guy was set as an example to all the public in the country….and jailed for many years. After that, nobody talked about it. I think this is in the same line to threaten people. Don't talk about things you shouldn’t.

Censorship comes in many forms. Definitely you can block people from publishing something. You can burn books, burn CDs, physically banish the media content. You can take away people’s typewriters. You can fine media companies… next time they'll think: either I can go bankrupt or I can do this business. The ultimate way to do censorship is to kill someone… and I think that happens [around the world]. These are all techniques which are well documented in Ilan Peleg’s Patterns of Censorship around the World.

Do you know about any particular proxies and other circumvention tools that are commonly used in China?

Many tools have been cracked and hacked by the Chinese government….[but] there was a report from the Open Technology Institute surveyed people using circumvention tools. They realized that VPNs are very popular because there is a dilemma by the Chinese government. They want to suppress peoples’ speech but also boost economic growth. Thus you have to allow Google, Amazon, and other Internet businesses coming in and out on the Internet. That way, people realized this is one way to bypass the Great Firewall – just to pretend you're business traffic, say you’re doing business through Google or Amazon.

I tried using Tor in China and it didn't work at all. Tor is very secure, has a very apparent footprint. They can recognize [it because]….ToR doesn't pretend to be business traffic. If you can just take advantage of the conservative government, pretend you're doing business, you may have a chance.

So it’s this idea of hiding in plain sight – they can see you, but they don't know what you really are.

Right, its not about a technical idea. It's a human touch.

A word cloud created from words commonly deleted, pulled from Sonya Yan Song's research.

A word cloud of terms commonly deleted by Chinese news censors, pulled from Sonya Yan Song's research.

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