If you search Hong Kong right now, this is the kind of stuff you see. But not in China. There you get results like this. State media describing protests as riots, and the result of the U.S. meddling in
Chinese affairs. The rest is celebrity gossip and stock market news about Hong Kong. Millions have flooded the streets of Hong Kong to protest an extradition law that they feel is the Chinese government’s latest attempt to exert control. If there is ever a news event to test the limits of Chinese online censorship, this is it. Massive demonstrations in a place, with free speech, that’s technically part of China, with related posts written in Chinese. But over the past decade China’s censorship apparatus has become ever more sophisticated, and now they’re creating an alternate reality about Hong Kong in real-time. Here’s how they’re doing it: The most basic tactic is
censoring a list of keywords. — Some kinds of a keyword list that [they] already built-in directly related to the protest. It had no chance to be published. This is King-wa Fu a professor at the University of Hong Kong. He studies censorship in China. Keyword censoring is pretty straight forward. Post something that says democracy gets flagged and taken down. This is largely done automatically by
computers, and the software keeps getting better. Videos, images, and voice messages
can all be identified as sensitive. — Some people have said that sometimes and they try to send messages with pictures of protests in Hong Kong, were talking about Hong Kong, the messages disappear in the chat on WeChat. These images and others of the Hong Kong protests are blocked on both WeChat and Weibo. Software can only do so much though, so the government also pays humans, often through private companies, to manually comb through content. It’s become a huge industry employing tens of thousands of people, and even more during big news
events like this one, who adapt censorship to respond to events in real time. This Chinese user posted to protest photos on Weibo disguised with a caption urban landscape photography. It seemed to work at first. The post was shared by more than six hundred people with many mentioning Hong Kong. Then the photos suddenly stopped spreading. In the past when post disappeared from the internet you knew you were being censored, but new tactics seemed designed to sow confusion. The post was quietly removed from people’s timelines, but stayed on the timeline of the person who sent it. And on the messaging app WeChat researchers found that some messages appear sent from the users perspective but never make it to the receiver. The people in China who try to show support for Hong Kong end up playing cat and mouse with censors. Take this photo that was blocked
on WeChat. One journalist found that adding artistic brushstrokes and rotating the image 90 degrees, finally got it past censorship. The last time Hong Kong protested at such a large scale it was easier to share information and images in China. That was back in 2014 during what came to be known as the ‘Umbrella Movement.’ At that time people in China largely access to information through Instagram, but within days censors blocked the platform all together, and it’s been inaccessible ever since. This time, Telegram, an encrypted messaging app, has been used to share protests updates. It’s difficult to block outright, unlike Instagram, but has reportedly come under attack by a network of computers in China disrupting its service. Since 2014, China has also raised the cost of getting sensitive content past censors. A new cybersecurity law requires people to use their real names on social media and they can go to jail for online speech. The result of all this is an alternative universe of information, one that’s drifting further and further away from the reality on the ground in Hong Kong. —They don’t like to have discussion in China, about all these things, about the protest, about the police action, about the bill. They don’t want to give the Chinese people as signal that they have the same rights. Creating an information void also allows the government to control the narrative later on. This is already happening. Searching ‘Hong Kong’ now returns a lot more results than at the beginning of the protests, but most are from state media, claiming that they were caused by ‘American dirty hands interfering in China’s internal affairs.’ Protesters in Hong Kong say that seeing these limits on freedom drives them to come out in force, fearful of a future where China exerts even greater control over their lives. And in fact this is already happening. — We are afraid of using the social media to spread a post or even upload a photo. That would be evidence for putting us in jail. The protesters in Hong Kong have delayed passage of the extradition bill, but the demonstrations are still heavily censored in China. When it comes to freedom of expression people in Hong Kong and China are fighting an uphill battle — I’m quite pessimistic about this. Hong Kong is trying to do whatever they can. — At the end of the day this is a basic humanities issue. people want to have a signal to the people. Let the people know something happened.