My research focuses on the politics of authoritarian (non-democratic) countries in the digital age. How autocrats constrain collective action through online censorship, propaganda, and responsiveness. How information proliferation influences the ability of authoritarian regimes to collect reliable information. How public preferences are arranged and formed. I combine experimental and computational methods with large-scale datasets on political activity in China and other authoritarian regimes to examine these questions.
Text as Data
Research Methods & Research Design
The study of ideology in authoritarian regimes—of how public preferences are configured and constrained—has received relatively little scholarly attention. Using data from a large-scale online survey, we study ideology in China. We find that public preferences are weakly constrained, and the configuration of preferences is multidimensional, but the latent traits of these dimensions are highly correlated. Those who prefer authoritarian rule are more likely to support nationalism, state intervention in the economy, and traditional social values; those who prefer democratic institutions and values are more likely to support market reforms but less likely to be nationalistic and less likely to support traditional social values. This latter set of preferences appears more in provinces with higher levels of development and among wealthier and better-educated respondents. These findings suggest that preferences are not simply split along a pro-regime or anti-regime cleavage and indicate a possible link between China’s economic reform and ideology.
The Chinese regime has launched a number of online government transparency initiatives to increase the volume of publicly available information about the activities of lower level governments. By analyzing online content produced by local government officials to fulfill these transparency requirements—a random sample of 1.92 million county-level government web pages—this paper shows how websites are commandeered by local-level officials to construct their public image. The majority of content on government websites emphasizes either the competence or benevolence of county executives, depending on where leaders are in the political tenure cycle. Early tenure county executives project images of benevolence by emphasizing their attentiveness and concern toward citizens. Late tenure executives project images of competence by highlighting their achievements. These findings shift the nature of debates concerning the role of the Internet in authoritarian regimes from a focus on regime-society interactions to an examination of dynamics among regime insiders. By focusing on communication and the flow of information between upper-level leaders and lower-level regime agents, this paper reveals how the Internet becomes a vehicle of self-promotion for local politicians.
Xi Jinping’s rise to power in late 2012 has brought political change to China, but the precise nature of shifts remains unclear. In this paper, we evaluate whether the perceived changes associated with Xi Jinping’s rise—increased personalization of power, centralization of authority, party dominance, anti-Western sentiment—are reflected in provincial-level official media. As past research makes clear, media in China have strong signaling functions, and media coverage patterns reveal which actors are up and down in politics. Using innovations in automated text analysis on several million newspaper articles, we identify and tabulate in a comprehensive fashion the individuals and organizations appearing in official media to answer unresolved questions about political shifts in the Xi Jinping era. We find substantively mixed and regionally varied trends in media coverage of political actors that qualify our picture of China’s “new normal.” Provincial media coverage reflects modest increases in the personalization and centralization of political authority, but we find a drop in the media profile of party organizations, and see uneven declines in the media presence of foreign actors. More generally, we highlight marked variation across provinces in coverage trends.
The Chinese government has long been suspected of hiring as many as 2 million people to surreptitiously insert huge numbers of pseudonymous and other deceptive writings into the stream of real social media posts, as if they were the genuine opinions of ordinary people. Many academics, and most journalists and activists, claim that these so-called 50c party posts vociferously argue for the government’s side in political and policy debates. As we show, this is also true of most posts openly accused on social media of being 50c. Yet almost no systematic empirical evidence exists for this claim or, more importantly, for the Chinese regime’s strategic objective in pursuing this activity. In the first large-scale empirical analysis of this operation, we show how to identify the secretive authors of these posts, the posts written by them, and their content. We estimate that the government fabricates and posts about 448 million social media comments a year. In contrast to prior claims, we show that the Chinese regime’s strategy is to avoid arguing with skeptics of the party and the government, and to not even discuss controversial issues. We show that the goal of this massive secretive operation is instead to distract the public and change the subject, as most of these posts involve cheerleading for China, the revolutionary history of the Communist Party, or other symbols of the regime. We discuss how these results fit with what is known about the Chinese censorship program and suggest how they may change our broader theoretical understanding of “common knowledge” and information control in authoritarian regimes.
There is ongoing debate over whether authoritarian regimes can maintain control over information given the rise of social media and the Internet. In this debate, China is often cited as a prime example of how authoritarian regimes can retain control, but to date, there has been limited research on whether China’s online censorship strategies can be replicated in other authoritarian regimes. This article shows that China’s ability to censor social media rests on the dominance of domestic firms in China’s market for Internet content. The absence of U.S. social media firms in China allows the Chinese government to engage in censorship through content removal, which can quickly and effectively suppress information. In contrast, for most other regimes, the market for social media is dominated by U.S. multinational firms, e.g., Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and in these contexts, content removal is an immense challenge. This article then examines the prospects of instituting content removal by developing domestic social media or importing Chinese platforms, and finds that most authoritarian regimes are unlikely to be able to duplicate China’s online censorship efforts.
An increasing number of scholars have established that authoritarian regimes employ quasi-democratic institutions as part of their efforts to retain power. However, we know little about the potential variation among institutions providing citizens with opportunities for voice and the conditions under which such institutions are true channels of responsiveness. In this article, we develop and test the concept of “receptivity,” that is, whether autocrats are willing to incorporate citizen preferences into policy, using a list experiment of 1,377 provincial-and city-level leaders in China. Contrary to expectation, we find that leaders are similarly receptive to citizen suggestions obtained through either formal institutions or the Internet unless they perceive antagonism between the state and citizens, in which case receptivity to input from the Internet declines, while receptivity to formal institutions remains unchanged. Our findings show that whether quasi-democratic institutions are mere window dressing or true channels of responsiveness depends on the perceived quality of state–society relations.
A growing body of research suggests that authoritarian regimes are responsive to societal actors, but our understanding of the sources of authoritarian responsiveness remains limited because of the challenges of measurement and causal identification. By conducting an online field experiment among 2,103 Chinese counties, we examine factors that affect officials’ incentives to respond to citizens in an authoritarian context. At baseline, we find that approximately one-third of county governments respond to citizen demands expressed online. Threats of collective action and threats of tattling to upper levels of government cause county governments to be considerably more responsive, whereas identifying as loyal, long-standing members of the Chinese Communist Party does not increase responsiveness. Moreover, we find that threats of collective action make local officials more publicly responsive. Together, these results demonstrate that top-down mechanisms of oversight as well as bottom-up societal pressures are possible sources of authoritarian responsiveness.
No! Formal Theory, Causal Inference, and Big Data Are Not Contradictory Trends in Political Science
Existing research on the extensive Chinese censorship organization uses observational methods with well-known limitations. We conducted the first large-scale experimental study of censorship by creating accounts on numerous social media sites, randomly submitting different texts, and observing from a worldwide network of computers which texts were censored and which were not. We also supplemented interviews with confidential sources by creating our own social media site, contracting with Chinese firms to install the same censoring technologies as existing sites, and—with their software, documentation, and even customer support—reverse-engineering how it all works. Our results offer rigorous support for the recent hypothesis that criticisms of the state, its leaders, and their policies are published, whereas posts about real-world events with collective action potential are censored.
We offer the first large scale, multiple source analysis of the outcome of what may be the most extensive effort to selectively censor human expression ever implemented. To do this, we have devised a system to locate, download, and analyze the content of millions of social media posts originating from nearly 1,400 different social media services all over China before the Chinese government is able to find, evaluate, and censor (i.e., remove from the Internet) the subset they deem objectionable. Using modern computer-assisted text analytic methods that we adapt to and validate in the Chinese language, we compare the substantive content of posts censored to those not censored over time in each of 85 topic areas. 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. Censorship is oriented toward attempting to forestall collective activities that are occurring now or may occur in the future—and, as such, seem to clearly expose government intent.
Left, Right, Middle Kingdom: Ideology in China
A team of researchers discovers what will get you censored on the Chinese internet.
How China tames dissent on the Internet
'Look, a Bird!' Trolling by Distraction
Trolls, bots and fake news: the mysterious world of social media manipulation
In China, Government Workers Push Rosy, Diverting Views Online
Distract and Conquer: New Study Sheds Light on China’s Online Propaganda Strategy
In China, Government Workers Push Rosy, Diverting Views Online