The Bird’s eye View of China’s Twitter Community on Internet Censorship

As part of CGCS’s Internet Policy Observatory, Wayne Weiai Xu, a PhD candidate at the State University of New York, Buffalo, and Yoonmo Sang, a PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, developed a visualization tool that captures the network of Chinese-language Twitter discussions on China’s internet censorship issues. Click here to view the visualization.

This week we rolled out a visualization tool that captures a community of Twitter users active in discussing China’s internet censorship. The visualized network, in many ways, provides the bird’s eye view of the social fabrics of this community.

On the homepage, you will find a network of Twitter users. These users have two things in common: They are Mandarin-speaking, many of them live in China, and they used hashtags related to China’s censorship issue. The data for the current network captures user activity between May 16, 2015 and May 22, 2015. This data will periodically be updated. Hashtags that were used in the selection criteria include: “f***gfw”, “翻墙“, “被墙“, “被封“, “科学上网“, “防火墙“, “greatfirewall”, “真理部“, “审查“, “屏蔽“.

Users are represented by dots on the graph. They are connected by lines which indicate documented Twitter interactions (i.e., Twitter mention and reply) during the study period. When your click a user, you will see the user’s degree centrality (DoC), that is, how many times a user is connected through Twitter mention and reply.

On the website you will also find information about the user’s Twitter profile. How users choose to reveal themselves is a very interesting topic. Censorship is without a doubt a sensitive political issue. You would expect that users prefer anonymity, but we found something quite different. In an analysis of the data collected in the summer of 2014, using the same criteria as the current data set, we found that most users (68%) disclosed at least one of the following items of personal information: real name, contact information, occupation, geographic location, and political opinion.

Over 70% of those who disclosed their geographic location were located in (or indicated they were in) a Chinese province or city. We also found that Twitter bios are bubbling with creative political expressions, with plenty of sarcasm, parody, spoofs, and code words. From the data collected in 2014, we found users who identified themselves as living in the “old capital of the Republic of China,” to hint nostalgia towards the pre-Communist era, and a sense of discontent toward the current government. Some users used “West Korea” (west of North Korea) to mock China’s resemblance to North Korea in terms of press freedom. In several Twitter bios we found users adopted the line, “Across the Great Firewall we can reach every corner in the world,” which was an official line originally used by China’s state media during the launch of China’s first email service in 1987 to hail the advent of internet era.

You can glance over the network to get a sense of its structure—whether it is sparse, with sporadic lines connecting the dots, or dense, with most dots connected to others. Such structure is determined by the extent to which users are interconnected with one and another. The network you are viewing is a relatively sparse one where mutual interaction does not occur frequently.

Another important factor to consider is how centralized a network is. In a highly centralized network, one or a few parties dominate the entire flow of information. The network here is not the case as it is decentralized. This means that the community is quite democratic—everyone has a say and can have an input. However, it also reveals a significant weakness as the network lacks strong (opinion) leadership, concerted actions and coherent voices to push forward certain agenda.

You can zoom in to see a number of central users. Scroll down the page and you will see a list of users ranked by degree centrality and the number of followers. These users are the opinion leaders. They are active and influential in leading the conversations and probably politically active and tech-savvy. In the list of top central users, you will come across prominent political activists, journalists and research organizations working on the censorship issue.


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