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University of Massachusetts


Reverse Engineering Chinese Censorship


Chinese government censorship of social media constitutes the largest selective suppression of human communication in the history of the world. Three approaches are taken to learn about this system. First is an observational study where millions of social media posts are downloaded before the Chinese government can read and censor those they deem objectionable. Second, to make causal inferences, a large scale randomized experimental study is conducted. And finally, for descriptive inferences, the current approach of conducting confidential interviews is supplemented by setting up a own social media site inChina, contracting with Chinese firms to install the same censoring technologies as existing sites, and reverse engineering how it all works. Results offer unambiguous support for, and clarification of, the view that criticism of the state, its leaders, and their policies are routinely published whereas posts with collective action potential are much more likely to be censored. This approach also clarifies the internal mechanisms of the Chinese censorship apparatus and show that local social media sites have far more flexibility than was previously understood in how (but not what) they censor. This talk is based on two papers, available at and


I'm a PhD candidate in the Department of Government at Harvard University. I study the strategies authoritarian regimes employ to perpetuate their rule, including censorship, redistribution, and reponsiveness, and how technology facilitates and hinders these strategies. I focus primarily on China, and use methods of automated content analysis and experiments to measure and examine different components of these strategies. My work has appeared or is forthcoming in the American Political Science Review, Comparative Political Studies, and Science.

I graduated from Princeton University, summa cum laude, in 2004, and until 2009, I was a business analyst, then associate, then engagement manager at McKinsey & Company based in New York and Beijing. I have also worked for the Chinese Center for Disease Control, the Clinton Foundation HIV/AIDS Initiative as well as the Clinton Global Initiative.

Beginning in 2015, I will be an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Stanford University.

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Page last modified on October 31, 2014, at 10:50 AM