We often think of censorship as governments removing material or harshly punishing people who spread or access information. But Margaret E. Roberts’ new book Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall (Princeton University Press, 2020) reveals the nuances of censorship in the age of the internet.
She identifies 3 types of censorship: fear (threatening punishment to deter the spread or access of information); friction (increasing the time or money necessary to access information); and flooding (publishing information to distract, confuse, or dilute). Roberts shows how China customizes repression by using friction and flooding (censorship that is porous) to deter the majority of citizens whose busy schedules and general lack of interest in politics make it difficult to spend extra time and money accessing information. Highly motivated elites (e.g. journalists, activists) who are willing to spend the extra time and money to overcome the boundaries of both friction and flooding meanwhile may face fear and punishment. The two groups end up with very different information – complicating political coordination between the majority and elites.
Roberts’s highly accessible book negotiates two extreme positions (the internet will bring government accountability v. extreme censorship) to provide a more nuanced understanding of digital politics, the politics of repression, and political communication. Even if there is better information available, governments can create friction on distribution or flood the internet with propaganda. Looking at how China manages censorship provides insights not only for other authoritarian governments but also democratic governments. Liberal democracies might not use fear but they can affect access and availability – and they may find themselves (as the United States did in the 2016 presidential election) subject to flooding from external sources. The podcast includes Roberts’ insights on how the Chinese censored information on COVID-19 and the effect that had on the public.
Foreign Affairs named Censored one of its Best Books of 2018 and it was also honored with the Goldsmith Award and the Best Book in Human Rights Section and Information Technology and Politics section of the American Political Science Association.
Susan Liebell is associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. She is the author of Democracy, Intelligent Design, and Evolution: Science for Citizenship (Routledge, 2013).
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