The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The Coder Studying the Effects of Government Propaganda and Censorship

We canvassed the world of the social and behavioral sciences, looking for rising stars whose careers promise to make a lasting mark. We'll be profiling the top 30 throughout the month of April.
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(Illustration: Graham Smith)

(Illustration: Graham Smith)

Molly Roberts spends a lot of time trying to get into autocrats’ heads. Part of doing that has involved learning to code. In Chinese.

Developing that skill allowed her to download millions of social media posts before China’s government could censor them. She compared them with what actually got through the sieve. Roberts also posted thousands of blog posts, many of them opining about politics, to see what would get blocked. By reverse-engineering the billion-person country’s censorship program, Roberts was able to examine its strategy on a large scale.

She discovered, contrary to what’s widely believed, that China’s public officials aren’t censoring people who criticize them. What they are censoring, Roberts says, is discussions of organizing protests and talk of collective action.

After doing these studies as a doctoral candidate at Harvard University (her results were published in the American Political Science Review and Science), Roberts accepted a position as an assistant professor at the University of California-San Diego two years before she planned to be on the job market.

"Science is often told in the language of sacrifice. From my experience, exactly the opposite is true. If I'm working on questions I think are important, if I'm getting closer to the answer, that makes me happy. Nothing is more satisfying."

“Being from a fairly homogeneous town made me want to go out and explore the world,” says Roberts, who grew up in Vancouver, Washington.

Her parents often took her and her three siblings on “crazy” vacations that involved camping in Baja and swimming in the Amazon. “From those trips,” Roberts says, “I knew there was so much to explore. Immediately when I started Stanford, I enrolled in Chinese because the language seemed most different from anything I knew. I had no idea that decision would influence my future work.”

As an undergraduate, Roberts spent a lot of time in Asia. “Politically, China is so different than the United States and this drew me to it,” she says. “I wanted to make sense of it and political science gave me the tools to do that.”

She got her Bachelor’s degrees—in international relations and economics—in 2009. That same year, she got a Master’s degree in statistics. Five years later, at 28, she had her Ph.D. in government from Harvard.

During graduate school, Roberts worked alongside Gary King, a political scientist and quantitative methodologist with a formidable reputation. As his mentee, she won teaching awards and a prize from Harvard for having written the best dissertation on a subject relating to world peace.

“I learned the nuts and bolts about how to do research from Gary,” Roberts says, “but I also learned to relentlessly work on important questions from him. He is an incredible role model because he cares about impact above everything else.”

As for Roberts’ own impact, she hopes to create tools that allow scholars to incorporate new types of data into their research. “If we can expand the evidence base for social scientists,” she says, “we can answer more questions.”

One of the biggest questions she tries to answer is how government propaganda and censorship policies affect real-life people, their access to information, and their participation in politics.

“I find that even small government-imposed costs of access to information can have huge effects on the spread of information if censorship and propaganda go unnoticed,” Roberts says. “However, the more citizens become aware that the government is manipulating their information, the more these methods backfire and undercut the autocrat.”

“We live in a very different information environment than we did 10 years ago,” she adds. “We don't understand how governments and organized groups influence the information citizens consume and how that affects citizens' political decisions.”

When she’s not trying to answer big questions, Roberts is often out hiking, running, swimming, or cycling. “There's nothing like a long trail run or hike,” she says, “to make you suddenly realize where the bug is in your code, or what the missing piece of a theory is.”

Is she fulfilled? To that, she says this: “People sometimes think they need to be unhappy to be good at what they do. If they're not unhappy, they're not working hard enough or staying up late enough. Science is often told in the language of sacrifice. From my experience, exactly the opposite is true. If I'm working on questions I think are important, if I'm getting closer to the answer, that makes me happy. Nothing is more satisfying.”

We’ll be publishing profiles of this year’s list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of April. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we make it our mission to cover every day at Pacific Standard.

A version of this year’s list is also available to subscribers as a feature in our May/June print issue. For more from Pacific Standard on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our email newsletter and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8), Amazon, and Google Play (Android).