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Stalking China's Weibo Censors: An Interview with Chi-Chu Tschang

In America, we tend to refer to Sina Weibo as China’s “Twitter-like microblog," but that doesn't quite do it justice. It has 300 million users, more than twice the amount of Twitter itself, and because it's in Chinese, each nugget of 140 characters...
June 5, 2012, 5:10pm

In America, we tend to refer to Sina Weibo as China's "Twitter-like microblog," but that doesn’t quite do it justice. It has 300 million users, more than twice the amount of Twitter itself, and because it’s in Chinese, each nugget of 140 characters carries a lot more information than a tweet in most other languages. Weibo – literally “micro 微 blog 博” – is a lot of people sharing a lot of information, and although the service has become the world’s largest online rumor-mill, it's gone into overdrive in the past few months as scandal after scandal has made its way into the news. And that means the censors have gone into overdrive too.

The biggest scandal by far has been the spectacular, murder-mystery-style fall of Bo Xilai, a disgraced mayor and party chief who had once been considered a prime candidate to rise through the ranks of the Communist Party during this year's once-in-a-decade leadership transition. More recently, self-taught dissident lawyer Chen Guangcheng escaped what human rights groups have called illegal detention, fleeing to the American embassy in Beijing and ultimately leaving China to live in New York with his family. Yesterday was another feverish day: the 23rd anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, which is traditionally cause for the police to put dissidents under house arrest.

You can be sure that Chinese government authorities have been keen to keep many details of these events under wraps, resulting in mass deletions of Sina Weibo posts—more than 12,000 since February 1. (Even mention of the Shanghai Composite Index was briefly blocked yesterday, because it had fallen 64.89 points in trading, coincidentally the numbers of the ominous anniversary.) Chi-Chu Tschang, an MBA student at MIT and former China correspondent for BusinessWeek, took data of Weibo post deletions compiled by the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Center and paired it alongside a timeline of politically sensitive events over the past four months. The result is a graph that tracks the peaks and troughs of online censorship in the context of China's current events. It's a fascinating glimpse at how censors respond – or don’t – to political turmoil on China's Internet.

I spoke with Tschang about the implications of his findings, how state propaganda gets censored, and why a blind activist lawyer made Shawshank Redemption a trending topic on the Chinese Internet.

I noticed that you posted a link to your findings on Weibo. What has the response been?

I actually tried checking in earlier today, and I think my Weibo account was deleted.

It’s not unexpected. I posted it partly to share with some friends, but also because I thought it was relevant to Weibo. It was more out of curiosity—I can’t say that I’m entirely surprised that my account’s been deleted, but I think that it’s sort of unfortunate. Right now I’m getting a “Sorry, User Blocked” message, and it says I can register an online complaint. This is the first time it’s happened to me.

China is said to have thousands of Internet police, and then there are all of the people at the Internet companies themselves who monitor content. There’s also all the average people who get paid to post “harmonious” comments. I’m curious about the extent to which censorship on Sina Weibo is automated, or whether there are people behind it, doing it on a case-by-case basis.

What we assume is that some of it is automated, there are some things that the system won’t let you input—when you try and post it, you get an error message. What we also assume is that there are actual humans who get paid to censor. When you go onto Weibo, there’s an ad for hiring monitoring editors. A lot of Chinese netizens make fun of that.

An excerpt of Tschang’s graph of censored Weibo posts. The last bar indicates the most censored day on record. Click for the full-size version.

One of the things that came up in your research was that Saturday afternoons had the slowest censorship response times.

Just looking at the graph I compiled, there are peaks and troughs. It’s not every single Saturday, but the days where it hits the lows more often than not end of being on Saturdays. I don’t have a good explanation for why that is, but it’s something I noticed in the data.

Besides potentially taking advantage of that Saturday pattern, what ways do people use to circumvent censorship online in China?

I think one thing that some people do is use initials or come up with code words. With Chen Guangcheng, one thing that got censored was The Shawshank Redemption, because there started to be a lot of conversations about how it is a real life case of the film. That went viral, so Sina censored references to The Shawshank Redemption. I think it’s this cat-and-mouse situation where something goes viral and the censors find out about it and start cracking down.

A map of terms that have appeared in blocked Weibo posts.

Do you feel like there can be a lot of erroneous censorship as well? I’m thinking of people not being able to search for the Yangtze River because the character for “river” is also part of the name of Jiang Zemin, the former president who was rumored to be gravely ill.

I’m not sure if I would characterize that as erroneous censorship. It’s more like collateral damage. I guess the most ironic case of this is that when the name Bo Xilai got censored, state media articles were blocked as well. Even official propaganda got censored.

Follow Chi-Chu on Twitter: @tschang