News / Science & Technology

At Sina Weibo's Censorship Hub, 'Little Brothers' Cleanse Online Chatter

A building where the Sina Weibo censorship office is located is seen on the outskirts of Tianjin, China, Aug. 4, 2013.
A building where the Sina Weibo censorship office is located is seen on the outskirts of Tianjin, China, Aug. 4, 2013.
Reuters
In a modern office building on the outskirts of the Chinese city of Tianjin, rows of censors stare at computer screens. Their mission: delete any post on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter, deemed offensive or politically unacceptable.
 
But the people behind the censorship of China's most popular microblogging site are not aging Communist Party apparatchiks. Instead, they are new college graduates. Ambivalent about deleting posts, they grumble loudly about the workload and pay.
 
FILE - Logo of Sina Corp's Chinese microblogging site, Weibo, on a screen, Beijing, Sept. 2011.FILE - Logo of Sina Corp's Chinese microblogging site, Weibo, on a screen, Beijing, Sept. 2011.
x
FILE - Logo of Sina Corp's Chinese microblogging site, Weibo, on a screen, Beijing, Sept. 2011.
FILE - Logo of Sina Corp's Chinese microblogging site, Weibo, on a screen, Beijing, Sept. 2011.
Managing the Internet is a major challenge for China. The ruling Communist Party sees censorship as key to maintaining its grip on power - indeed, new measures unveiled on Monday threaten jail time for spreading rumors online.
 
At the same time, China wants to give people a way to blow off steam when other forms of political protest are restricted.
 
Reuters interviewed four former censors at Sina Weibo, who all quit at various times this year. All declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the work they once did. Current censors declined to speak to Reuters.
 
“People are often torn when they start, but later they go numb and just do the job,” said one former censor, who left because he felt the career prospects were poor. “One thing I can tell you is that we are worked very hard and paid very little.”
 
Sina Corp, one of China's biggest Internet firms, runs the microblogging site, which has 500 million registered users. It also employs the censors.
 
The company did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
 
“Stressful, Dead-end Job”
 
Reuters got a glimpse of the Sina Weibo censorship office in Tianjin, half an hour from Beijing by high-speed train, one recent weekend morning.
 
A dozen employees, all men, could be seen through locked glass doors from a publicly-accessible corridor, sitting in cramped cubicles separated by yellow dividers, staring at large monitors.
 
They more closely resembled Little Brothers than the Orwellian image of an omniscient and fearsome Big Brother.
 
“Our job prevents Weibo from being shut down and that gives people a big platform to speak from. It's not an ideally free one, but it still lets people vent,” said a second former censor.
 
The former censors said the office was staffed 24 hours a day by about 150 male college graduates in total. They said women shunned the work because of the night shifts and constant exposure to offensive material.
 
The Sina Weibo censors are a small part of the tens of thousands of censors employed in China to control content in traditional media and on the Internet.
 
Most Sina Weibo censors are in their 20s and earn about 3,000 yuan ($490) a month, the former censors said, roughly the same as jobs posted in Tianjin for carpenters or staff in real estate firms. Many took the job after graduating from local universities.
 
“People leave because it's a stressful dead-end job for most of us,” said a third former censor.
 
Sina's computer system scans each microblog before they are published. Only a fraction are marked as sensitive and need to be read by a censor, who will decide whether to spare or delete it. Over an average 24-hour period, censors process about three million posts.
 
A small number of posts with so-called “must kill” words such as references to the banned spiritual group Falun Gong are first blocked and then manually deleted. Censors also have to update lists of sensitive words with new references and creative expressions bloggers use to evade scrutiny.
 
For most posts deemed sensitive, censors often use a subtle tactic in which a published comment remains visible to its author but is blocked for others, leaving the blogger unaware his post has effectively been taken down, the former censors said. Censors can also punish users by temporarily blocking their ability to make comments or shutting their accounts in extreme cases.
 
“We saw a fairly sophisticated system, where human power is amplified by computer automation, that is capable of removing sensitive posts within minutes,” said Jedidiah Crandall of the University of New Mexico, part of a team which did recent research on the speed of Weibo censorship.
 
If a sensitive post gets missed and spreads widely, government agencies can put pressure on Sina Corp to remove the post and occasionally punish the censor responsible with fines or dismissal, the former censors said.
 
On an average day, about 40 censors work 12-hour shifts. Each worker must sift through at least 3,000 posts an hour, the former censors said.
 
The busiest times are during sensitive anniversaries such as the Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy protesters which took place on June 4, 1989, and major political events.
 
A journalist takes pictures near a television screen displaying the Weibo page of Jinan Intermediate People's Court, at the court's media center during the trial of Bo Xilai in Jinan, Shandong province, Aug. 22, 2013.A journalist takes pictures near a television screen displaying the Weibo page of Jinan Intermediate People's Court, at the court's media center during the trial of Bo Xilai in Jinan, Shandong province, Aug. 22, 2013.
x
A journalist takes pictures near a television screen displaying the Weibo page of Jinan Intermediate People's Court, at the court's media center during the trial of Bo Xilai in Jinan, Shandong province, Aug. 22, 2013.
A journalist takes pictures near a television screen displaying the Weibo page of Jinan Intermediate People's Court, at the court's media center during the trial of Bo Xilai in Jinan, Shandong province, Aug. 22, 2013.
The censors shifted into high gear during the downfall last year of former high-flying politician Bo Xilai, who faced trial last month on charges of bribery, graft and abuse of power. A verdict may come this month.
 
“It was really stressful, about 100 people worked non-stop for 24 hours,” the first censor said, referring to when Bo was stripped of his posts and later expelled from the Party.
 
“Freedom Means Order”
 
The Communist Party keeps an iron grip on newspapers and television but has grappled to control information on social-networking platforms.
 
Internet firms are required to work with the party's propaganda apparatus to censor user-generated content.
 
Lu Wei, director of the State Internet Information Office, said in a speech this week that “freedom means order” and that “freedom without order does not exist”.
 
State media has reported dozens of detentions in recent weeks as the new government of President Xi Jinping cracks down on the spreading of rumors.
 
China's top court and prosecutor said people would be charged with defamation if online rumors they created were visited by 5,000 Internet users or reposted more than 500 times.
 
That could lead to three years in jail, state media reported on Monday. China says it has a genuine need to stop the spread of irresponsible rumors.
 
When rumors that former president Jiang Zemin had died went viral on Weibo, the seemingly irrelevant words “frog” and “toad”, most likely referring to Jiang's peculiar glasses, were used to refer to Jiang and later banned.
 
Censors are told what kinds of comments are off limits.
 
“The most frequently deleted posts are the political ones, especially those criticizing the government, but Sina grants relatively more room for discussions on democracy and constitutionalism because there are leaders who want to keep the debate going,” said the first former censor.
 
“But there hasn't been any sign of loosening control on social media since Xi Jinping took power,” he added. “Not from what we could feel at work.”

You May Like

Disappointing Report on China's Economy Shakes Markets

In London and New York shares lost 3 percent, while Paris and Germany dropped around 2.4 percent More

DRC Tries Mega-Farms to Feed Population

Park at Boukanga Lonzo currently has 5,000 hectares under cultivation, crops stretching as far as eye can see, and is start of ambitious large-scale agriculture plan More

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Areas are spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, source of livelihood for fishermen and herders who have called the marshes home for generations More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOAi
X
August 31, 2015 2:17 AM
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.

VOA Blogs