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

Photogallery South Africa Bans Travelers From Ebola-stricken Countries

South Africans returning from affected West African countries will be thoroughly screened, required to fill out medical questionnaire, health minister says More

Multimedia UN Launches ‘Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years’ in Iraq

Move aims to help thousands of Iraqi religious minorities who fled their homes as Kurdish, Iraqi government forces battle Sunni insurgents More

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

IT specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about disease More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbasi
X
Scott Stearns
August 21, 2014 9:20 PM
The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbas

The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Nigeria's 'Nollywood' Movie Industry Rolls in High Gear

Twenty years after its birth in a video shop in Lagos, Nigeria's "Nollywood" is one of the most prolific film industries on earth. Despite low budgets and whirlwind production schedules, Nigerian films are wildly popular in Africa and industry professionals say they hope, in the future, their films will be as great in quality as they are in quantity. Heather Murdock has more for VOA from Lagos.
Video

Video UN Launches 'Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years' in Iraq

The United Nations has launched what it describes as one of the biggest aid operations in 30 years in northern Iraq, as hundreds of thousands of refugees flee the extremist Sunni militant group calling itself the Islamic State. As Kurdish and Iraqi forces battle the Sunni insurgents, the fighting has forced more people to flee their homes. Kurdish authorities say the international community must act now to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Cambodian American Hip Hop Artist Sings of Personal Struggles

A growing underground movement of Cambodian American hip hop artists is rapping about the struggles of living in urban America. Most, if not all of them, are refugees or children of refugees who came to the United States from Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. Through their music, the artists hope to give voice to immigrants who have been struggling quietly for years. Elizabeth Lee reports from Long Beach, California.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Ferguson Calls for Justice as Anger, Violence Grips Community

Violence, anger and frustration continue to grip the small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Protests broke out after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager on August 9. The case has sparked outrage around the nation and prompted the White House to send U.S. Attorney Eric Holder to the small community of just over 20,000 people. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas has more from Ferguson.
Video

Video Beheading Of US Journalist Breeds Outrage

U.S. and British authorities have launched an investigation into an Islamic State video showing the beheading of kidnapped American journalist James Foley by a militant with a British accent. The extremist group, which posted the video on the Internet Tuesday, said the murder was revenge for U.S. airstrikes on militant positions in Iraq - and has threatened to execute another American journalist it is holding. Henry Ridgwell has more from London.
Video

Video Family Robots - The Next Big Thing?

Robots that can help us with daily chores like cooking and cleaning are a long way off, but automatons that serve as family companions may be much closer. Researchers in the United States, France, Japan and other countries are racing to build robots that can entertain and perform some simpler tasks for us. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.

AppleAndroid