News / Asia

Weibo Censors Move with Great Speed

New research reveals the startling speed at which controversial posts are removed from Weibo. Logo of Sina Corp's Chinese microblogging site, "Weibo," on a screen, Beijing, September 2011.
New research reveals the startling speed at which controversial posts are removed from Weibo. Logo of Sina Corp's Chinese microblogging site, "Weibo," on a screen, Beijing, September 2011.
Despite 300 million users generating more than 100 million posts per day, Chinese censors are very adept at deleting unwanted material on Weibo, the country’s main blogging platform. The censors are also fast, according to new research.

“What’s interesting is how effective they’re able to be despite growing to a large size,” said Dan Wallach of Rice University, one of the authors of the study.

The research, conducted by computer scientists from Rice University, Bowdoin College and the University of New Mexico, showed that 30 percent of deletions on Weibo occur within five to 30 minutes after posting and that nearly 90 percent of the deletions happen within the first 24 hours. Sina Corp.'s Weibo is a microblogging service similar to Twitter, which is blocked in China.

In order to find how quickly posts were removed, researchers identified about 3,500 Weibo users with histories of deleted posts. These users were carefully monitored from July 20, 2012 to September 8.

Reading the lists of top deleted items from an earlier version of the paper is almost like reading a newspaper.

For example, on July 22, the number one banned topic was “Beijing rainstorms,” after netizens voiced anger toward the government’s response to storms that left at least 77 dead. The topic remained among the top banned stories for several days.

Then, in late July and early August, Gu Kailai crept into the top banned topic list. Gu Kailai is the wife of disgraced politician Bo Xilai and was convicted of killing a British businessman in one of the biggest scandals to rock China in recent years. She again appeared among the most blocked on August 20, the day she received a suspended death sentence.

Despite growing tensions with Japan over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, Weibo keeps tight control over the online conversations. The topic “anti-Japanese” was the most blocked topic on August 17, 19 and 20 after an initial wave of anti-Japanese rioting broke out in China.

Wallach says “there’s no question that a small roomful of humans can’t keep up with 300 million posts without a lot of help from the machine.”

The sheer volume of Weibo posts points to a high level of automation, he added.

According to the report, if an efficient worker could read 50 posts per minute, 1,400 censors would be needed to read the 70,000 posts Weibo generates per minute. If each worker worked an eight-hour shift, it would take over 4,000 workers to delete sensitive posts. That’s clearly not happening said Wallach.

“Based on our data, it sounds like there’s a policy office there and there are people whose job it is to say ‘holy crap, there’s way too much discussion on the North Korean nuclear test. Shut it down,’” he said. Once that policy has been decided, he said, the deletions begin in earnest.

The research also showed that the number of deletions dropped off from midnight until around 4 a.m. and then spiked in the early morning as censors caught up on overnight posts and the flood of early morning posts.

Wallach points out that Weibo is a company, not a government entity, and that in order for it to succeed, it has to stay on good terms with the government.

“You have to do censorship that keeps the government off your back. They’re walking a fine line,” he said, adding that Weibo censorship doesn’t have to be perfect, just good enough.

While some topics such as the one-child policy, freedom of speech and “despise gov”  are obvious targets for the censors, Wallach said some off-limit topics were surprising.

“It never would have occurred to me that pornography and gambling are things you’re not supposed to talk about,” he said. “They don’t want you talking about group sex.”

On July 31, just the word “accident” was among the most banned topics.

One way Weibo users try to get around the censors is to use nicknames, code words or anagrams to refer to sensitive issues obliquely. Another trick is to swap one Chinese character that might trigger censorship with another that resembles it.

“There’s all kinds of interesting games that you can play to stay away from an auto-censor,” said Wallach. “Eventually, someone in the policy department figures it out.” After that, he said, it’s a relatively simple process to write some software to detect the substitution and “make it go away.”

Whether that combination of computers and humans can continue to dampen conversations about taboo subjects “is an interesting question,” said Wallach.

You May Like

IS Militants Release 49 Turkish Hostages

Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency reports that no ransom was paid and no conditions accepted for the hostages' release; few details of the release are known More

Photogallery IS Attacks Send Thousands of Syrian Kurds Fleeing to Turkey

Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says more than 300 Kurdish fighters crossed into Syria from Turkey to defend a Kurdish area from attack by the Islamic militants More

Video Sierra Leone's Ebola Lockdown Continues

Thousands of health workers are going door to door in the West African country of 6 million, informing people of how to avoid Ebola, handing out soap More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Friend
March 19, 2013 11:37 PM
We should join hands and override the CCP regime.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Fears Ebola Outbreak ‘Beyond Our Capability to Contain’i
X
Jeff Seldin
September 20, 2014 10:28 PM
Each day brings with it new warnings about the deadly Ebola outbreak already blamed for killing more than 2,600 people across West Africa. And while countries and international organizations like the United Nations are starting to come through on promises of help for those most affected, the unprecedented speed with which the virus has spread is raising questions about the international response. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from Washington.
Video

Video Fears Ebola Outbreak ‘Beyond Our Capability to Contain’

Each day brings with it new warnings about the deadly Ebola outbreak already blamed for killing more than 2,600 people across West Africa. And while countries and international organizations like the United Nations are starting to come through on promises of help for those most affected, the unprecedented speed with which the virus has spread is raising questions about the international response. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from Washington.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Obama Goes to UN With Islamic State, Ebola on Agenda

President Obama goes to the United Nations General Assembly to rally nations to support a coalition against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. He also will look for nations to back his plan to fight the Ebola virus in West Africa. As VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports, Obama’s efforts reflect new moves by the U.S. administration to take a leading role in addressing world crises.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Militant Assault in Syria Displaces Thousands of Kurds

A major assault by Islamic State militants on Kurds in Syria has sent a wave of new refugees to the Turkish border, where they were stopped by Turkish border security. Turkey is already hosting about 700,000 Syrian refugees who fled the civil war between the government and the opposition. But the government in Ankara has a history of strained relations with Turkey's Kurdish minority. Zlatica Hoke reports Turkey is asking for international help.
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid