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

US, China Have Dueling Definitions of Cybersecurity

Analysts say attribution or or proving that a particular individual or government is responsible for a hack, is a daunting task More

Snowden: I'd Go to Prison to Return to US

Former NSA contractor says he has not received a formal plea-deal offer from US officials, who consider him to be a traitor More

Goodbye Pocahontas: Photos Reveal Today's Real Native Americans

Weary of stereotypes, photographer Matika Wilbur is determined to reshape the public's perception of her people More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
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.
Making a Minti
October 07, 2015 4:17 AM
While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video Self-Driving Cars Getting Closer

We are at the dawn of the robotic car age and should start getting used to seeing self-driving cars, at least on highways. Car and truck manufacturers are now running a tight race to see who will be the first to hit the street, while some taxicab companies are already planning to upgrade their fleets. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Clinton Seeks to Boost Image Before Upcoming Debate

The five announced Democratic party presidential contenders meet in their first debate next Tuesday in Las Vegas, Nevada. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton continues to lead the Democratic field, but she is getting a stronger-than-expected challenge from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

Video Music Brings Generations Together

When musicians over the age of 50 headline a rock concert, you expect to see baby boomer fans in the audience. Boomer rock stars have boomer fans. Millennial rock stars have millennial fans. But this isn’t always the case. Take the Lockn’ Music festival which took place in mid-September in rural Arrington, Virginia. Here, Jacquelyn de Phillips discovered two generations of people who are considered quite different in the outside world, spending 4 days together in music-loving harmony.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

Video South Carolina Reels Under Worst-ever Flooding

South Carolina is reeling from the worst flooding in recorded history that forced residents from their homes and left thousands without drinking water and electricity. Parts of the state, including the capital, Columbia, received about 60 centimeters of rain in just a couple of days. Authorities warn that the end of rain does not mean the end of danger, as it will take days for the water to recede. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

VOA Blogs