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,
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

Nigeria Incumbent in Tight Spot as Poll Nears

Muhammadu Buhari is running a strong challenge to Goodluck Jonathan, amid a faltering economy and Boko Haram security worries More

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo tells VOA that despite her fame, life is still a struggle as she waits for government's promise of support to arrive More

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

At least seven different indigenous groups in Ratanakiri depend mainly on forest products for their survival, say they face loss of their land, traditional way of life 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.
Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grievingi
X
Benno Muchler
March 26, 2015 3:41 PM
Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video US, South Korea Conduct Joint Military Exercises

The Eighth U.S. Army Division and the Eighth Republic of Korea Mechanized Infantry Division put on a well orchestrated show of force for the media this week during their joint military training exercises in South Korea. VOA’s Seoul correspondent Brian Padden was there and reports the soldiers were well disciplined both in conducting a complex live fire exercise and in staying on message with the press.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Young Filmmakers Shine Spotlight on Giving Back

A group of student filmmakers from across the United States joined President Barack Obama at the White House this month for the second annual White House Student Film Festival. Fifteen short films were officially selected from more than 1,500 entries by students aged 6 through 18. The filmmakers and their families then joined the president and a group of celebrities for a screening of their films. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video VOA Exclusive: Interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, during his first visit as president to Washington, gave a one-on-one interview with VOA Afghan Service reporter Said Suleiman Ashna, about his request for a change in U.S. troop levels, the threat from the Islamic State, and repairing relations with the United States and Pakistan. The interview was held at Blair House, late Sunday, in Pashto.
Video

Video California Science Center Tells Story of Dead Sea Scrolls

The ancient manuscripts were uncovered in the mid-20th century, and they are still yielding clues about life and religious beliefs in ancient Israel. As VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, an exhibit in Los Angeles shows how modern science is bringing the history of these ancient documents to life.
Video

Video Angelina Jolie Takes Another Bold Step

Hollywood actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie has revealed she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to lower her odds of getting cancer. Doctors say the huge publicity over her decision will help raise awareness about the importance of cancer screening. VOA’s George Putic has more

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More