The rest of the world may live in the Twitter stream, checking updates and sending tweets more often than they check email, but in China, it’s Weibo that rules. Weibo is the Chinese term for microblog, and it was originally launched in 2009. In 2011, the domain name was changed to the current one, with almost 400 million users by mid-2012. Additionally, consider 100 millions messages per day, at the rate of 70,000 per minute. Those are undeniably impressive figures, especially considering that the Chinese government actively censors content via the platform.
If you’re sensitive about censorship, be thankful you don’t live in China, and you don’t rely on Weibo to interact online. Some researchers from Rice University, Bowdoin College, University of Mexico, together with independent investigator Tao Zhu did some digging to see just how China censors its version of Twitter. The general findings are not that surprising – we all know that China has a pretty strong stance when it comes to this topic – but the specifics are nothing short of mind blowing.
Censors are very much on the ball
Just how quickly do the Chinese censors respond? The researchers say:
5% of the deletions [of controversial posts] happened in the ﬁrst 8 minutes, and within 30 minutes, almost 30% of the deletions were ﬁnished. More than 90% of deletions happened within one day after a post was submitted. (Source)
You know what this means. Censorship happens in (almost) real time. More so, they must have a massive censorship workforce, combining humans and technology. The involvement of humans is also supported by the observation that censored posts seem to take a dip every day around 7 pm, when the national evening news is aired.
As can be expected, the censors have a rotating set of keywords that are deemed hot. According to the researchers, these hot terms change depending on the period and current events, with words/phrases such as “Beijing rainstorm, “Diaoyu Islands,” and “group sex” being tagged in mid-2012.
Track record matters
Weibo users who have had a track record of being censored have higher chances of being censored in the future. While that makes sense from the government’s perspective, that does give me the chills.
We may not be affected by this kind of censorship on Twitter, but how China censors its version of Twitter is a stark reminder of how freedom should not be taken for granted. Even online.