By Cal Widdall
Levels of Weibo censorship across China
Ever wondered what exactly the Chinese government is censoring? Well, thanks to a study by Carnegie Mellon University, we now have a better idea of the words and phrases The Great Firewall
forbids us from using is heroically protecting our impressionable minds from.
The study analysed millions of messages on the Chinese version of Twitter, named Weibo, and found that individual posts (which have yet to be given a catchy English ‘tweet’ equivalent, we’ll be trialing ‘weibs’ for the duration of this article) containing certain terms could be deleted at rates dependant upon current events and geography.
As you’d expect, mentions of the spiritual movement Falun Gong or activists such as Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei were regularly censored regardless of these factors, but even mentions of iodised salt and former general secretary of the CCP Jiang Zemin were heavily deleted at times.
Microblogs originating from the restive Tibetan area were subject to higher levels of censorship than the rest of China, with up to 53% of locally generated weibs being deleted.
The Carnegie Mellon University site provides an outline of the methods used:
To study this “soft” censorship, the CMU team analyzed almost 57 million messages posted on Sina Weibo , a domestic Chinese microblog site similar to Twitter that has more than 200 million users. They collected samples of weibos from June 27 to Sept. 30, 2011, using an application programming interface (API) that Sina Weibo provides to developers so they can build related services.
Using the same API, they later checked a random subset of weibos to see if they still existed and another subset that included terms known to be politically sensitive. If a weibo was deleted, Sina would return what the researchers came to regard as an ominous message: “target weibo does not exist.”
In late June and early July, for instance, rumors began circulating of the death of Jiang Zemin, a former general secretary of the Communist Party of China who came to power during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. On July 6, at the height of the rumor, 64 of 83 messages containing his name were deleted; on July 7, 29 of 31 such messages were deleted.
As another check, the researchers compared the frequency of such messages on Sina Weibo with those on the Chinese language version of Twitter, which officially is blocked by China but can still be accessed by net-savvy people. On July 6, Jiang’s name appeared in one out of every 75 tweets, but just one out of every 5,666 messages on Sina Weibo — another indication that the Jiang conversations on Sina Weibo are suppressed.
With regards to the second method, we feel it should be mentioned that Chinese netizens who have secured VPNs and access to Twitter are more likely to talk about political issues (rather than pictures of food on a dog – go on, you know you want to click it), but the huge difference between the figures of 1/75 and 1/5,666 lessens the significance of this factor.
Other political terms that were censored due to current events include a phrase meaning ‘to ask someone to resign’, which became subject to deletion following the high-speed rail crash that killed 40 people in Wenzhou last July, apparently with reference to the minister of railways.
Not all Chinese censorship is aimed at stamping out criticism, the study found even non-political terms can also become Weibo no-no’s. Microblogs containing the words ‘iodised salt’ had high deletion rates after the Fukushima disaster, most likely as a government attempt to quash false contamination rumours. As we know, it didn’t work too well.
Twitter’s unpopular announcement of plans to selectively censor tweets by country means we may one day find our tweets from China facing the same restrictions.
Best badmouth Hu Jintao and spread some the panic-inducing false contamination rumours while you still can.
More on censorship in China here.