By Elliot deBruyn
A new study by a group of computer scientists from Bowdoin College, Rice College, and the University of New Mexico, as well as an independent researcher, have discovered that Weibo censors posts.
Obviously that’s not news to anyone that knows anything about China or Weibo. What has people’s jaws dropping about this specific study is the numbers uncovered by the research team.
It suggests that if Weibo had a censorship team (rather than the presumed automated system), it would require about 4,200 bodies reading at a rate of 50 posts per minute for 8-hour shifts (the study doesn’t actually claim Weibo employs that large an army of little computer geeks for the sole purpose of censorship).
Another interesting part of the study is a list of different tactics Weibo uses to stomp the microblogging’s more loud-mouthed users. “Camouflaged posts,” “backwards keyword search,” and “implicit filtering” are all tactics used by Weibo to halt would-be armchair political freedom fighters in their pesky tracks.
Finally, the most striking figure cited in the study is regarding the rate and responsiveness of post deletion.
“Our research found that deletions happen most heavily in the first hour after a post has been made. Especially for original posts that are not reposts, most deletions occur within 5-30 minutes, accounting for 25 per cent of the total deletions of such posts. Nearly 90 per cent of the deletions of such posts happen within the first 24 hours of the post.”
It seems that Weibo is trying to impress the censorship bureau by doing a large chunk of their dirty work for them.
However, in response to public criticism, Sina Weibo manager Yu Yan (正版于洋) posted a revealing perspective on the censorship process.
“You can see the messages before they are deleted, right? You still have your account functioning, right? You are all experienced netizens, you know that the technology allows us to delete messages in a second. Please think carefully on this.”
(That post was also quickly deleted, but he has a history of talking to his followers in this kind of direct way.)
“We need [Sina] Weibo to deliver voices. But a hand is manipulating behind us. Someone is doomed to be sacrifice in this game. We live in a country full of special and sensitive barriers and we have to operate within a set of rules.”
In this light, the argument could be made that despite harsh censorship rules from the government, Weibo still allows users to post, and more importantly see soon-to-be-deleted posts, for a short time. According to Yu Yang, they are encouraging information dissemination, if only for a short time.
Multiple studies in the past have attempted to put numbers to the Weibo censorship machine and have come up with wild differences. One site claims that 10 million posts are deleted per day. It also says that “the government is said to have an army of 300,000 people posting pro-Communist Party messages. Known as the 50 Cent Army, they get that amount (about 5p) for each post.”
Crazier things have happened.