The social compact between Sina Weibo (SINA) and the Chinese government that allows the provocative microblogging platform to exist at all is that it must maintain an in-house stable of paid censors to scrub content deemed too sensitive. A new academic study (PDF) provides more details on how this process works.
First, it’s pretty fast. As researchers at Rice University, Bowdoin College, University of Mexico, and the independent investigator Tao Zhu wrote, “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.”
The volume of posts censored is higher during daylight hours than at night, though some censors clearly work the graveyard shift. The researchers believe Weibo’s in-house censorship regime includes employees scanning posts manually as well as automated deletion of posts containing sensitive keywords.
Hot-button keywords will change over time, depending on the news cycle. For the period studied—from July 20, 2012, to September 8, 2012—keywords that prompted fast action from Weibo censors included “Beijing rainstorm, “Diaoyu Islands,” and “group sex.” It’s easy to understand why: In late July, severe flooding in Beijing resulted in the deaths of at least 79 people, although official news reports initially indicated far fewer. The Diaoyu Islands are territory contested by Japan and China, and a continual source of tension. “Group sex” most likely refers to the salacious photos of three men and two women in a hotel room, variously entangled, that circulated widely online in August. One of the men was soon identified by netizens as a prominent Communist Party official in Anhui province. (Embarrassed coverage of the incident in state media resulted in the priceless Global Times headline: “Naked Guy Is Not Our Party Chief: Local Authority.”)
Weibo users who regularly post about sensitive topics “are ﬂagged for closer scrutiny,” the researchers wrote, and their posts are deleted fastest. The study focused on tracking users the researchers deemed likely to post such controversial content; for those users, roughly 13 percent of their posts were electronically vaporized. The sample size of observed deleted Weibo posts totaled more than 300,000.
The imperative for Chinese Internet companies to maintain in-house censorship regimes may not annoy only users. In 2010, Robin Li, chief executive of China’s leading search engine Baidu (BIDU), told Bloomberg News: “We have to spend a lot of resources to make sure our content and services abide by Chinese law,” while international competitors, such as Google (GOOG) or Yahoo (YHOO), don’t shoulder parallel costs.
Meanwhile, not only are corporate workers paid to delete content in China, but others are paid directly by the government to shape public opinion by posting patriotic responses to online articles and on Internet forums. One such “online commentator” last year told artist Ai Weiwei, who guest-edited an issue of New Statesman magazine: “Almost every morning at 9 a.m. I receive an e-mail from my superiors—the internet publicity office of the local government—telling me about the news we’re to comment on for the day.” The anonymous worker said, however, that being a propaganda foot soldier doesn’t require believing in the message. “I wouldn’t say I like [my job] or hate it. It’s just a bit more to do each day. A bit more pocket money each month, that’s all.”