Read and delete: How Weibo’s censors tackle dissent and free speech

The Chinese microblogging site Weibo has a huge following, with around 100 million users posting every day. For those living in China, one of CPJ’s 10 most censored countries, the social network offers the chance to discuss and share news that is often blocked in mainstream outlets.

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Insight into how Weibo balances the demands of government censorship with the need to attract users has been provided by a former employee, who says he worked in its 150-member censorship department for a couple of years. The employee, who has not been named for security reasons, contacted CPJ via social media at the end of last year.

As well as sharing documents that show daily briefings about topics that are off limits on Weibo and instructions on what method of censorship should be applied to posts, the former employee discussed his views on the evolution of Weibo’s censorship.

EDITOR’S NOTE: CPJ is not able to verify the former employee’s account. When CPJ contacted Sina’s headquarters in Beijing for comment at the end of February, a spokeswoman said the company did not have anyone who could respond to CPJ’s questions. This interview has been edited for clarity.

As someone who has used Weibo for several years, I find its censorship appears to be tighter. How do you think Weibo censorship changed during your time there?

I joined the censorship department in early 2011 when Weibo was expanding. The Jasmine Revolution [calls for peaceful pro-democracy protests across China] had just wound down. Not long after, in July, there was a high-speed rail crash in Wenzhou. A massive amount of ordinary users suddenly joined the discussion about this man-made disaster. The social impact Weibo abruptly generated caught the government off guard. It did not anticipate and was not prepared for such nation-wide attention on an issue that could be discussed on a platform where everyone can connect instantly. The sheer volume of content generated by users created enormous pressure on Weibo’s censorship team. We didn’t know what to do for a moment. The rail crash led to the censorship department accelerating its recruitment and co-operating with the government more closely.

Since 2011, almost all social issues that attracted wide public attention were propelled by Weibo. The Communist Party was terrified by Weibo, staring at it with fear and the determination to tame it.

When I left Sina in 2013 there were crackdowns [by the government] on online rumors and Big Vs [influential microblog commentators] such as the arrest of billionaire Charles Xue, and a ruling was passed allowing users to be charged with defamation if posts containing “false information” are reposted more than 500 times.

The effect was felt immediately. The amount of original posting dropped rapidly. Users not only withdrew from serious commentary, but became reluctant to post about what they heard or saw in their daily lives, because any information not confirmed by government authorities could potentially be deemed as creating or spreading rumors.

Though the Chinese government’s control of Weibo never loosened, it no longer focuses that much of its attention on Weibo. Now, it rules Weibo with ease.

The core of Weibo censorship is the lack of clear rules that users can follow. You don’t know whether you will be the next target of censorship. Such tactics instill fear in you, then you start to behave yourself. Gradually, it becomes natural not to speak your mind. Over time, you lose the ability to express yourself as a normal person would do in a free society. That is the effect of censorship in the long run.

Police stand guard outside a McDonald's restaurant in Beijing in 2011. Weibo's censors were ordered to look out for posts on 'McDonald's' and 'Combo No.3' which were used as code words to plan protests in 2011. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
Police stand guard outside a McDonald’s restaurant in Beijing in 2011. Weibo’s censors were ordered to look out for posts on ‘McDonald’s’ and ‘Combo No.3’ which were used as code words to plan protests in 2011. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Do you think Weibo has become better at censoring content?

I think it’s probably getting worse. More censorship doesn’t necessarily mean better censorship.

During my time at Sina, sensitive words increased from 2,000 to at least over 10,000. Phrases like “McDonald’s” and “combo No.3” [code words for organizing protests] became sensitive words during the Jasmine incident, but they didn’t get taken off from the “sensitive words list” until the end of 2012, a result of both tardiness and playing it safe. The ever-expanding list of sensitive words greatly increased the workload of the censorship department, which resulted in the lower quality of censorship.

Turnover at the department seemed high. The department had plans to computerize censorship, designing programs to enable computers to complete complex censorship tasks. But the plans didn’t pan out, mainly because they were too expensive. The cost of manual labor in comparison was lower. Sina’s image recognition technology, to make computers identify the content of pictures, in my opinion was pretty bad, but it was being developed.

What was it like working in Weibo’s censorship department?

There were about 10 managerial-level personnel in the headquarters in Beijing and, at its peak in 2012-2013, about 150 rank-and-file employees in Tianjin. The people in Beijing made broad censorship decisions while the Tianjin staff mainly did streamline work: read a post, delete. Read the next one, delete. I’ve heard from friends who still work there that the number of employees has declined in the past couple of years. The department purposefully only hired men, at least during the period I was there, because the managers thought there were a lot of night shifts and women wouldn’t be up to the task.

In Tianjin, there were four censorship teams and one check-up team. The check-up team’s job was to censor posts missed by the censorship teams. The four teams alternated shifts. Every four days, each team completed a 10-hour day shift and a 14-hour night shift.

The work environment was stiff and dull. Morale was low. There was never much chatter in the lounge. But there were some employees who seemed to genuinely enjoy the work. They went above and beyond their assigned tasks and diligently looked for “reactionaries”– [political dissenters]–feeling they were truly contributing to the stability of Chinese society.

What prompted you to quit?

Before joining Sina, I thought there were bad people outside. After I joined, I began to realize how the bad things I know in life, such as censorship, are systematically executed through fine divisions of labor, and how the system encroaches the ethos of a normal society.

When I was at Sina, I helped friends and strangers get back accounts that had been removed and told them how to walk around sensitive words. I also helped big Vs find out which government agencies ordered the removal of their accounts. I later felt doing this was not enough, so I left.

The censorship logs contain phrases such as “send the big form to Beijing” and “the big form sent to the cybersecurity office.” What does that mean?

The “big form” is the collection of “harmful information.” In other words, censored posts. We submitted the data to the Beijing headquarters. The headquarters would then send it to the Beijing public security bureau, [of which the cybersecurity office is a division]. After the police reviewed it the police might order us to delete additional posts.

Do you know of any instances of users being summoned by police or arrested after you or your then-colleagues reported information about them?

I have not heard of any specific instances internally, but I know that when some mass incidents [protests or unofficial gatherings] happened, or when some political rumor was spread widely, or during the Tiananmen Square anniversaries, police harassed people based on the information we provided. One time, a manager of our department said to us inadvertently–I forget the exact wording–something like “hand in your big form. The police need it to arrest people.” I also saw on Weibo some users mentioned this person or that person got arrested for their Weibo postings.

Several times, the censorship logs mentioned fines, such as a March 6, 2013 entry that read, “Statistics reports must be sent to the group, not to a certain individual… [I] have repeatedly said this. Next time if [you] still send statistics reports to individuals, not to the group, fine!!!” Have any of you been fined for not doing a good censorship job?

Not that I know of. The salary was not high to begin with. There is no mechanism to enforce the fine. But we were verbally warned a couple of times that if we did not do a good censorship job, it would cause Weibo to be closed down.

The censorship logs include dozens of tabs for categorizing users–“right-wing speech,” “senior VIP,” “grassroots celebrities,” “New York Times,” “two-meetings Weibo group.” What do they mean?

The department gave different tabs to different kinds of users, and applied different censorship methods to them. The “two meetings Weibo group” tab was created during the two-meetings, [China’s annual legislative sessions] in 2011. Representatives at the meetings, an army of “yes-men” in essence, were to post suggestions for new laws on Weibo–an exercise in creating a façade that the representatives had some say in China’s law-making process. We were ordered that any posts by members of this group were not to be censored, even if the posts were flagged for containing sensitive words.

Initially, the New York Times‘s Chinese-language website had an official Weibo account. I don’t quite remember when, but after the newspaper published a story on Communist Party elites the department created a “New York Times” tab, and added the Times‘ official Weibo account and the accounts of journalists who were affiliated with the newspaper into the group, then treated it as a special sensitive group. I can’t recall the exact level of sensitivity it was assigned. Later, the newspaper’s official Weibo account was removed permanently.

One of the groups with a high level of sensitivity was tagged “sensitive VIP.” This group included verified users who criticized the government a lot, like The International New York Times contributing writer Murong Xuecun who had 4 million followers. All posts of users in this group were manually viewed immediately after being published.

There was also the “sensitive users” tab. These were ordinary users who frequently voiced discontent with the government. All of their posts were manually viewed. The department would use their posts to study methods being used to avoid content being flagged and would use this information to update the sensitive words list.

There are a lot of other groups. Censorship methods that applied to them changed quickly.

What do you think is Weibo’s contribution to freedom of information?

Weibo is like a giant fortress. It attracted Chinese-speaking users into the fortress, then managed them through a large team of censors and close co-operation with the government. I wonder if Chinese-speaking users would have been keener to circumvent the Great Firewall and use Twitter if Weibo had not existed.