“Unfortunately, in China censorship is a just fact of life, like polluted air.”
Silenced Tweets: The Future of Social Media
In this series Sampsonia Way interviews writers from around the world on the effects of Twitter’s new protocols that widen the site’s reach to countries with restrictions on freedom of expression. Twitter now has the ability to withhold content from users in a specific country based on legal requests for removal. Twitter says the censored content will be available to the rest of the world and the blocked content will be labeled as such in its home country.
Twitter is currently blocked in China because of the government’s strict web censorship policies, but some bloggers have hypothesized that with the recent change of policies the site might be making moves to enter the country. Twitter’s chief executive Dick Costolo has denied the speculations.
The situation of social media in China, though, goes beyond just the entrance of the company with the bird logo. In Twitter’s absence several search engines and web providers in China have created microblogging alternatives to Twitter that are subject to the Chinese government’s censorship requirements and are prowled by teams of dozens to hundreds of censors. The most popular of these alternatives is Sina Weibo, which hosts over 250 million users.
Almost a month before Twitter announced its plans to expand, the Chinese government announced that internet users would have three months to register their real names with authorities in order to use Chinese microblog platforms like Sina Weibo. The registration is already being tested in Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen—and is expected to spread from there.
To understand the conditions of Chinese microbloggers first-hand, Sampsoina Way contacted David Satterthwaite Wertime, co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation (TLN), an e-magazine that follows and analyzes trends in Chinese social media. In this interview, conducted via email, Wertime and his fellow editors at TLN talk about what the new regulations mean for microbloggers in China, speculate on Twitter’s future in China, and explain some of the techniques Chinese netizens are using to work around regulations and censorship.
How will the required registration for Sina Weibo affect the ability of Chinese writers, bloggers, and journalists to share information domestically and globally?
First of all, many prominent writers, bloggers, journalists, and academics are already tweeting on microblogs on a real name basis. This is why microblogs took off so quickly. Before microblogs, ordinary people did not really have a way to find out what famous people thought in real time. Many of the outspoken ones are already monitored and/or heavily censored; Li Chengpeng being the best example. The new registration requirement probably would not affect what these people write, but it will likely decrease their readership and influence. Not only will ordinary people be limited to one account, if they’re registered with their legal name they will have to think twice about posting or reposting content that might be seen as objectionable.
A report in the Diplomat explains that a lot of Chinese intellectuals and dissidents are no longer using Sina Weibo because they claim it is stifling freedom of expression. Do you think this boycott will help raise awareness of government censorship or undermine the voice of activists?
Even with rampant censorship on microblog sites, they are still by far the freest form of expression in China today. Yes, some intellectuals have been unhappy about Sina Weibo in particular and have abandoned it (see: A Primer on Censorship in Chinese Social Media), but they have moved on to other microblog sites, hoping to create competition among the microblogs and foster debate.
Anyway I don’t think that “a lot of” of intellectuals and dissidents are not using the site. Many still use it and many would get on it if they could. For example, Ai Weiwei signed up with a Sina Weibo account on February 11 and asked his friends to spread the word. He got 2,300 followers in 30 minutes or so. The account is still there right now, though we’re not sure if his tweets are censored.
Unfortunately, in China censorship is a just fact of life, like polluted air. People joke about it. People get angry about it sometimes. People deal with it every day. It’s hard to say whether any of the gestures have “raised awareness of censorship.”
- China’s Internet Regulations
- The impending regulation also bans users from:
- • Posting and duplicating illegal content,
- • Leaking state secrets,
- • Damaging national security,
- • Instigating ethnic turmoil and illegal rallies that disrupt social order.
- Source: Xinhua News Agency
Twitter recently announced a change in its censorship policy, stating that it will now block tweets case-by-case, per a country’s request. Do you think this measure is a sign that Twitter is moving towards entering China?
We’d be surprised if Twitter didn’t at least have its eye on China’s massive user base. Of course, we can’t know whether Twitter has received some signal from China that it can enter by changing its policies, or is instead changing its policies in hopes that China will view them favorably and allow Twitter in. It could also plausibly be none of the above; some observers have said that this is merely a mechanism for handling requests made by democratic governments.
A recent article you published, “Anarchy in China’s Social Media,” deals with the influx of rumors and speculation that appeared on microblogs following the strange case of Wang Lijun, head of the Chongqing police department. In the flurry of uncensored posts that ensued, a user asked, “Are all the censors on vacation?” You replied, “Apparently so.” Is this “anarchy” in Chinese social media a sign of changing times?
The incident happened so quickly and was so dramatic that it took everyone by surprise (probably including the censors). There was a torrent of information out there before censors could react systematically so it could have seemed like there was a temporary reprieve of censorship.
We are sorry to report that the censorship steamroller has not stopped. Many prominent microbloggers have said that later their tweets re: Wang Lijun were deleted and the account we cited in our article was completely erased from Sina Weibo.
- How to Evade the Chinese Censors
- Use Memes: A Storify report demonstrates the evolution of a meme on Sina Weibo.
- Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon: China Digital Times launched a wiki containing a glossary of terms used by Chinese netizens in political discussions.
- Viral Humor: Chinese animator Pi San’s “Crack Sunflower Seeds,” went viral on Sina Weibo and worked to raise awareness of the detention of writer and activist Ai WeiWei.
How do netizens work around the censorship? Have they developed any loopholes in the registration regulation?
Sohu Weibo (another microblogging site) is the only microblog platform that we are aware of that has implemented the registration system. Tea Leaf Nation uses a microblog aggregation service called Wbto to get around Sohu Weibo’s requirements. There is already talk that there will be a marketplace for ID numbers once the registration system is set up on all the microblog platforms. We believe there are always ways of getting around the regulation for the determined, but the government won’t make it easy.
There are certain widely-used tricks to get around censors. One is the use of coded slang, which is always evolving. Another is using English lettering, such as “WK” instead of the Chinese characters for posts about Wukan, the site of a recent uprising. One more is appending a .jpeg to a tweet, where the jpeg file is full of non-searchable text.
However, we believe the biggest “loophole” in the censorship system is the sheer volume of information on microblogs. Once the officials are on to you, they can censor you or block you, but with millions of accounts sending out tens of millions of tweets each day and an infinite number of ways to encode information, it’s hard for the censors to keep up. Let’s hope it stays that way.
Watch: Al Jazeera’s video on Sina Weibo’s new regulations, the consequences of posting “illegal” content in China, censorship technologies produced in the West, and other topics. Featuring a dialogue between Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Eva Galperin, Chinese journalist and blogger Michael Anti, and Twitter users.