China’s new model for censoring Social Media

 

Hairy Eyeball

China’s new censorship model

By |Posted Monday, May 28, 2012

originally posted on www.slate.com

 

Sina Weibo is looking for more censors. The social media company, often described as China’s version of Twitter, has a rumored 1,000 “information security” editors working to remove posts and comments about forbidden subjects like “Chen Guangcheng” or “Tiananmen Square.” But according to a report in the Asian Wall Street Journal, the NASDAQ-listed company went so far this week as to post a help-wanted ad seeking reinforcements. In this context Sina’s logo—an enormous, red-rimmed eyeball, calling to mind an overworked Big Brother—begins to make sense.

I visited Sina Weibo in Beijing last week, on a trip sponsored by the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation, a Hong Kong-based nonprofit that encourages positive relations between the two countries. Almost alone among the people we met with during our visit, officials at the company weren’t prepared to answer basic inquiries about their policies. They did, however, respond with alacrity to a question about whether their censorship efforts can keep pace with the rising volume of posts, emphatically insisting that they can. As a parting souvenir, they gave the members of my group what must be the perfect symbol of contemporary China: a doll version of their bleary Cyclops mascot, dressed in a People’s Liberation Army uniform.

Sina’s biggest fear seems to be not that users will complain about the limits placed upon their activity, but that that its failure to police the site itself will provoke the authorities to close it. Party officials have paid admonitory visits, andsuspended commenting for three days last month in response to proliferating rumors about the Bo Xilai scandal. But shutting down Weibo (which refers to the Chinese version of microblogging, as opposed to Sina, which is the biggest company that provides a platform for it) would now count as an outsized act of repression, difficult for the government to get away with. China’s biggest blogging and micro-blogging platform has 324 million registered users, and there are millions more on competing services. Constrained though it is, Weibo has become a boisterous national conversation. Stopping it at this point would both infuriate its users and deny the security services their best tool for gauging public opinion.

The Chinese government’s can’t-live-with-it, can’t-live-without-it relationship to Weibo epitomizes the paradoxical condition of free expression in China apparent during our trip. State censorship is no longer just a question of dissidents testing the boundaries of what is permissible and regularly running afoul of the authorities—the old, familiar model. It has become a matter of authoritarian innovation as well, with the one-party state experimenting in with ways to constrain and control its explosive new media environment.

The old model of centralized control, which hasn’t in any respect gone away, relies heavily on self-censorship, encouraged by unpredictable consequences and exemplary punishment. On the Internet, the uncertain starts with the question of access. The Great Firewall blocks the most incendiary sites, search terms, and topics most of the time, but remains porous for those who go to the trouble to use proxy server. With a VPN, I was able to get to Google, Twitter, and Facebook. Sometimes I could access blocked sites without the VPN, sometimes I couldn’t access them even with one, and sometimes my connection slowed to the speed of dial-up. Unpredictable connectivity imparts a sense that someone is calibrating the size of the aperture and peering through it in the other direction.

For those who might be inclined to challenge the legitimacy of the Communist Party, uncertainty produces a powerful chilling effect. Earlier this year, the dissident writer Zhu Yufu wassentenced to seven years in prison for a poem referring to “The Square,” and some messages sent over Skype….
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