#Asia “The police are watching. Everyone, be careful”: Sina Weibo censorship report

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A report detailed by the Committee to Protect Journalists highlights a company constantly grappling with government censors and user experience

China Censorship FINAL

In China, on the micro-blogging platform Weibo, sensitive messages become invisible, or a particularly contentious issue will be the day’s focus, and of course, accounts are consistently shut down if users do not tow the line.

While this is well-known, a fantastic report published by The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) painted a picture of a social media site constantly tugging between user acquisition/participation and appeasing the Chinese government.

Weibo cannot exist without discussion, debate and disputes; but in China violating censorship rules can lead to extreme consequences. The article uses the fate Fanfou, the country’s first microblogging platform, to highlight the point.

After Fanfou allowed users to share information about riots in China’s fractious Xianjiang region it was shut down for 16 months — essentially a death penalty for any Internet company.

Also Read: Even if in China for a week, WeChat is absolutely crucial for business

Much of the article is framed around an event in 2013 involving a Guangzhou based newspaper called Southern Weekly.

Journalists working for the paper found its editorial had been changed — with pro-Communist party propaganda — without their knowledge. They used Weibo to express their anger and frustration, which resulted in on-the-street protests and calls for press freedom.

As would be expected, traditional Chinese press did not report the incident, and Weibo became the best outlet for news.

But, Weibo too has to follow censorship directives.

The CPJ were given leaked internal documents from 2011-2014 which gave a peak into how decision makers in the company lay down orders for potentially disruptive political events.

The day after the Southern Weekly incident, the article reports, Weibo decision makers ordered employees to focus on censoring calls for the Head of the Guangdong Provincial Propaganda department. “This is the focus of today’s work,” it read.

A few days later, after the Central Propaganda Department came down strongly again, Weibo posted orders to,

“Maintain the same level of censorship [as in previous days], mainly make posts unable to be shared. To those extreme posts that attack the party, leaders, and calling for protests, make them invisible. Do not overkill.”

Invisible posts mean only the author can read what they wrote, essentially making it impossible to tell if a post had been censored.

However, on January 4th Sina told employees not to censor more than rival Tencent – hinting at the need to boost user participation on the platform.

Also Read: Step aside China, India is the go-to market for mobile payments

Censorship reported by CPJ included nuanced manipulation in a clash between food vendors and authorities (pro-government, pro-police comments were kept, while a story about a pregnant woman who may have died were censored).

It also mentioned a complete blackout of an armed attack in Xinjiang in which officials and hostages were killed.

For the Xinjiang story, CPJ published the following directive:

“All the nonsense and posts pointing at ethnic policies and the police, censor them resolutely! If they are just reposts of [official] news, pass. This is today’s big thing. The police are watching. Everyone, be careful.”

Over the last few years, China has taken significant steps backwards in press freedom — human rights lawyers and journalists are getting arrested at a troubling rate and in February Xi Jinping said Chinese media must serve the communist party.

So while the report is fascinating, it also does not include the last year or so — a time in which media censorship has become stifling. It will be interesting to see moving forward how Weibo handles a China that is seemingly becoming more and more restrictive.

Also Read: Majority of Sina Weibo’s users are on mobile: CEO Wang Gaofei

The report ends with an anecdote too heartbreaking not to share.

Three people who protested the Southern Weekly censorship — Guo Feixiong, Liu Yuandong, and Sun Desheng — were sentenced to six, three and two and a half years in prison.

The man in charge of the censorship, Tuo Zhen, is now the Deputy Head of the Central Propaganda Department.

The post “The police are watching. Everyone, be careful”: Sina Weibo censorship report appeared first on e27.

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