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Decoding Sina Weibo’s Real-Name Strategy

The Tencent penguin's scarf isn't always just a fashion accessory.

It’s no secret that Sina Weibo’s laissez-faire attitude towards implementing real-name registration and controlling (false) coup d’etat rumors has had some pretty serious consequences. The other day, a friend of mine raised a question I think we’ve spent too little time on in our discussion of these incidents: why? Why would Sina (NASDAQ:SINA) risk the ire of regulators by being so haphazard in its implementation of the real name rules? I don’t know for sure, but I have some ideas.

This is not a mistake

First of all, I don’t believe it’s possible that the many holes in Sina’s real-name requirements are just bugs or inadvertent mistakes. Sina Weibo itself is a very solid product, and Sina obviously has the talent on staff to do real name right if it wants to. Moreover, even if there were a few bugs at first, it has now been several weeks, and many of these issues have been openly discussed on weibo since day one. If Sina really wanted to close these holes, it’s very hard to imagine they couldn’t.

Nor do I believe Sina simply felt their gigantic user base made them untouchable, as though they could do whatever they wanted without fear of government intervention. There is no internet service that is too big for the government to shut down if it decides it’s too much of a risk, and Sina knows this. As I wrote last week, the government shut off the internet in an entire province (save a few local sites) for months, it certainly would have no qualms about shutting down a single microblogging service if the stakes were high enough. Sina is one of China’s oldest internet companies, and I can’t imagine it has any misconceptions about its own invincibility. No one is invincible.

So why would Sina do this on purpose?

Why would Sina be so lax in implementing real-name restrictions, and why would it allow rumors of an attempted coup to spread after those regulations were supposed to be in place? There are plenty of theories, but I personally believe there are a few reasons:

Sina was testing how serious the government is. Needless to say, a totally unrestricted weibo is better for business. It means higher user numbers and probably higher user activity, and all of that means more money. Given that, it’s in a microblog operator’s best interests to do as little as possible to restrict user access. In implementing real name rules in such a half-assed way, my guess is that Sina was testing whether the Beijing government wanted actual change or just the appearance of change. If the latter, Sina’s initial implementation would have been good enough, and if the former, failures might be explained away as ‘working out the kinks in a new system.’ Either way, Sina needed to find out what the government really wanted so that it didn’t block out any more users than it really needed to.

The spread of rumors actually looks good (from a certain perspective). Although the government is primarily concerned with maintaining stability and its image of unity, Sina is in the difficult position of having to please two masters. Users and investors were collectively concerned that real-name restrictions might hurt weibo by reducing user activity or cowing people into silence. While the spread of coup rumors has clearly gotten Sina in some trouble with the government, it has also helped show that users are still there, still active, and still talking politics. This benefits Sina, and the company may have decided that benefit outweighed the risk of a potential crackdown.

The risks are relatively minor. Because the real-name regulations had just gone into place and because the government hadn’t really drawn a clear line in terms of how tightly rumors needed to be controlled, Sina could be relatively sure that if the laissez-faire approach backfired, it would get some kind of warning from the government first, rather than being completely shut down. And indeed, the site has been “punished” and comments are shut off through tomorrow morning, but the service is still available and no major damage was done to the company. It’s impossible to be sure, but I suspect that this outcome is actually much better for Sina than it would have been if the company had implemented real-name rules and stricter censorship on its own a few weeks ago. Now, Sina looks like the victim rather than the opressor, and that’s good for Sina even if the end result for users is the same experience.

The SIIO announcement that Sina and Tencent had been punished for allowing rumors to spread, and Sina and Tencent’s subsequent closing of their commenting features for several days, indicates that the government is drawing a line of sorts. We don’t know what was said behind closed doors, so it’s difficult to determine whether Sina will attempt to implement real-name rules any more seriously, but certainly it will need to keep a tighter lid on rumors with potential political implications.

Of course, this is all just my own opinion, and no one knows what’s going to happen next. Feel free to share your own theories in the comments, or check out what Weibo users are saying about the ban and a relevant Xinhua editorial from yesterday about the spreading of rumors.



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