C. Custer
C. Custer
8:00 am on Mar 7, 2013

If you wanted to learn more about Sina Weibo’s censorship patterns, today is your lucky day. A group of computer scientists from Bowdoin College, Rice College, and the University of New Mexico have, along with an independent researcher, released the results of an academic study of Sina Weibo’s censorship practices. The study, which we came across via MIT Technology Review, used “architecture [that could] detect post deletions within one minute of the deletion event,” giving the researchers perhaps the most precise look yet into how quickly Sina’s content team takes down sensitive Weibo posts. The results? Sina is pretty darn fast:

We found that deletions happen most heavily in the first hour after a post has been submitted. Focusing on original posts, not reposts/retweets, we observed that nearly 30% of the total deletion events occur within 5-30 minutes. Nearly 90% of the deletions happen within the first 24 hours.

So Sina’s censors are pretty fast. But what, exactly, are they deleting? Researchers used a variety of analytical tools to look at what content was most quickly deleted, and found that:

The topics where mass removal happens the fastest are those that combine events that are hot topics in Weibo as a whole (e.g., the Beijing rainstorms or a sex scandal) with themes common to sensitive posts (e.g., Beijing, government, China, and policeman).

Researchers also found that, unsurprisingly, users with more total deleted posts tended to get their posts deleted more quickly than other users, suggesting that Sina’s content team was watching their accounts more carefully. The following chart from the study shows the downward trend in post lifetime as a user’s number of total deleted posts increases:

Of course, it’s not all humans doing the deleting. In fact, by the study’s estimations, for an all-human team to censor Weibo, 4,200 team members would be required, assuming each team member could read at the blazing rate of 50 posts per minute. The study points out that as a result of that, weibo’s censorship system has become an incredibly complex system, employing both human and software censors, employing multiple blocked keyword lists that trigger different censorship responses, search filtration systems, and more. (Of course, none of that should come as much of a surprise to longtime weibo users, who have likely experienced many of the different types of censorship on Sina Weibo firsthand).

If you’re really interested in Weibo censorship, the full paper is worth a read, and although it’s a bit dry and quite technical in places, the good news is that it’s only ten pages long.

(via MIT Technology Review)

  • ChasL

    Wait, does the study demonstrates factually Sina’s content review system is directly access and managed by the Chinese government?

    The fundamental flaw with this type of conclusion assumes that Sina, as a private company, is incapable of setting and enforcing it’s own content review policy. How is this any different than likes of cnn.com removing my comments?

  • http://www.techinasia.com C. Custer

    @ ChasL: Sina’s content review system is managed by Sina, not the government. However, Sina (like any user-generated content platform) does receive takedown notices and guidance from the government ordering them to delete specific things or specifying sensitive topics to censor from time to time, in addition to the decisions and guidelines it makes for itself about what to censor. However, all of the actual censorship is done by Sina personnel, not government employees. None of this is mentioned in the study because that’s not what the study is about; however, it is common knowledge and many internet companies have spoken openly about their systems.

    I can’t speak to why your comments are being removed from CNN, if that’s actually true, but I will say that that’s a great example of false equivalence, as CNN.com is not meant to be a platform where everyone can express their opinions. If you wanted to make a comparison, you might look at how many comments of yours were deleted from Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit or some other open social platform that allows user-generated content.

  • ChasL

    “CNN.com [‘s comment section] is not meant to be a platform where everyone can express their opinions”

    Neither is Sina. My Twitter account has been blocked too.

  • http://www.techinasia.com C. Custer

    “Neither is Sina.” Yes it is. It’s not meant to be a platform where everyone can express any opinion, but it’s an open platform that anyone can register for and post content too, and it runs entirely on user-generated content. CNN.com is a news outlet that posts stories written by CNN personnel only; the comments may or may not be open, but the platform exists for CNN to broadcast its news reporting, not for users to broadcast their opinions. There is a very fundamental difference between that an a UGC platform like Weibo or Twitter.

    (That’s why this study was about comments deleted from Sina Weibo and not comments deleted from articles on Sina’s news portals or comments deleted from the People’s Daily website, even though of course that also happens. But those are fundamentally different services from weibo.)

    Out of curiosity, what was your twitter account, and when/why was it blocked? I’d love to see some proof of that!

  • ChasL

    Which one is it, you can’t have it both ways. CNN’s comment section is an open platform that anyone can register for and post comment.

    You only need to google “Twitter blocking policy” to see Twitter, as an UGC (per your own rule), have content review policy just like Weibo.

    Like I said you can’t have it both ways.

  • http://www.techinasia.com C. Custer

    If you genuinely cannot tell the difference between a UGC platform like Twitter or Weibo and a News platform with a commenting section like CNN or People’s Daily, then there’s really no point in continuing this discussion any further. The differences are obvious. CNN’s comments may currently be open to all, but that’s not an inherent part of the service. If, tomorrow, they began to require a two-day wait for moderation on all comments, that wouldn’t fundamentally change the basic service CNN offers, nor would it likely affect their traffic much. If Twitter or Weibo were to implement a policy like that, it would be utterly devastating and the service probably would not survive it. That’s the difference.

    With regard to Twitter, I never said they didn’t have a content blocking policy. Every UGC platform does. What I wondered was why your Twitter account was blocked, because as I understand it (1) accounts being closed by Twitter are very rare and (2) if I recall correctly, you live in the US, so I’m wondering what you said that got your account blocked. Again, it’d be great if you could provide some proof that it actually happened.

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