The wonderful folks over at Global Voices Online have made a fascinating discovery on weibo: a long weibo post from a user who claims to be an employee in Sina Weibo’s censorship division. It is difficult to confirm whether or not the poster really is who they say they are, but for whatever it’s worth, the message of the post is quite similar to what we often hear behind closed doors from employees at Chinese web companies that are forced to censor user content. Even if it isn’t genuine, I think some parts of it are very worth reading. (The quotations that follow are mostly Global Voices’ translation, but I have made a few minor adjustments where appropriate).
The poster — responding to the growing outcry surrounding the Southern Weekend incident — makes several points in defense of weibo’s censorship. The first is quite simple: “If we didn’t delete your posts, that might mean we had to stop you from posting altogether.” Deleting posts, the writer argues, is still better than deleting accounts, and things may not entirely be in Sina’s hands anyway:
Since the day when Weibo’s comments function was suspended for three days, a special group of people have the authority to decide on the criteria for giving out alert signals, and can make Weibo go “game-over” as simply as treading on some ants without giving a damn about people’s needs.
The people need Weibo to project our voices, but when the hand behind weibo wants to manipulate the discussion, something has to be sacrificed. We live in a country full of special and sensitive barriers and we have to operate within a set of rules.
The poster’s second point is that censorship isn’t actually in Sina’s interest, and that the company has as little choice in the matter as regular net users. This is something we hear time and time again from Chinese internet companies, but then the author makes a rather shocking implication that Sina Weibo may be intentionally delaying censorship of messages to allow them to spread for a little while:
You can see the messages before they are deleted, right? You still have your account functioning, right? You are all experienced netizens, you know that the technology allows us to delete messages in a second. Please think carefully on this.
The author’s last major point follows in this vein, further suggesting that Sina has been actively trying to spread political messages like the news of the Southern Weekend incident before they are deleted:
Before this incident occurred, and at its very early stages, we were under a lot of pressure. We tried to resist and let the messages spread and won a difficult victory. Our official account @Sina_Media reported on the suspension of the Southern Weekend instantly, and the news was retweeted by @headline_news, which was again retweeted again 30,000 times in 10 mins. Then we got the order from the Propaganda Department and we had to delete it. Fortunately, the message had already been distributed. A friend from a Penguin website left a warm message in my microblog: This is a battle. Sina is a human flesh shield. It is a courageous act.
To be quite frank, I think the idea that Sina is selflessly acting as the voice of the people is a bit naive. We know that Sina does push the envelope in terms of censorship every now and then, but this is likely less about self-sacrifice for the greater good and more about maintaining its user base and its reputation as the most open and active platform for discussion on the Chinese web (without which it would start losing users rather quickly, I suspect). Of course, it’s debatable whether Sina’s intentions really matter if the effect is the same regardless, but it’s still worth pointing out that the writer’s rosy portrait of Sina here may be a bit biased.
The message concludes with the author saying that his bosses at Sina will be “invited to tea” again, a euphemism that refers to being interrogated by the police or other state authorities.
While I have some doubts about the poster’s identity, there’s little doubt that much of what he or she wrote is true. Censorship really only hurts Sina by reducing their users numbers and annoying users, and it has been clear for quite some time that Sina sometimes tries to follow the letter of the law but not the spirit of it, erring in favor of more user freedom. But from the post quoted above, it also sounds like propaganda authorities are exercising an unprecedented level of control over the service. It’s impossible to be sure whether that’s true, but given the unprecedented controls being implemented for other parts of China’s internet, it certainly isn’t implausible.
Still, this kind of directness about the system is very rare, and if the author really does work for Sina, he may already be looking for a new job.
[via Global Voices Online]