How China’s Biggest Social Network Works With the Government

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Passengers reads news or watch videos on their smart phones
Photo: Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images

According to a whistle-blowing former employee of Weibo, China’s largest social-networking platform at some 222 million active users, the Chinese government dictates exactly which posts can be published, or not, if they include “sensitive” words. “Those orders are usually clear, direct and urgent, like whose accounts need to removed and which posts need to be deleted," the former employee told the Committee to Protect Journalists. "The Cyberspace Administration of China is the highest authority to Internet companies, but even the Ministry of Agriculture has the power to order us to remove posts.” China has jailed the most journalists in the world.

While censorship on Weibo of sensitive issues — like the war of words between journalists at Southern Weekly, an oppositional Guangdong-based paper, and the government over a Propaganda Department–written editorial praising the Communist Party — has been public for years, exactly how the process works has never been made public. The whistle-blower, who worked at Weibo from 2011 to 2013, told CPJ, “The Communist Party was terrified by Weibo, staring at it with fear and the determination to tame it … The core of Weibo censorship is the lack of clear rules that users can follow. You don’t know whether you will be the next target of censorship. Such tactics instill fear in you, then you start to behave yourself. Gradually, it becomes natural not to speak your mind. Over time, you lose the ability to express yourself as a normal person would do in a free society. That is the effect of censorship in the long run.”

There are some 160 censorship employees at Weibo, according to the whistle-blower, and the work they do makes an impact. “When some mass incidents [protests or unofficial gatherings] happened, or when some political rumor was spread widely, or during the Tiananmen Square anniversaries, police harassed people based on the information we provided,” they said. Describing Weibo as a “giant fortress,” they continued, “It attracted Chinese-speaking users into the fortress, then managed them through a large team of censors and close co-operation with the government. I wonder if Chinese-speaking users would have been keener to circumvent the Great Firewall and use Twitter if Weibo had not existed.”

One of the methods of censorship Weibo uses is making a post “invisible,” which doesn’t delete it, but doesn’t show it to any users besides the one who posted it. A 2014 report from Citizen Lab, a project at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, found that this more obscure method is on the rise at Weibo, meaning that it’s unclear exactly how many, or which, posts are being censored. In 2013, a ProPublica project catalogued 527 images deleted by Weibo censors over a two-week period. The vast majority of the censored images dealt directly with political speech.