Weibo censor bots can delete ‘objectionable’ content in under five minutes
Just days after it emerged that China’s microblogging site Sina Weibo is dominated by decidedly unspooky ghost accounts, new research shows that its active members are only able to enjoy the site as much as its militant censors will allow.
According to the study, ‘The Velocity of Censorship: High-Fidelity Detection of Microblog Post Deletions’, Sina Weibo is able to delete ‘objectionable’ posts in under five minutes.
Researchers carefully monitored 3,500 accounts of users with histories of deleted posts, and found that 30% of deletions occur within five to 30 minutes of posting, and that 90% of deletions take place within the first 24 hours.
The report points out that the site is probably using automation to keep abreast of censorship, noting that if an efficient worker could read 50 posts per minute, 1,400 censors would be needed to read the 70,000 posts Weibo generates per minute, and that if each worker worked an eight-hour shift, it would take over 4,000 workers to delete sensitive posts.
“Based on our data, it sounds like there’s a policy office there and there are people whose job it is to say ‘Holy crap, there’s way too much discussion on the North Korean nuclear test. Shut it down’,” said Dan Wallach of Rice University, one of the authors of the study.
Topics that have come under fire of late include: ‘Beijing rainstorms’, because of anger expressed toward the government’s response to storms that left 77 dead, and ‘Gu Kailai’, the wife of disgraced politician Bo Xilai and who has convicted of killing a British businessman.
Weibo users are wise to censorships laws though, and try to get around it by using nicknames, codewords or anagrams.
“There’s all kinds of interesting games that you can play to stay away from an auto-censor,” said Wallach. “Eventually, someone in the policy department figures it out.” Then, he notes, it’s a straightforward process writing software to detect the substitution and “make it go away”.
Weibo censorship marks an interesting comparison to the freedom of speech conversations that are being had around Twitter of late. On one hand, users are having posts deleted instantly, and the conversation continues with resignation, but continues nonetheless. On the other hand, on Twitter, posts deemed offensive stir up huge swathes of controversy, resulting in massive stigma, trolling, and sometimes even arrests. If what we say on social sites must be subjected to the critical eyes of authorities, which is the best way to cast a judgement?